Peacocks of Parow

The Congolese Fashion Cult Known as La Sape Nears its South African Tipping Point

I’ve found it hard to write about the Congolese fashion cult called La Sape (Societe des Africains pour des Personnes Elegantes, or African Society of Elegant People) 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 my desk daily. The problem is, as far as the earth-raking international media is concerned, sape isold news—almost ten years ago the BBC made a documentary about soukous musician 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 Zairean 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, Gentlemen of Bakongo: The Importance of Being Elegant by Daniele Tamagni. It was to the existence of this book that the New York editor of Vice Magazine bluntly pointed when I suggested that the appearance of the sape in South Africa might make a good story. Very uncool to follow journalistically in the wake of décor literature, apparently.

But perhaps I did not press upon him strongly enough the fact that, 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, Mozambicans, Angolans, Rwandese and Burundians, to name only the most prodigious sources of migration. A contracting economy and labour market, combined with the strictures of Refugee and Temporary Asylum Permits, has ensured that most immigrants survive at the grizzled end of informal economy, guarding cars, driving illegal taxis and running spaza shops—enterprises which remunerate between R1000pm, in the case of car guards, and R5000pm, 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 R8000pm (hospitality industry, season dependent), and R1800 and R3500pm (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).

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.’ Josèphe, one of a handful of DR Congo 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 Versace or Lacoste.’

Participation in the competition-stroke-celebration proceeded in an informal fashion, and seemed largely dependent on how many people happened 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 a dire tout est la.’ (la sape is an art. Nothing to say, everything on display.) Gervais, aka libérateur, tossed his fuchsia tie over a large briar pipe and mumbled, ‘mes vetements ce ne sont pas des marques deposes, ce ne sont pas marques de Chinois, regarde la cravate c’est du Pierre Cardin, les couleurs sont la bien respectees,’ 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-Mouanga, 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.’ 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 accommodation 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 fusion dish of Cassava leaves, grilled tilapia and potato salad was served by a handful of women, virtually the only females at the event. The gender disparity is noteworthy. Certainly there has been a much larger influx of male Congolese to South Africa than female. And as to the absence of South African women, several of the sapeurs suggested that Congolese men simply do not regard them as being 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.’ A Kinshasa-bred 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 linguistics 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 the 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.’