It’s somewhere in the early Eigthies Johannesburg and I’m on my way to see National Wake. My grey and blue-flecked box cut zoot suit with its pleated baggy pants may have been a slight overdress – the kind of thing not totally suited to a punk gig in Rockey Street Square (outside what would a decade later become Rockefellas). But hey, I was young and the suit cost me most of the grocery money for the month, so it’s not like it was going to stay at home. I’m also wearing black brothel creepers with 5cm soles. They are customised with silver spikes by local design duo Mike and Quiet Leather and look more dangerous than they actually are, but the message is still clear: I don’t want to be in your world.
The policeman rolling the teargas into the audience really didn’t care much that I didn’t want to be part of his world. He wanted to make sure that I wasn’t, but not in any way that would empower me. This action of teargassing punk, reggae or new wave gigs was a new sport. The much more established sport of teargasing mass black protests in the townships was what the police did during the week; this was their weekend fun. Scaring the shit out of audiences from a mix of races, a lot of them white suburban kids who only saw township protests on television, was an added bonus and equaled overtime pay.
South Africa in the 1980s was a time when television was in its infancy (only allowed in 1976 and state controlled), photographs of Nelson Mandela were banned and the newspapers were controlled by draconian legislation that heavily censored the media. Under apartheid, black people lived in black neighbourhoods and white people lived in white neighbourhoods and never the twain met. Africa was still very much kept out of South Africa, like we were part of Europe.
Punk emerged amid this oppressive environment in 1976, the same year as the youth revolt in Soweto, giving it a two-handed punch that was fuelled both by socio-political and pop culture concerns, making it a movement that looked more towards Soviet Eastern Europe in spirit than it did to London or New York. But not in look. Punk was the first genre of music after jazz that brought various races together. Up to then, everybody stuck strictly to their side of the fence. Black radio for black people, pop radio for white people. The authorities even managed to ban The Osmonds’ Crazy Horses from airing because they thought it was about heroin. Therefore punk was the unexpected kick in the ass that the youth needed to mobilise themselves, make their voices heard and get to meet the people on the other side of the fence.
The band National Wake, with their two white members and two black members, was a leader here, touring shebeens and “independent homelands”, punk clubs and after hour cinemas, to take the message to a larger racially mixed audience. In the beginning it was all good and well because they played to the kind of people that no-one cared about. The marginalised was never of any concern. Yet slowly but surely the message started spreading.
Upping the game was a variety of clubs and festivals that started tapping into the scene. Rhythm Against Detention, Wits Free People’s Concert, Smuggler’s Inn, Scratch, 1886, Chelsea Hotel, Le Club, Subway, Rumours and The Doors all played a role in spreading the message. The audience may have been drunk on their beer of choice, Black Label, but their sentiments remained political.
To be a teenager in South Africa in the late 1970s and early 1980s was terrible. No alcohol was for sale on Sundays, even in public places, unless you had a meal. Strict border control meant that the only drugs available were Mandrax and Obex, neither of which were conducive to a relaxed social atmosphere. And man, the fashion sucked. Especially men’s fashion. But punk helped to change that. The first pictures of punks that appeared in the press meant that the Indian tailor down by the railway station was suddenly catering for a new clientele of 18 year-old boys turning straight cut Lees and Wranglers into stovepipes. Levi’s were still unheard of and only made their appearance in the mid-1980s, mainly in the form of grey imports or Indian knockoffs sold at outrages prices, putting a pair well beyond the means of the ordinary person. A shop called Moollahs was the place to go to get yours.
In the beginning the uniform for punks was stovepipes and t-shirts, but soon the demand for something slightly more elevated and different increased. Parents, uncles and aunts travelling to London suddenly had requests from their teenagers for tartan bondage pants, flea market items that would be customised back home and, of course, Doc Martens. Like the music, initially the fashion was an almost straight copy of what was happening abroad, but as the movement found it’s own feet, and more importantly its African roots and identity, this changed.
The Afropunk sound was initially heavily influenced by London and the first South African punk bands were mere imitators. This soon changed when the multi-cultural influence started infiltrating punk. Using ska elements that was converted into a more African brass sound and beats that relied more on the traditional drumming than the European version, the sound of South African punk soon took on it’s own identity. This unique music was never heard in the outside world before the making of Punk In Africa, the documentary film that for the first time archived the scene and showed at more than 60 international film festivals between 2012 and 2015. In true African fashion, the last screening was in Africa at the Rock ala Buse festival, one of the biggest punk rock festivals in Africa, in Reunion in 2016
But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
My zoot suit looked like the new wave fashion we saw on the pages of The Face, Blitz, i-D- and the NME that arrived in South Africa twelve weeks after their UK publication at Estoril Books in Hillbrow. However the suit’s African print lining – I always folded back the sleeves so you could see it – gave it a distinct flavour that you wouldn’t have founded elsewhere. The brothel creepers’ silver spikes had been used in traditional Zulu leatherwear since the 1950s. I was rocking it new wave African style.
This was dangerous. What I was wearing was not being sold in chain stores. Anything different was frowned upon and made you a target. There is this classic story in the South African punk legacy about a band called Toxic Sox walking in downtown Johannesburg and getting beaten up by a car full of guys that just didn’t like the way they looked. The band were outraged and walked to the nearest police station to report this crime, only to find out that the people they wanted to report the crime to were the same people that beat them up.
