He explained how, after years of civil war in the Congo, during which traditional pastimes like soccer were undermined, the government fixed on sape, which had become the entertainment of choice amongst the youth, as a way of promoting reconciliation between northern and southern Congolese. ‘They organised a competition called la guerre des habits, in which president Sasso-Nguesso himself took part, as well as the chief of police.’

Here in Cape Town many of the same conditions which sustain sapology in Brazzaville are replicated—poor salaries and expensive rentals force Congolese men into overcrowded houses and apartments in squalid suburbs, while long working hours and a dearth of entertainment lead to days of stifling drudgery.
For this reason, perhaps, the gathering assumed a near riotous condition, and by sunset John Phillida approached my photographers with a concerned expression. ‘Time to come in now. These guys will stay out here all night so long as you are taking pictures. Now the police are here.’ Inside a meal of Cassava leaves and grilled tilapia was being served (with potato salad as the anomalous side dish) by a handful of women, virtually the only females at the event. This gender disparity was not satisfactorily explained, and would make a good thesis subject for somebody one day. Certainly there have been a much larger influx of male Congolese to South Africa than female, with several of the sapeurs suggesting to me that South African women are not trustworthy. ‘We come from different cultures,’ Gur said plainly. ‘A South African woman will lie on the couch while you work. She expects things to be done for her, and that is not what Congolese men are used to, so they will rather save up to go back to the Congo and find a wife or a girlfriend, then bring her back here. This is a big new trend in the Congolese community here.’ My old friend Manix Kupe offered another view: ‘Congolese women are great in the Congo, but in South Africa they are a problem. They can call the police anytime, for any little thing. Then what? Who do you think the police are going to believe?

It is often said by the more serious-minded researchers of sape that their extravagant clothes and pompous bodily movements are a means of transcending the grime and economic blight of Brazzaville. It seemed very likely to me that in South Africa the swagger and preen of la sape serves the additional purpose of masking an intractable sexual predicament—wary of black south African women, rejected by white south African women, and often too poor to return home for local brides, is it not possible they dress beyond their means to assert their masculinity, to affect real bearing in life?

As the black label count mounted I overheard libérateur untruthfully claiming that he was from Saint-Denis, opposite the stade de France, and was told that claiming a fashionable Paris arrondissement as a home base was a trend amongst South Africa’s sapeurs. ‘Better than saying you are from Salt River, Parow or Goodwood,’ explained Gur. This is an interesting bit of schizophrenia, and dovetails with Professor C.B. Vigouroux’s claim that ‘the majority (of Francophone migrants) did not initially plan to emigrate to South Africa’, and that ‘Job insecurity, economic precariousness, and an increasing climate of hostility and physical violence towards African outsiders have prompted many of them to want to “escape”, from what they characterize as a “prison”, or “grave”’. It is likely then, that la Sape in South Africa are party to a much greater delusion about the future prospects for Congolese expatriates. They create a parallel world in which participants can feel less excluded from the realities of power, wealth and influence than they really are.
But one can easily get carried away talking about the politics of socioeconomic subcultures. Most of Parow’s Congolese peacocks were less reflexive about their interpretation of sapology, claiming it was simply about the enjoyment of clothes. When I asked Libérateur what challenges he had faced in South Africa he did not hesitate to say, ‘Shoes. You just can’t get a good leather shoe in this country. I have to order them over the internet, or get overseas friends to send them over.’

By the time this is published Cape Town’s fashion week will have passed, and perhaps South African Fashion Week too, all of it without the slightest nod to the country’s most dedicated fashionistas. Given that the Congolese celebrate the 50th anniversary of their independence in 2010, I hope that the next year’s organisers see the value in rectifying this blind spot

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