Ten Years On: How Fashion-Obsessed South African Skhothanes Went from Rebels to Influencers

It’s a decade on since the very first Skhothanes appeared in the townships of Johannesburg, South Africa. Kelly Washington went to find out how they’ve changed

Ostentatious is the word that summed them up. They wore brightly coloured designer clothes and the flashiest of jewelry. They were the kids from the townships of Jo’burg who wanted their moment in the spotlight – why shouldn’t they indulge in fashion, in displays of wealth, in conspicuous consumption? After all, they lived in the City of Gold.

Ten years on, the Skhothanes – from a Zulu term that might be loosely translated as ‘to show off’ – have morphed into a social media phenomenon. Today, their influence plays out online, specifically Instagram.

Back in the early years, Skhothane gatherings became the stuff of legend, lapped up by the international media. The footage focused on lavish parties with township youths in bucket hats and Italian designer labels, clutching bottles of Johnny Walker Blue Label and Ultra Mel custard. Journalists breathlessly reported that group members funded their lifestyles through crime. Tearing, spilling and wasting in dance battles between rival crews, the Skhothanes were the dare devils, the greedy, hedonistic children of parents who had known only struggle.

Or were they? Vice published an article in 2016 suggesting that the Skhothanes were not as transgressive as the media led the world to believe. Leader of crew Material Culture Tshepo Pitso (a.k.a Material Don Dada), blamed the press for demonising the movement, even encouraging them to burn designer shoes and tear up the clothes. “So I’m fixing things now” Pitso told Vice, determined to turn things around.

Photo: Instagram @gento_bareto

Skhothane became a culture scorned by a media-induced moral panic. On September 29 2012, the Skhothane groups had a final blowout – a chance to party one last time. According to Vice, the movement “imploded on itself”.

Almost ten years since it began, the movement is now being rebuilt by self-proclaimed ‘game changers’ Material Culture, step by step in their shiny Rossimoda shoes. Proud of his background, 25-year-old Skhothane music artist and dancer Gento Bareto told me how luxury fashion brands are typically associated with those who live in affluent locations such as Sandton or Cape Town. “But we give the image that you can live in a shack but still manage to wear Gucci. Some people, they like gadgets; some people like cars. For us, we like to express ourselves through the culture of fashion.” Gento makes a forceful point that those from townships who succeed socio-economically should stay resident in the townships, elevating their neighbourhoods, demonstrating that they are proud of their origins.

For Material Culture, this commitment to Skhothane subculture has paid off. The group members insist that they have “put South Africa on the map” using fashion. In 2016, their careers as music artists and influencers really began to take off when they met Canadian rapper Drake and featured in Please Forgive Me, the visual companion to his album Views, set in Johannesburg. They also went to Italy to accompany Italian rapper Ghali on tour. Crucially, they even have their own reality TV show (Material Culture on DStv).

Manager Don Dada’s younger brother Kabelo, who goes by the name of Material Golden, has released singles on Apple Music and Spotify, while solo artist Gento achieved number 1 on the AmaPiano top 10 chart for MTV Base (Africa). AmaPiano is a relatively new genre that mixes deep house, Gqom dance and jazzy piano favoured by the Skhothanes. Under the management of Don Dada, Material Culture have landed deals with clothing brands like Skhothane favourite DMD Muracchini, along with iconic brands like Pepsi. They also organise the biggest Skhothane dance event in South Africa – Sula Africa.

Photo: Instagram @material_culture

Not bad for what was once considered just a craze. Social media has played a key role, enabling media and fashion to become more diverse, opening up the frontiers of culture in a more inclusive way. By providing young people with a free platform to showcase their talents, social media has gifted agency to the Skhothanes. Kabelo and fellow crew member Thabani (a.k.a Material Lingas) say that their lives have changed because of the culture, telling me that “we have received many opportunities because of the way we dress”. Gento muses: “Fashion can put you in a place where you never thought that you could be one day.”

John Bravo (a.k.a Material John Bravo) says the group aims to educate a young generation that they can “come out of nothing, be something” through their reality TV show. By encouraging the young to “stay away from drugs, respect always and love yourself”, Material Culture say that they have changed parents’ opinions of the movement. In sum, they claim to offer an alternative lifestyle for young people who live in the townships.

Like the Kardashian clan, Skhothane is a family affair. Mini-mes are having a moment on social media. Just as Kylie Jenner’s daughter Stormi dressed up for Halloween as her mother at the Met Gala, the next generation of Skhothane are following suit. The children of Material Culture, such as crew leader Don Dada’s son, are sporting their parents’ Skhothane dress.

Photo: Instagram @material_dondada

There are still plenty of critics who condemn Skhothanes for encouraging young people to engage in a culture obsessed with consumption, appearance and wealth. In a sense, they have a point – Skhothane remains a culture that puts value on what is represented on the surface.

But lifestyle influencers of the Western world are no different. In a market of highly competitive social media influencers, everyone wants a part of the action. ‘Flexing’ their way to fame, the Skhothanes are merely capitalising – effectively and joyously – on what is theirs to take.

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