Ubkhothane became a part of South African popular culture when it was highlighted last year on SABC1′s current affairs show, Cutting Edge. It’s difficult to translate the word. A Zulu dictionary will tell you that khotha means “lick” and ukukhothana means ” to lick each another”. Now adopted as a term to describe a sub-culture and its activity – Ubkhothane has been the subject of widespread criticism and because of this, it has been denied a part of its story.
It all started around 2006/07 on Johannesburg’s East Rand. Back then it was an exhibitionist-pantsula faction who hung out at bus stops, showing off their wares and mockingly tapping each other over the head with Rozmola shoes. It was only when a few innovators started calling themselves “Scientists” that Ubkhothane established itself as a distinct sub-culture. The Scientists were “inventors.” They flipped traditional Pantsula dress-codes, they wore “lime greens” and “Jordans” and started inventing new dance moves such as “Mosha” and “Nyakazisa”.
More than the innovations though, it was the culture of bragging that would define Ubkhothane. Today Ukukhothana is to engage in a bragging-battle. Fashion is the predominant system on which the culture is based, and it’s the various symbols of Skhothane fashion (popular clothing, alcohol, food, dance and language) that are used as means of distinction in battles. It’s all about what you have and how much it’s worth. “MaThousand” a member of Soweto-based crew “Amashisa Ova” says that Ukukhothana is “Bragging.
It’s about showing the other person that you are better than them”. Izikhothane gatherings, which are sometimes attended by hundreds of kids (aged five to eighteen) are the perfect platform for Izikhothane to express themselves. Crews meet at pre-arranged locations, which are usually parks or school grounds. This is where they can battle and party away from public view. A battle can go viral, not on the internet, but on the mobile phone network of kids who live in the area. Videos are shot with phones and then shared via bluetooth. If everyone is talking about your video, you become the benchmark and the person other Izikhothane want to outshine.
To put this current phenomenon into context you only have to look back to the Swenkas, a group of working-class Zulu men who took part in amateur competitions that were part fashion show, part choreography, with the purpose of “displaying ones style and sense of attitude”. The similarities between Swenking and Ubkhothane are remarkable. Like Swenking, Ukukhothana is competitive it is a spectacle involving performance and dance, and in both cultures sharp clothing is one of the main symbols of distinction. But how did it re-emerge as something so controversial?
The excessive extravagance of Ubkhothane seems like a logical progression for a culture, which places material objects at the core of its value system. In this situation destroying symbols of value is a way to assert power over those governed by them. How do you distinguish yourself when every other Skhothane has the same Muracchini t-shirt as you? Or is wearing a different color Rozmola on each foot (to show that they own more than one pair)? You have to literally kill their swag! Another theory would be that material possessions aren’t as important to Izikhothane as it appears. Crews from townships around Johannesburg sometimes travel great distances for battles.
Mboma, a “Legend” (retired skhothane) feels that, “Fame is the greatest reward,” for a Skhothane. It makes sense then, that Izikhothane would go as far as destroying expensive clothing, wasting food, spilling drinks and burning money in order to prove themselves. It seems that fame is their true currency, their ultimate aspiration. Izikhothane have been widely condemned by the public at large, for their subversive exploits and “controversial” behavior. There is however a lot more to Ubkhothane than what the media conveys.
Ubkhothane is inextricably linked to youth culture. Gauteng youth with some sort of a connection to township life are similar to Skothanes in many ways. They share likes and interests, they are exposed to the same lifestyles and most importantly they have similar aspirations. They want recognition no matter what, they want a voice that comes with an ability to consume and participate in the economy. Look at it from a different perspective and Ubkhothane could easily be labeled as art. It’s a participatory practice, which requires collaboration from both participants and audience.
Battles are performative in nature. They involve rhythmic wordplay and innovative dance moves. The combination of practiced routine and the spontaneity of real life encounter makes it that much more thrilling. It’s a unique artistic expression that can never be reproduced.
Other emerging sub cultures have suffered from the shock of the new. Take graffiti for example, from the time it emerged in New York there was much resistance. Over time, it went from vandalism to a legitimate art-form. From its roots in the East Rand, the culture has spread to townships across greater Johannesburg. I personally don’t agree with every part of the culture but there are definitely some very interesting aspects that contribute to art and culture in South Africa and the world.
Jamal Nxedlana is cofounder of fashion label Missshape. www.missshape.com