The new s’khothane culture – a craze for a sleek and colourful style of dress – is a throwback to the 1940s urban youth culture.

The s’khothane recently came into the limelight with their obsession with attention, fame, glitter and glamorous fashion. To attract respect, status and prestige, they indulge in what many see as a form of madness.

After an elaborate shopping spree, the s’khothanes meet to burn, tear and destroy their new purchases and even burn R100 and R200 notes.

By their code, nothing has value and longevity and the more expensive it is, the more it deserves the flames of their youthful fury. Everything is expendable.

The urbanisation of South Africa became accelerated after World War I with the demands for cheap labour to rebuild the country.

The economic prosperity that accompanied World War II saw the growth of the urban fashion industry.

Johannesburg became the thriving centre of such urban exploits, new tastes and ostentatious displays.

Sophiatown, with its proximity to Johannesburg, competed with Alexandra in deadly gang combats – and above all, fashion.

The legendary tsotsis made their grand appearance with their Florsheim shoes, zoot suits and long overcoats. The new class of urban youth also acquired a new language which later became known as tsotsi taal, a mixture of Afrikaans and local African dialects.

The word tsotsi initially meant a certain style of stiff trouser worn by these urban “clevers”. The tsotsis soon had their own charlatans defined by being rough and quick to stab people.

Later we saw the arrival of the pantsulas between 1970 and the late 1980s. Leather coats made their debut accompanied by an array of soon-to-be sought after labels such as Foot Joys.

There were cases in the townships of pantsulas who slept on the floor in their houses. They could not care less about their bedding as long as they were respected for their attire.

Later it was the “Italians” who had armed robbers, shoplifters and petty criminals in their midst. Matadiana, as they were called in Sotho, mocked the educated class who could not afford their clothes and expensive lifestyle.

I still recall a conversation in which one Jabulani Spitas bragged to Chabedi Mosala about how he had come to his house to find his wardrobe ransacked. Wondering what had happened he saw his leather jacket had been eaten by his crocodile shoes. This led to the escape of the ostrich belt from the house. The lizard-skinned shoes also made an ignominious run for dear life.

The Italians were soon followed by the Milanos, who were followed by the more laidback bourgeois. Their name had nothing to do with their status and much more with their pleasant demeanour. They could be viewed as the successors of the 70s hippies.

The s’khothane made their debut in the East Rand and soon spread to Soweto and other townships. The s’khothane prefer active gear like Nike, Porsche shoes, CMB shirts and Cavella.

The sociological profile of a quintessential s’khothane is an urban youth aged 15 to 26. They are mainly unemployed and reliant on their parents for financial support. Most come from impoverished backgrounds.

The s’khothane lifestyle is symptomatic of a more serious social ill.

The obsession to destroy what one values is evident in the service delivery riots. The community’s prized possessions such as schools and libraries are the first victims of collective societal anger. These are the actions of another form of s’khothane whose age group far exceeds 26 and reaches up to 60.

Our communities celebrate when a clinic is burned because at some point it did not have the necessary medications and was useless.

A community in Northern Cape boycotted schools because they had an axe to grind with the local mayor, who was refusing to step down.

How do their actions differ from the s’khothanes who destroy what they claim to love? Can the action of the recently sentenced Vinolia Siwa of North West who killed her five children be seen as some form of s’khothane conduct taken too far?

How can a woman justify killing her five children because of poverty? How can the actions of the Gauteng government be justified in demolishing houses in Lenasia at a time of such acute housing shortages, when the owners built the houses themselves?

A close inspection of the s’khothane reveals they are young people in a desperate search of a myth. They seek to find something that will define their generation.

These are young school leavers. These are young people from broken homes. These are members of child headed families. These are our youth crying out for attention and guidance. These are young people who will, in a few years, be in suburban streets looking for work. These are our children we have failed as we bequeath nothing save our cold sneer of indifference.

As the ANC plods its way towards Mangaung, there is a serious need for approaching this defining and historical conference with a sense of proportion and nimbleness to ensure the salvation of the testament of the founding fathers. The risk is high that in the quest to fulfil the ambitions of the self and faction we may destroy what we love and too earn the label of political s’khothanes.

n Ka Plaatjie is director of the Pan African Foundation.