The Braam of Black Cool: Braamfontein Youth And Their Refusal To Be Unseen

It is 15h30 on a Wednesday at Daleahs in Braam. The place is full. In Cape Town, I reckon, this would be regarded as loud, but here it is just what it is – it’s called being alive. Being in Braamfontein, especially for a writer of my particular sensibilities, is not unlike stepping inside a big Nike commercial. Everything here is possible and everyone has the balls to “Just do it” – whatever ‘it’ may be. This, strangely enough, is why I keep coming back every time I find myself in Joburg. Whereas in my city – Cape Town – one finds this weird obsession with Eurocentric decorum in ones personal expression led by a fascist narcissistic Nordic Hipsterism, what one finds in Braam’s youth culture is an unpredictable, yet refined cool – black cool.  If Cape Town cool is about veneration of imported Western Hipsterism, young people in Braam seem to reach into the centre of that very hipsterism with open minds and break it in parts; the result is something not quite as aesthetically organised – it is almost menacing.

This reminds me of Toure’s book ‘Who’s afraid of post-blackness?’ In one of the chapters he speaks about there being many ways of being black and that if there were, say, 50 black people in a room, there would be 50 ways of being black, as well. One could say, then, that the creative expression of young people in Braamfontein is a cocktail of blackness.  If the French cultural theorist, Pierre Bourdieu, proposes that class positions are discernible by taste and distinction within a hierarchical structure, then Braam youth would be a terrifying contradiction for it challenges the very notion of there being a hierarchy in culture and the so called cultural values espoused by such formalist thinking.  I will put forward, here, that what has happened and is happening in Braam is not so much a protest of the established systems of culture, it is the negation of them so that Braam’s youth can express itself without the overbearing siblings of the Western and, especially, European cultural tradition, even the new age ones. So, where it fits the purpose of the collective imagination of the young creatives in Braam they will borrow from Western cultural artifacts (they are, after all, the Instagram generation), not as venerated ideals but only as artifacts that are in service of something they own, something more nebulous and more nuanced than even the Jazz era of Sophiatown’s 50s, which clearly fashioned itself after F. Scott Fitzgerald 1920s New York  jazz era.

I guess this sense of elusiveness has something do with Joburg being many parts moving at once. If in Mark Gevisser’s memoir ‘Lost and found in Johannesburg’ the historic and present spatial boundaries are still intact to one degree or the other, in Braam the youth utilise the body and how it experiences itself in space in entirely unbounded ways and to sidestep those very structural formulations. I’ve sat and drank and watched and saw that the reality of being young and black within this capitalist conundrum of violence is to live in the present. And the present is very much attached to one’s blood and flesh.

In Braam, that blood and flesh exists first as a body, unlike in Cape Town where it hinges itself of economic capital, race and class. White kids in Cape Town’s  Kloof and Bree Streets only wish they could live as presently as the youth in Braam. Even the blacks of Sandton might find this urgency discomforting, for Braam youth seem to have accepted the structural formation within which they exist, namely, that they are the servant class in the country of their birth. By accepting this fact they begin to own their blackness in ways that their upwardly mobile siblings in the north of Joburg can’t even fathom. Where interactions in the more affluent suburbs of Joburg are mitigated by a bit of bling, Braam interacts with bodily immediacy. Umswenko is not just another fashion iteration, it is bound to the history of the black servant who served (and still does) under the worst human conditions, whose body is an essay on the historic and the present violence that is experienced by black people in this country since before the 1913 Land Act, which coagulated their dispossession.

Umswenko is not an escape or a cultural fad, it is an inward dip, deep inside the language of struggle and violence, of dispossession and despair. Umswenko speaks to the manufacturing and the reduction of black bodies into units of cheap labour labour whose only existence would be for capital exploitation, which is what one must accept as one of the most crucial moments in the erasure of black lives from the face of this country. The bold, bright colours of Umswenko are, quite deliberately, a refusal to be unseen in the similar way that the big expensive car and other markers of privilege are utilized by the blacks in the north of Johannesburg.

As I’ve noted above, Umswenko is in many ways is a language of urban struggle and  nothing can be more menacing to those whose idea of social currency is hinged upon the accrual of economic capital. So, yes, Braam is a big chunk of “Just do it” and for disenfranchised black youth squished into a corner by a shrinking economy and a youth unemployment rate that sits somewhere close to 60%, it is the sort of space that will shape South African culture and show us what is truly possible if we all try not to escape what it means to be black.

Illustration by Pola Maneli

Originally appeared in the Sunday Times Lifestyle Magazine*


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