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SWENKAS

SWENKAS

One of the joys of being a South African and living amongst the wonderful diversity of cultures is the opportunity to be exposed to different expressions and insights into practices with which we are unfamiliar.

While I had read lots about them and had had discussions with both photographer TJ Lemon (who had documented them extensively many years ago), as well as Robyn Orlin (who had choreographed pieces with them), I was excited to have met three extraordinary Swenkas (Adolphueus, Sethu and Vusi) at a recent exhibition at the FADA Gallery at the University of Johannesburg.

 

Swenkas are usually working-class Zulu men who participate in amateur competitions that are part fashion show and part choreography, the purpose of which is to display one’s style and sense of attitude. The practice - called ‘swenking’ - ultimately derives from the English word ‘swank’. (ref: Wikipedia) These well-dressed men are proud and considered to serve as an inspiration to others. Frequently, on Saturday nights they meet up to compete in a fashion show of sorts. The Swenkas are judged both on what they are wearing (typically, expensive designer suits with well-known European names on their labels) and their choreographed movements (their 'swank'). There is an entrance fee to compete in these swank-offs and the winner of the night goes home with a portion of the money collected from the competitors. The men follow certain set values of swanking; such as physical cleanliness, sobriety and above all self-respect. The values that the Swenkas uphold are values that form the backbone of any society and embrace our humanity. If we respect ourselves, we will respect others and in this way add value to society. I was inspired to know that Vusi’s sons are following in their father’s footsteps and his daughter, while not able to be a Swenka, has a style of her own. It was also gratifying for me to see that in the group there were older as well as younger men, and this means that this fabulous tradition will be carried forward. I remember when my Grandmother came to visit us from Bloemfontein when I was young, one of the highlights of her visit was to take us downtown to have tea at the big department stores like Ansteys or John Orrs. This ritual meant that - with elegance and grace - she put on her smart dress, handbag, gloves as well as a hat which had travelled in its hat box, and then was ready to go out to tea. The world has changed and this is no longer common place and therefore, for me, it was a call back to the past and I am happy that there are still these pockets of elegance and grace. Long may they continue.

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