The policemen armed with teargas were a sign that the government started seeing this underground movement as a threat to the stability of the status quo. The unofficial South African Police hit squad, the CCB moved into the scene. Gerrit Nicholas Erasmus, Petrous Lodewikus du Toit, Charles Alfred Zeelie and Andries Johannes van Heerden bombed the Why Not Club in Hillbrow, Johannesburg on 22 September 1988. The manager of The Summit Club, Lourens Swanepoel, was murdered and so was the only eyewitness to the murder, thrown from a balcony of his flat in Hillbrow. Gary Beuthin and the so-called Bouncer Gang shot and beat people up without any recourse from the government. It was a dangerous time to be different. But all this did was to encourage the music and fashion scene to stand up.
Rockey Street in Yeovile was the birthplace of South African street fashion. The area became a grey area where both white and black lived and mixed, not legally but tolerated. At the store African Magic you could buy Ethiopian copper beads, Ndebele leatherwork and African print materials while listening to a soundtrack of Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens. At Reminiscence you could buy vintage wear. At Lolly and Dimitri’s So Modern you could pick up zoot suits and Aldo Kleyn’s Leather Rose was great for finding leather pants. I faintly remember a napa leather Batman suit but won’t swear to it – it may have been a figment of my LSD-addled brain – the only other drug freely available. At Bizarre Centre the ever-changing shops supplied limited run t-shirts, off the wall clothing and jewellery that even the people from the neighbourhood weren’t always that keen on.
Elsewhere in South Africa, Glynis Horning moved street fashion to the catwalk with the Durban Designer Collection in the mid-1980s, Cheryl Arthur’s label Hip Hop clothing moved it into shopping centres and Preston van Wyk aka Rip Torn moved from street fashion to more mainstream style aimed at biking with the very appropriately named, X-Kulcha.
Bands like No friends of Harry, Ella Mental, éVoid and Via Afrika made South African fashion brands like these as important as their South African music.
Like many other designers from this era, Mike and Quiet Leather were integral to the fashion revolution in South Africa. They started making things because they couldn’t find what they were looking for in the shops. The two brothers moved with the scene and determining what they should wear next has been their thing for almost 30 years. Moving from illegal pavement selling, to flea markets and then Kingdom Leather in Hillbrow, they eventually found a home for their shop Add-Vintage in Johannesburg’s super trendy Rosebank area in 2009.
Mike and Quiet originally hail from the Eastern Cape but grew up in Johannesburg’s central business district in the Seventies and Eighties. Growing up on their own without much of a safety net they were sitting around a fire one night, unemployed and without much future prospects when they hit on the idea to start making winkle pickers. “We needed an income to survive”, says Quiet (ironically the one who speaks the most) today, “we never even suspected that this will elevate us to the next level over the decades to come.”
They started trading at the now legendary Bree Street flea market across the road from the famous Market Theatre, a place where all the anti-government protest theatre was happening at this time. On Day One they sold all their stock and realising that they were on to a good thing, started making more. “We needed to sell two pairs per week to survive and we did.”
Without much business background the two brothers were received with open arms into the community and introduced to easier ways to make their shoes and other apparel. It was a chance meeting with the members of the goth group No Friends of Harry that elevated them to the next level.
“People like Aldo Kleyn, Rip Torn and a lot of other people in the scene helped us along but it was No Friends of Harry that served as an advertisement for our stuff and made it to take off”, says Quiet.
As usual in the scene they faced police harassment, not only based on their lifestyle but also on their colour: “The police would just walk into our flat and harass us, accusing us of being Illuminati and moffies. They didn’t like the fact that black men were hanging out with white girls”.
The harassment didn’t just come from the police or the white community but also from people within their community who couldn’t understand why young black men would want to listen to white music, wear leather clothing and ride motorcycles.
“Punk suited us”, is the only way they can explain it today. No deep philosophical statements about their passion, they just liked it. They were accepted into a community whereas before they had nothing.
Having moved from being branded drug addicts and Satanist, being black in a mostly white scene, their fashion has inspired goths, metal heads, punks, new wavers and more lately, bikers too.
Today punk has become a commodity that can be bought on cheap T-shirts in discount chain fashion stores, but Mike and Quiet’s legacy lives on.
It lives on in bands like TCIYF, Brainwreck and Death at the Party. Even though they have some criticism about “the kids today only doing it for the money” they are elders in a community where seniority is greatly respected. They are still very much involved with the scene and usually don’t have to pay to go into venues – something that has been happening since they first started making clobber.
“We have a fabulous time”, says Quiet.
They have always managed to stay ahead of a scene where the turn around time has been shortened considerably by satellite television, the internet and fashion magazines that are now air freighted into Africa’s most southern point, fighting off the increasing Chinese invasion in the process.
Having been forced to move out of their Rosebank premises due to gentrification, they have wrapped up Add-Vintage and opened in the even trendier Parkhurst. This time it’s called Second Attitude.
Second Attitude may have both the past, present and future stocked inside and also do custom clothing, but the one thing that ties it all together is the smell of leather. Ranging from vintage punk and biker jackets, Dolly Parton-esque outfits their designs make it easier (and safer) to be different in South Africa today.
By Deon Maas