ONCE THE ATTIRE OF APARTHEID-ERA GANGSTERS, SNEAKERS- OR TEKKIES- HAVE BECOME LESS A SIGN OF THE TRUE COUNTERCULTURE AND MORE PURELY ASPIRATIONAL.
Words by Eve Fairbanks
Moss Moeng, a slender 28-year-old from Soweto, got his first pair of sneakers when he was 10 – a pair of hardly-worn adidas Grand Prix that didn’t quite fit his father. Nike Air Jordans had just come to the country. Moss had never wanted anything so badly that he thought of working outside his school assignments before, but a dream was born in him – the dream of owning a pair of black Jordans.
He began to wander to unusual street corners to play dice with older men for cash; he found a bulk snack-food supplier to sell him boxes of cookies to re-sell in his school hallways. It took him three years to save the $120 for the right kicks, which were, by then, Converse All-Stars – an unusual pair with two layers, a dark brown canvas on the outside and a light brown on the inside.
The first night he wore them out it was to a party up the street from his father’s house. Coming back home at 1am, a group of muggers sprung on him as he unlocked the gate. Sadly, that wasn’t unusual. The end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994 had liberated all sorts of energies in the previously harshly segregated and rule-bound country, including violent ones. The men demanded Moss’s wallet and his cell phone. But then one of the muggers looked down and blurted out, ‘Damn, your sneakers are cool!’
Very briefly, the mood lifted. It was no longer a purely monetary shake-down, but two men in a poor area appreciating the presence of a thing of unusual beauty. Then the mugger made Moss take them off. “I want to keep them for myself,” the mugger said.
Sneakers – traditionally called tekkies – have a special history in South Africa. In the 1940s and 1950s, ambitious men in the rapidly expanding black townships – labour camps, really – around white-run Johannesburg began to dress in a new style they lifted from American movies. These movies, ironically, had been introduced into the townships by white officials to try to teach black people a pliant morality that would keep them complicit with segregation. “The city council would put on a movie where a nice wholesome FBI officer won the day,” Clive Glaser, a sociologist who’s written about South African style, told me. “But the gang culture absorbed the style of the baddies in the movies instead of the goodies.”
The ‘baddies’ were gangsters or outlaws who, then, wore cowboy boots or Italian patent-leather shoes with a glimmering shine. Fine shoes were especially important to black South African urban rebels, since investing in expensive shoes and keeping them clean signalled you were above working in a garden, toiling in the mines, or walking in the dust to a job as a janitor – the kinds of bitter fates to which apartheid generally consigned black men.
From the ‘70s onward the Italian patent-leather shoes were replaced by tekkies, particularly white Converse All-Stars. If you didn’t have to worry about your shoes getting dirty, you were generally involved in crime – an activity that filled most black South Africans with ambivalence. On the one hand, nobody liked to be mugged. On the other, doing almost anything dignified while black, under white rule, was a crime; blacks saw the law itself as criminal. A friend of mine, Malaika Mahlatsi, remembered her feelings about criminals in Soweto when she was young: They were “thugs”, sure, but some were also “brave enough to steal from whites. We called it ‘affirmative repossession’”. She was in awe of the way “their shoes glowed”.
Today, Moss has nearly 20 pairs of sneakers. “I can’t afford to have a girlfriend,” he laughs, sitting with me at the sleek coffee bar of his employer, a photo retouching studio in an up-and-coming neighbourhood downtown. “The money to go on a date would be money to buy a pair of sneakers.”
He calls them ‘sneakers’, not tekkies, because he also loves sneakerhead culture. He reads global sneakerhead blogs every day. He follows collabs with international artists, musicians, and sports stars; his favourites, currently, are new LeBrons and Converse’s collab with the rapper Tyler, The Creator.
He says there’s a divide between what, in Soweto, are called “OGs in the game” – ‘original gangsters’ or ‘old guys’ who like to collect the newest, most high-tech looking kicks, like the Nike Shox or Foamposites – and the “cool kids”, a younger generation that’s “looking into the past” to classics like Converse and Vans. Moss often combs tatty outdoor markets where charities dump clothes donated by Hollywood stars to poor Africans for ‘cool kid’ finds and surfs international websites for sales.
“New shirts – it’s just a new shirt,” Moss says. “But new shoes, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah! People are gonna see me wearing this. People are gonna go crazy! They’re gonna love these shoes. They’re gonna want these shoes.” When he finally bought that pair of black Jordans, he said wearing them was “one of the best feelings I ever had. It creates an energy for you: ‘I’m wearing something new. I’m wearing something people want.’ If you’re wearing just any pair of sneakers, people wouldn’t ever be looking for you. But with the Jordans, people were like, ‘Where did you get those? Oh! Can you tell me where I can get those?’ It’s this thing of…” he pauses to enunciate the word, then smiles self-consciously, aware of its snobbery: “Ex-clu-si-vity.”
