Rotten or Misunderstood? South Africa’s Material Boys
THE TOWNSHIP CULTURE POSES THE QUESTION: CAN DESTRUCTION ALSO BE CREATION?
These young men have been called wasteful freeloaders, both at home and abroad.
Izikhothane is a subculture that rose to prominence in South African townships in the late aughts and early 2010s. Young men, many unemployed and borrowing cash from their parents, would get into heated dance battles, smash up liquor bottles and burn banknotes in the air. Designer jeans and t-shirts laid in shredded piles, price tags still visible, showing just how little a year's salary meant.
Now the subculture is dying out. So these material boys are moving past cracked iPhone displays and charred money. Today, the izikhothane, also known as skhothane, wants to shed its bad boy image, focusing instead on rising above the backlash through fashion, dance and a celebration of black township culture.
“It’s very challenging as we cannot change what happened, but we are trying to show why people should see the other side of us apart from what they knew back then,” says Zane Billy, a dancer with the izikhothane crew Material Culture.
Izikhothane is derived from the Zulu word for “bush,” slang in Johannesburg townships for hustlers who fund their sweet tooth for expensive items illegally.
It’s essentially a mashup of two other township subcultures: swenka and pantsula. Pantsula dance, known for coordinated moves and smart uniforms, emerged in the 1950s to resist apartheid, while the working-class Zulu men of swenka show off expensive designer suits in amateur modeling competitions.
At first, the izikhothane material boys just wanted to look as fly as possible, too – they donned Italian loafers in two different colors, expensive silk blouses and gold chains. The izikhothane’s dance moves evolved out of pantsula style, formulating its own unique legwork and exaggerated facial gestures over time.
But the subculture garnered controversy when it moved towards destruction. Tearing things up and setting them ablaze was a form of escapism from the everyday realities of poverty and discrimination. Knowing only township life, without aspirations to move up in society, izikhothane members received validation from fame in their own communities.
With many of the original material boys now older, however, they’ve reflected on their rebellion and chosen to leave their troupes. The subculture is dying as a result.
“Unfortunately, the youth that was born before apartheid was not equipped and equally served as the young people are today,” Nelisiwe Walaza, the coordinator of an afterschool program in Kliptown, a township near Soweto, told LURE. “Now kids are seeing it is not a cool thing to burn your clothes.”
A few years ago, international headlines underscored “South Africa’s bizarre money-burning trend” and the izikhothane’s “demise.”
But there are those, like Zane, trying to resurrect the subculture from the ashes of destroyed designer clothes.
“All those very extreme, destructive actions are no longer taking place," says Daniela Goeller, a researcher and expert on dance and fashion in South African townships. "The people who are left are interesting because they're carrying on this subculture and want to express something."
Material Culture is starting a new chapter, too, holding Red Bull-sponsored events throughout Soweto, South Africa’s largest township, with DJs and dance performances.
Instead of cherishing American and European fashion brands favored by the swenka and pantsula, izikhotane crews wear South African streetwear like Ama Kip Kip and DEAD, using their reputations to elevate local designers to luxury status.
“Street fashion represents the townships that we come from,” says Zane. “It’s a symbol of our hood.”
Crew members earn money from opportunities like performing and music videos. Clothes come for free or at steep discounts from brands that see them as South Africa’s cultural tastemakers.
In 2017, members of Material Culture were featured in Drake’s music video for “One Dance” after being discovered on social media. According to Zane, such exposure is helping overturn stigma.
“We might have been discriminated against, but at the end of the day we really have moved to a brighter side,” explains the mechanical engineering student.
So while some South Africans still shake their heads, in many ways the destruction has led to creation.
“We’re setting a good example to show that you or your family might not be able to afford expensive clothing, but what you have already can work for you,” says Zane. “You don’t need expensive stuff to have fashion sense, you don’t need certain clothing to dance. Money will follow if you go out and sell yourself.”
Check out more images of the Material Culture crew and a playlist inspired by izikhothane dance beats below.