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Johannesburg - They are in vogue and rapidly becoming the most sought-after commodity in the African hair market. So lucrative are dreadlocked hairpieces that the business has now spiralled into crime.
The recent assault of Zimbabwean Mutsa Madonko not only astonished many, it also highlighted the lengths to which criminals are willing to go to get their hands on the hair.
Madonko was robbed of his dreadlocks at a night club in Joburg, having grown his locks for 10 years. But those who know will tell you the trend of selling human hair locks is widespread. In Durban people have had their locks cut off while walking the streets.
Rastafarians are famous for their dreadlocks, but according to Wikipedia many ethnic groups before them have worn dreadlocks. They include many ancient Semitic and Indo-Aryan peoples of the Near East and Asia Minor, Hamitic peoples of East Africa, Sadhus of Nepal, India and the Sufi Rafaees, the Maori people of New Zealand, the Maasai and the Oromo of Ethiopia, the Sufi Malangs and Fakirs of Pakistan, ancient Spartan warriors of Greece and medieval Irish warriors.
Veteran locktitian Jabu Stone Sithole, of Jabu Stone natural hair products, is amazed at the style’s new popularity.
Stone recalls how in 1994 there was barely a market for the ethnic hairdo.
“At the time it was perceived as unkempt, dirty, unholy and only for Rastafarians. People feared the hairstyle like a plague,” he laughs.
The “dreadful” look of the locks was partly the reason why Stone’s introduction of the hairstyle in townships such as Alexandra in the early 90s flopped.
According to him, he experienced resistance from salons and hairstylists who deemed relaxers, perms and braids ideal for their clients.
When Stone opened his salon in Yeoville it seemed clear his business may not survive.
Even Rastafarians would not let him touch their uncombed hair because they considered it sacred.
Stone explains that people were sceptical of the burnt-brown colour dreadlocks had at the time, but says dreads aren’t necessarily dirty. The colour, he says, is a result of the hair’s exposure to the sun.
“This is why I encourage people to omit the word dread from the locks. There is nothing dreadful about the hairstyle,” he says.
At one stage Stone went as far as preaching black consciousness and attracted South Africans returning from exile.
After launching a series of his own products and winning over prominent clients such as actor Sello Maake ka Ncube and singer Judith Sephuma, Stone developed crochet dreadlocks – the reason for the current demand, he says.
Crochet dreadlocks involve converting relaxed and Caucasian hair into locks.
“Women were worried about time. They wanted to know how they could have long dreadlocks without waiting years to grow them. I sat with my team and we established a solution for this,” he says.
Stone explains that crochet dreadlocks are formed using a small crochet needle and by weaving additional human hair pieces into the straight hair.
“The aim is to confuse the hair strands so that they grow in a different direction and into a knot.”
The concept worked and has become a phenomenon in salons and in the streets.
While Stone charges about R2 000 for the conversion, those in the street market charge R750 for three hours of work.
Stone says he purchases the dreadlocks from his clients who have either shaved off their hair or cut a portion of it.
He is wary of buying hairpieces if he doesn’t know their origin.
“I only buy locks that are a ruler-size (30cm). It depends on the thickness and neatness as well,” he adds.
While he is happy that many people are turning to dreads, he is concerned that the hairstyle has become popular at the expense of others.
“I wanted to create something for everyone so that they too embrace their natural look. However, I feel that I’ve created something I can’t stop. It’s as if I’ve created a monster that rears its ugly head all the time,” he says.
Carlos Khumalo, a hairstylist who works on a pavement in Joburg city centre, says dreads keeps him alive.
“I am able to put food on the table and look after my children. However, I don’t condone the manner in which some people conduct the business,” says Khumalo.
Dan, a fellow hairstylist who also operates on the streets, admits to buying hairpieces from the general public.
“It’s strictly business, he says. “You can never tell where the dreadlocks come from or who they are from. I buy them from anyone.”
However, Rastafarian Bobby Lebeko curses the day the trend was born, saying it undermines his beliefs.
Lebeko has worked in the CBD for the past 10 years and says the aim has always been to help people appreciate natural African hair.
“I’m not happy at all with what has been happening. How do you take someone’s DNA and insert it into another person’s head? People get sick and some have had sores,” he says.
“We Rastafarians don’t encourage this at all. It’s an insult.”
Lebeko believes those with dreadlocks should always cover them at night, explaining why Rastafarians wear turbans.
Stylist Sjahmza Mhlanga disagrees with the concept of moulding foreign human hair into a client’s head.
“I grew up with my own dreadlocks and believe my clients should follow suit and have their own hair,” he says.
Nothemba Moyo walked in the city centre with with her loose locks and got a fright when her hair was tugged from behind. She’s had her locks for nine years and says she has no interest in weaves.
Moipone Mabathwana believes dreadlocks are slowly becoming a danger: “I think people will start killing for these dreads,” she says.
“Where there’s money involved there is likely to be a death.”
Police have made no arrests in Madonko’s case. He might never recover his locks – and it will take him many years to grow them back.
Call them what you will – locks, a ras, jata or dreads – it remains to be seen if dreadlock lovers will keep their crown jewels and their most sacred assets safe.