Mail&Guardian

Sean Christie -

I’ve found it hard to write about the Congolese fashion cult called La Sape (Society for the Advancement of People of Elegance) without sounding either a. like a modern Livingstone reporting the discovery of his very own Lualaba River, or b., (in fear of post-colonial gaffes of this sort) as if sape is passé, yesterdays news, the sort of exoticism that crosses ones desk daily. The problem is, as far as the earth-raking international media is concerned, sape is old news—almost ten years ago the BBC made a documentary about Papa Wemba and how he championed this cult of cloth from the late seventies. ‘When I say well groomed, well shaven, well perfumed,’ said Wemba, ‘it’s a propriety that I am insisting on among the young. I don’t care about their education.’ Wemba went on to explain to the BBC that his revival of sape was a reaction to the dictator Mobutu sese Seko’s edicts against the wearing of European clothes. An exploration of European fashion was entered into by youth all over urban Zaire, but went hand in hand with the explosion of the Kinois (Kinshasa-based) music scene, in which Wemba played the role of godfather.

Publications like Fader and dozens of internet posts moved the roots of la sape further and further back, until they eventually settled by general consent at the moment French African troops returned from WW1 in European clothes, the first to do so. More recently, sealing la sape’s inadmissibility as a news story, a coffee table book has appeared on the subject.

But while the history of sape in central Africa has been pinned down and groomed over, its afterlife in the Congolese Diaspora (which has extended to so many parts of the world since the collapse into civil and regional war of the two Congos in the mid and late 90s) is not well understood at all.

In South Africa, in the wake of the 2008 xenophobic violence, the appearance of northerly Africans dedicated to European fashion would seem to have particular tension and significance, especially given that the fear of foreign men ‘stealing our jobs and women’ was one of the phrases most frequently advanced in explanation of the violence.

Since 1994, it hardly needs mentioning, South Africa has become a mecca for job and asylum-seeking Zimbabweans, Congolese, Somalis, Mozambiqueans, Angolans, Rwandese and Burundians, to name only the most prodigious sources of immigration. A contracting economy and labour market, combined with the strictures of Refugee and Temporary Asylum Permits, ensures that most immigrants survive at the grizzled end of informal economy, guarding cars, driving illegal taxis and running spaza shops—enterprises which remunerate between R1000, in the case of car guards, and R5000 p/m, in the case of taxi drivers fortunate enough to own their own vehicles. Those lucky enough to enter the formal economy are absorbed primarily by the security and hospitality industries, where they earn between R1’400 and R8000 (hospitality industry, season dependent), and R1800 and R3500 (security). How then, one wonders, and more pertinently—why—are central African immigrants in South Africa buying outfits which can cost up to R30’000? (The average spend on an outfit is more like R5000).

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