That’s a shift, certainly, from what tekkies used to mean in South Africa. In her 2017 book Sorry, Not Sorry, the South African feminist of colour Haji Mohamed Dawjee recalled being asked by teachers to remove her Converses because they were “the shoes of criminals”, and feeling proud. She was happy to be a ‘criminal’ in a society whose ‘normal’ was so screwed up.
Dawjee complains that, in the late ‘80s, white South Africans who wanted to pose as rebels, but who didn’t really have the cred, started to adopt Converses. Gradually – as the townships became less officially taboo, less overtly the object of contempt, and privileged South Africans became more forcibly conscious of the injustice of their privilege – companies began to realise there was a business in appealing to people whose pockets are still deep but who want to appear like they’re down with the block, too. Tekkies became less a sign of the true counterculture and more purely aspirational, in line with every other form of aspiration in a capitalist society, like travelling or having a sweet car.
While the tekkies that the apartheid-era gangsters wore were about cutting against the grain of the dominant politics, knowledge and beliefs of the time, the sneaker blogs Moss reads like to talk about each sneaker in terms of prestige, expertise, being the best – and power. There’s the Nike Command Force, the Air Force One. “Inspired by a fighter jet, the Foamposite is one of the craziest shoes that the Swoosh has ever created... They are among the most sought after in the world.” Moss used to like a sneaker festival in Johannesburg called Street Cred, but it moved, recently, to Cape Town – a far richer, whiter city with way less actual ‘street’. “There’s a bigger market there,” he shrugs.
Turning ‘street’ into a market, painfully, requires people who literally live on the street in South Africa to purchase their ‘street cred’. Outside a spare, sexy sneaker shop called Archive a few blocks from Moss’s workplace, I met a 30-year-old homeless black South African named Martin. It turned out he hadn’t eaten in three days and needed to replace his ID and high-school graduation certificate, which had been lost.
But the first thing he asked me for were new shoes. He gestured at his heavily scuffed adidas knock-offs. He raps, and he makes the most money on the street performing raps for white guys and their girlfriends as a “bit of entertainment”.
“But they prefer me to look more proper ‘hood’,” he told me, like Tyler, The Creator.
Moss himself has some ambivalence about the way a true counterculture aspect to sneakers in South Africa has melted away. Older commentators fret that young black South Africans are frittering their time and money away on sneakers instead of schooling or better investments like real estate. In this way, loving sneakers can still be a screw you to authority, the commentators or parents who wring their hands over young black people’s post-apartheid materialism. Yet the global, moneyed nature of sneaker culture is painful to participate in now without actual cash. “There’s this feeling every time I read a blog – ‘I need that. I need that. I can’t be someone without that,” he says. I asked Moss if he’d like to go to Sole DXB, and he demurred – it would be too hard to be there without the money to buy the shoes the coolest people were wearing.
Sneakers “drive you in a direction you would do things you wouldn’t normally do as a person,” he reflects. He never imagined, as a kid, he would be a gambler. He has friends who went into crime to fund sneakers. “It always compromises you as a person, this need for some particular pair, to look ‘presentable’.”
Still, there was still something special about shoes. Something related to the reason disadvantaged black people cared for them decades ago. Putting on a new pair of shoes changes us. It forces us into the gait and the behaviour of the kind of person, perhaps, we’d like to be. It acts as a kind of inanimate coach for people who aren’t Jordan or LeBron and don’t have stupendously-paid human coaches to help them live their best lives.
“Your walk becomes different in new shoes,” Moss tells me. “You change the way you behave, ‘cause you don’t want to damage them. You literally start to inhabit the body of someone who can afford to have different priorities. You can’t climb across a pile of sand in new Air Force Ones.”
Piles of sand, dust, and trash characterise Soweto. But in new sneakers, Moss is forced not only to experience himself differently, but his ‘hood, too. He has to act like someone for whom shoes can be art. Like someone not chained to the desperate bottom tier of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but someone given the opportunity to take care of something beautiful.
He used to customise sneakers with markers. That meant he couldn’t wash them, which meant he really had to avoid the dust. He had to look for places in his neighbourhood that already resembled the world he wanted to live in, and become more attentive to its existing beauty: its solid, well-cared-for paths, the areas without trash and dust, and the fresh grass sprouting, improbably, through the muddy patches.
Featured in Sole Magazine Event Edition 2018. Available in select retailers in the region including Amongst Few, FRAME and participating brands including adidas, Reebok and PUMA.
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