Burning with a destructive desire
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Money gleaming. Crisp new banknotes being counted in the sunlight on a Soweto street. Two teenagers wearing designer jeans, shimmering silk shirts, bright pink and blue shoes and wearing white straw narrow-brimmed fedoras are passing a large wad of cash from one to the other.
“There’s not enough,” one says.
“We’ll get more,” his friend replies. They wander across the road to join a group of their friends all dressed in the same patchwork of colour and glitz. An animated discussion breaks out and somehow, almost like the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, more and yet more money emerges from backpacks, handbags and jeans pockets.
Now, it seems, they have enough. The group, ranging in age from 12 to 15, wander over to a parked minibus taxi.
Sipho, with a pair of sky-blue patent leather shoes and the white fedora, negotiates with the driver. He counts out nearly R7 000 in cash and the 10 kids climb inside. They have rented the minibus for the afternoon and evening.
Later, when I chat to Sipho, I discover that he is only 13, and is the ringleader.
As the minibus draws into the Saturday afternoon traffic, the boys take off a shoe each, lining the dashboard in a colourful array of expensive Italian leather. There are only a few shops that stock these shoes and the silk shirts the children buy. The shoes cost about R3 000 a pair and the shirts R2 000. Adults in the cars around us look away as the minibus slowly navigates through the traffic.
In township slang these children are known as izikhothane or “those who lick” – an obscure but creative etymology that a friend and long-time Soweto resident explained to me “that they are those who spend money to lick ice cream before they buy proper food”.
In recent years they have become a huge social phenomenon as they gather at parks in their hundreds, even thousands, dressed in their expensive outfits. Loud music blares while the children dance and often ruin or destroy their clothes and shoes, stripping them off and pouring custard on them and rubbing them into the ground to show off and pretend to be rich.
There is a growing outcry from many adults about this behaviour, but the popularity of the izikhothane among township teens is high – they even have a Facebook page with pictures of kids covered in money or destroying an expensive smartphone, holding it under a running tap. They force their parents to dip into their savings or go without essentials so that they can buy and destroy these luxuries.
Post-apartheid South Africa has seen a phenomenal growth in the black middle class. Many of these people in the new middle classes grew up in poverty and are the backbone of the economy. Many of their children, though, have no memory of the discrimination of apartheid and the poverty it caused.
Sipho and his friends, though, today are more intent on real life than on updating their cyberprofiles. The first stop is a nearby bottle store. But there is no Amarula Cream the children like. They pile back into the minibus.
Fifteen minutes later they arrive at a shopping mall with a bottle store. The kids mill about in the parking lot, shouting, laughing and showing off their lurid outfits – many of the shirts still have the price tags attached, which the kids eagerly shove in one another’s faces to compare costs – while crates of beer and the sweet Amarula liqueur are wheeled out of the store by the attendants.
One man stops to talk to me. He explains that as a teenager he grew up fighting apartheid in the streets; he was part of the Soweto uprising in 1976.
He shakes his head as he watches one of the kids unscrew a bottle of liqueur and start gulping it down.
“This isn’t what we struggled for,” he says and turns to open the door of his battered hatchback car.
He is still staring through the window at the kids as he drives away.
The minibus is soon on the road again. Now Sipho has turned up the music and the kids are chugging beers and liqueur and making the bus rock on its chassis as they dance to the music. The driver says nothing but hunkers down over his steering wheel.
A few minutes later he is stopped at a metro police roadblock. There are empty bottles on the floor of the taxi and many of the underage children are drunk – but the police wave them on.
Finally we arrive at a park heaving with drunken teenagers and cars trying to make their way through the pandemonium.
Amid the noise and confusion, one of the children tries to explain what all this means.
How it says something about adolescent identity and pride.
“You must dress like this,” he says. “Even if you live in a shack.”
There is a direct psychological link from the izikhothane to both the past and the present.
In the past, wealth and the social prestige that came with it was almost exclusively white. To black people, forced through job reservation, the Group Areas Act, the Land Act and a myriad other apartheid laws, into mass poverty and underdevelopment, the excesses of many of the unnaturally privileged white society were deeply painful sights. But with it, too, came the natural human desire to be rich, to escape the grinding reality of poverty and to be able to live, or at least, emulate, this profligate lifestyle.
Today, our society is recovering from this past and the izikhothane are a part of that reality.
There is a chain of moral complicity in this behaviour that stretches from many parents, the taxi drivers who drive them, to the metro police who let them go at the roadblock, all the way back to Hendrik Verwoerd.
We are reaping, today, the broken inheritance of the past.