Our latest series – Across Africa is all about discovery. This month The Wire is to showcasing all the things you never knew you love. Welcome to Africa – the land of undiscovered gems, surprising you with the unexpected when you least expect it
Words: Tshiamo Seape
For our first feature, we take a deep dive into the world of African Subcultures. Subcultures throughout history have formed as a rebellion against the status quo and have been a haven for marginalised people. They’ve carried subversive ideas and often conducted themselves in ways that threatened their own existence. However, the scope and magnitude of their value is undeniable. At the forefront of progressive ideas, subcultures are often responsible for redefining norms and bringing about social change.
In part one of our series the lesser known African subcultures come to the forefront. So, sit back and enjoy the trip…
Take a trip to Brazzaville or Kinshasa and immerse yourself in the world of the impeccably dressed dandies known as Le Sape. The word itself is an abbreviation of the phrase “La Societe des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elegantes,” or the “society of atmosphere setters and elegant people”. The history of this finely dressed group dates back to the colonial era when Congolese “houseboys” were paid in clothes that the French would transport from Paris. So ingrained were the ideas of fashion that half-starved workers would often spend their last wages in order to emulate their finely dressed counterparts. To be a sapeur is to be cool. The Le Sape culture came to the forefront when Congolese musician Papa Wemba(, travelled to cities across Europe.
Our neighbours to the north, Botswana, would not be the first place to come to mind when one thinks of heavy metal, but if you like surprises then that’s exactly where to turn your attention. The Afrometals are Southern Africa’s answer to black metal. Clad in black biker jackets, cowboy boots and cowboy hats, and enough leather to put cows on the endangered species list, the Afrometals are definitely to be taken seriously. The music scene, which is intrinsically linked to the fashion scene is growing in sophistication and popularity, with local band Skinflint touring internationally.
Skhothane are South Africa’s most vibrant and well-known subculture. They have come to embody the carefree, almost hedonistic approach to life, and this has made them the envy of some and the bane of others. Taking style and aesthetic cues from the Pantsula dancers and the Umswenko (which roughly translates to “Swag” in Zulu) wave, Skhothane’s colourful and flashy attire shouts in defiance of the working class background that many of its members come from. The subculture is about garnering respect through appearance. In townships where there are fewer means to distinguish oneself, clothing forms a big part of forming an identity. The pressure to keep up with one’s peers has taken its toll, and in recent years the movement has slowed, but the originators can be proud that they created a distinct cultural mark that future generations will no doubt reference.
Swenkas are like Skhotane all grown up. Where Skhothane are almost entirely made up of young people the Swenkas are reserved for older gentlemen with a more refined style. They emulate the Le Sape in the way they dress – traditional tailoring punched up with vibrant colours and fabrics. These working stiffs transform on the weekend to become Swenkas – the pride of the Townships of South Africa.
Stay tuned for part 2.