Why are these young men turned out like English gents? Lin Sampson looks at the amakrwala culture of dress and initiation — and finds few answers
Vuyo Ndiki walks down the street. He is wearing a checked cap, a velvet jacket, Prince of Wales striped trousers and black-and-white matinee idol shoes. The street is full of smartly dressed men, but Ndiki stands out. There is something distinct about him and it is this difference that, over the years, has often caught my eye and baffled me.
Who are these young men who seem to come out at certain times of the year, like flocks of migratory birds, striding the streets in small posses? Once I saw a bunch of them all wearing tweed jackets and caps in the Eastern Cape. They looked like a group of Scottish golfers.
In my ignorance I thought the clothing was just another youthful trend. I later discovered they are amakrwala, new Xhosa initiates who are required to adhere to a strict dress code after initiation for a period of six months.
Ndiki is an interior design student at Peninsula University of Technology. He comes from a small village in the Eastern Cape and bought his clothes in Port Alfred and his black and white svelte laceups in Grahamstown.
He tells me: “It is our culture, you come from the bush and you have to wear certain clothes that look formal. You are not allowed to show your arms or legs, you have to be covered, only your face is open.
“Today I am sweating but I cannot remove my jacket. When you dress like this everyone knows you have been through something special and you have gained the respect of your elders. You have changed from a boy to a man. Sometimes older men will come up and congratulate me. Normally I would wear shorts and a T-shirt.”
The process of initiation is not cheap. Ndiki, 19, saved up for three years.
“The whole thing cost me about R16 000. I worked and my family helped. My brother and cousin chipped in. Luckily my father has eight siblings so there were a lot of people willing to help. My mother, who is a teacher, was particularly keen that I go through initiation.
“She always had great pride in me and she wanted me to gain the respect of the people. If you aren’t initiated you don’t get that respect. You are isolated and there are certain ceremonies, like a wedding, that as someone not initiated you would not be allowed to attend. It’s important to do it properly. If you have a feast afterwards and you don’t have food and drink, people will talk. A lot of people get into debt.”
Ndiki believes it has brought about a sea change in his life: “It has changed me inside. It has made me closer to my family. I have the feeling I am really a man and a man has many responsibilities.”
The amakrwala dress code is strictly laid down. A hat is essential, a checked tweed cap is the most popular. But in a society ravaged by labels, other caps have now become popular — Louis Vuitton caps with silver embroidery.
According to a Xhosa colleague, different hats denote different regions. Some ikrwala wear panama straw hats or wide-brimmed black hats. The more fastidious young men have a handkerchief, folded in a triangle, in their top pocket. Trousers are usually khaki and jeans can be worn only if they are neatly ironed. Shoes should be lace-ups, although smart loafers are tolerated.
The top button of your shirt must be done up. A blazer is essential but this has quite a wide interpretation: some are corduroy, some velvet or suede, some checked to match the cap and some sport velvet smoking jackets.
Sivenkosi Dyafta, who is studying food technology at the Peninsula University of Technology, for example, is wearing a chestnutcoloured corduroy jacket which he refers to as a blazer. His wardrobe did not come cheaply — the blazer cost R450, the cap R150, Levi’s shirt R300 and Dakota shoes R400.
He feels every cent has been worth it. “Apart from the clothes, I have to buy blankets and food and drink for the ceremonies. The aim of initiation is to leave our boyhood behind and become gentlemen. We are seeking dignity and it is important to dress like a gentleman. During this time we must be very polite. We cannot behave badly and we cannot go to shebeens.”
They all have big dreams. Siyasanga Madasa, who is studying food and nutrition, wants to work in a corporate organisation or start his own business. He is wearing a lavender jacket. How does he feel about himself? “I feel I will gain respect from my friends. In a way it’s a big relief but it’s wonderful as well. Now you are a man you do feel different. You are ready to take on the responsibilities of a family.”
All tribal initiates wear different clothes, often blankets teamed with a hat, but the young Xhosa men are distinct. Even if their jobs require them to wear overalls, they wear the gentleman’s outfit underneath.
Many stores cater for amakrwala. Chicano’s in Bellville has the atmosphere of an old-style men’s outfitters and is a monument to the initiation rite. Here you can find jackets in plaids, checks and stripes hanging from the ceiling and one whole wall is filled with head gear, caps in different tweeds, tartan tam-o’-shanters, small trilbies with chained bands and larger fedoratype hats with fake tiger-skin bands. A centre counter groans under every kind of khaki trouser.
The owner of the shop, who didn’t want to be named, says: “Khaki used to be the thing but that has changed. These are English gentleman’s clothes. We used to carry the Pringle label but no longer. The amakrwala usually buy on lay-by, putting aside money for months.
“Years ago when a young ikrwala came in, he was very humble and his mother or father did the talking. Now they have their own ideas about what they want to wear. I’ve tried for a long time to find out why they wear these particular clothes, and they are very specific, but nobody seems to know. I think it must have started with the missionaries but I’m not sure.”
There has always been a tradition of immaculate dressing among African men. Pictures taken by Drum photographer Jurgen Schadeberg of black men, often miners, in the ’50s, reveal a dandyism with slouch caps and black-and-white lace-up shoes.
Trying to find out why these men of Africa wear clothes that look more suited to an English village wasn’t easy. “It is just our culture,” was repeated again and again.
I spoke to anthropologists and historians at the regional universities. No one had any idea and it became a bit like pass the parcel. But Manton Hirst, head of humanities at Amathulo Museum in King William’s Town, was loquacious.
“I suspect that the prototype of this look is that of a Xhosa man in the late 19th or early 20th century; a typical rural type of bloke would have worn khaki trousers and a coat and a hat like a farmer. The Xhosa have a great antipathy to the British. The British gave them a few fisticuffs to put them in their place and it still rankles today.
“I doubt they would want to look like Englishmen. The survival of all of this in the 21st century is nothing more than an expression of black nationalism. If you ask a Xhosa, he will say ‘it is our culture’. They hold up these things as being unchanged and unbroken but they are very changed and broken.”
Andile Mhlahlo, a student at Rhodes who is writing his PhD on Xhosa initiation, says it could be based on the ideal of what a gentleman should look like. “Once, a long time ago, we’d have worn skins but through modernisation we wear these gentleman’s clothes. My grandfather and father did the same: it is a link with the past.”
The origins might remain uncertain but one thing is certain: the option of staying uncircumcised is impractical for a Xhosa man.
First published in the SUNDAY TIMES newspaper on 11 April, 2010.