In Cape Town the sape have gathered three times—once in 2003 in Parow, a Diaspora stronghold; again in 2005 on Long Street, outside John Phillida’s Club La Reference; and most recently on Voortrekker Road, outside Phillida’s newly opened Club La Reference, Parow. The recent meet was the biggest of its kind in South Africa, attracting sapeurs from all major cities in the name of Congo Brazzaville’s independence from the French, August 15 1960.

200 men of elegance massed on a pavement beneath a Vive le Congo sign meant that the venue was impossible to miss, even on Cape Town’s most anonymous road. And if this spectacle wasn’t enough, by 4pm two sapeurs were strutting down the centre of the four lane road in suit ensembles comprising the green orange and yellow of the Congolese flag, newspapers tucked under their armpits, walking sticks swinging. Bystanders may have presumed it a charismatic church gathering, and indeed, sape is often described as a fashion religion, a cult of cloth.

Participants continued to arrive, and if there was any unifying characteristic in this fashion practice which aspires to singularity, it was the prevalence of bright colour. A man called Thierry, who works as a security guard in Goodwood, offered a straightforward explanation for the colour ethos: ‘if the sky is black, a Congolese cannot wear black and white, or he will disappear.’ Josephè, one of a handful of DRCongo nationals attending this Republic of Congo celebration (and one of two not in a full suit) sneered at the Brazzavillean passion for costume. ‘In Kinshasa we just like good clothes. T-shirts, tracksuits, it doesn’t matter, so long as they are top quality like Versus or Lacoste.’

Participation in the competition stroke celebration proceeded in an informal fashion, and seemed largely dependent on how many people happen to be watching. Sapeurs aggregated, for example, around the cameramen I’d asked along, flapping their suit vents like overheated bureaucrats, rolling up their trouser legs and smacking their leather shoes sideways into the pavement like Lipizzaners, with the express purpose of showing off designer labels. Their body language was always accompanied by aggressive verbal substantiations of their fashion choices, and general statements about sape, which never failed to elicit laughter when translated by French journalist Melinda Fantou. ‘la sape c’est un art,’ shouted Paul Boitontomio, who goes by the sapology name of Ma Paulo de Cape Town. ‘Rien à dire tout est là.’ (la sape is an art. Nothing to say, everything on display.)

Gervais, aka libértaeur, tossed his fuchsia tie over a large briar pipe and mumbled, ‘mes vêtements ce ne sont pas des marques déposées, ce ne sont pas des marques de Chinois, regarde la cravate c’est du Pierre Cardin, les couleurs sont là bien respectées,’ out of the side of his mouth. (My clothes aren’t cheap registered trademarks, they aren’t Chinese either, look, the tie is Pierre Cardin and the colours are all respected.’ Discourse of this sort took part mainly in French supported by Lingala, and even a smattering of local patois, with the very Capetonian and entirely untranslatable phrase ‘jy weet mos…’ creeping in from time to time.

The irony inherent in 200 Congolese celebrating their independence in European suit ensembles (on a road named Voortrekker, nogal) was not lost on celebration organiser Gur-Lassavane Milandou, who also said that going without food in order to afford entirely new outfits—a fact confessed to by several of the sape, for whom appearing in public twice in the same costume is a heresy—was perverse. But despite its contradictions Gur thought the good in sape outweighed the bad. ‘Sapology has the power to bring the Congolese together, and we desperately need this unity, because there are only three million of us in all the world, and here in South Africa no more than 8000.’

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