Strutting down the streets of South Africa, a band of dashingly dressed migrants proudly display their loud and colorful subculture in a place that can be less than welcoming to outsiders.
It’s a particularly grim August afternoon in Parow, a dilapidated industrial suburb north of Cape Town. The usually busy streets are deserted, the sky is bruised and the winds kick up litter as a storm rolls in from the Hottentots Holland Mountains to the east.
But inside Nandi’s Bar celebrations of the Republic of Congo’s Independence Day are just warming up. The venue is hot, dark and windowless, and the fast, lilting rhythms of Congolese rumba are cranked up too loud for the aging, distorting speakers. For the almost exclusively Congolese clientele that are cocooned in here, the illusion of “home” is virtually uninterrupted by the rather hostile world outside.
There are only men on the dance floor; some have their national flag wrapped around their shoulders like a cape and all visibly take pride in the way they move their hips to the music. The women look on silently from the sidelines, vaguely interested at best.
But the dramatic entrance of Ulrich Christoph (stage name Eau Potable, or “drinking water”) suddenly has them sitting up straighter and muttering excitedly. His suit ensemble matches the colors of the Congolese flag: a bright green jacket, red pants and tie, yellow shirt and handkerchief. Accessories include a silver tie clip, a watch almost as large as his face and wayfarer sunglasses.
Christoph swaggers across the room and makes sure to take a seat at a table where everyone can see him. Knees splayed, shoulders forward and elbows on his thighs, he looks like a prizefighter waiting for his opponent to enter the ring.
At the bar behind Christoph is Prestige (stage name Prestige le Grand), well known as the most animated member of the Cape Town society of sapeurs, a collective profoundly dedicated to the movement known as La Sape, which stands for Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, or “The Society of Tastemakers and Elegant Persons.” In other words, dandies.
Prestige is somewhat underdressed today in a bow tie, cardigan, black jeans and perfectly polished tassel loafers, though he reassures his friend and fellow sapeur Christoph that he has another outfit in store for later in the evening. At just a shade over five foot, what Prestige lacks in height, he makes up for in enthusiasm. His voice somehow carries above the din:
“All Congolese are sapeurs,” he says, with a closed fist banging on the bar to punctuate each word. “We were born sapeurs. Everywhere we go, we take that with us. Everywhere we go, we have to show people that we are here.”
Prestige’s words and need to be noticed are especially poignant, defiant even, in a country and city that are often so unwilling to acknowledge his place in it, where he and so many others like him are routinely pushed to the peripheries. In recent years there has been an increase in xenophobic attacks here in South Africa, against immigrants from other African countries. In April 2015, at least seven people were killed and thousands displaced in the latest wave of mass xenophobic violence to sweep across the country, motivated by the familiar refrains of “they’re all criminals,” “they take our jobs,” or, less frequently, “they take our men/women.”
But Prestige certainly isn’t about to go into hiding, and his combative remarks in many ways speak to the very core of La Sape. From its origins in the Bacongo district of the Republic of Congo’s capital Brazzaville in the aftermath of World War I, right through to the furthest flung corners of the contemporary Congolese diaspora, La Sape has always encapsulated a certain kind of flamboyant public protest through fashion.
Back in the 1920s, with anti-colonial movements on the rise across Africa, appropriating and redefining the finest European couture, high manners and impeccable personal hygiene became a way for Congolese to defy ingrained charges of inferiority leveled at them by their French and Belgian colonial masters.
In recent years, the persistence of La Sape on both sides of the Congo River — most notably in Brazzaville and Kinshasa, the capital of neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo — is often seen as a flagrant refusal to be defined by the poverty, hardship and disempowerment that characterize the everyday environment of most Congolese citizens.
But a strong predilection for peace is as essential to La Sape as the clothing, the manners and the protest. As the region descended into decades of bloody civil war and instability, many sapeurs, along with droves of their countrymen, decided they had no choice but to jump ship.
Among the thousands of fleeing Congolese to set their sights on post-apartheid South Africa was Blanchard Kouelany, who arrived in Cape Town in 2002. He claims to be the first bona fide sapeur to have set up in the city, though others weren’t far behind. It is sometimes said that the Congolese are “un peuple qui bouge” — a people that move. Similarly, La Sape is a group whose history is intrinsically linked to movement — to migration, to constant redefinition. It was, then, a ready and willing travel companion.
La Sape helped people deprived of their territory to gain a sense of belonging in an otherwise foreign and liminal space. As Gur Mouanga, a local organizer of sapeur events, puts it, “all people are identified by their culture and it is normal for a person to feel proud of their origins or culture by asserting it wherever they find themselves. La Sape is one of the elements through which the Congolese express their identity. It brings us all together.”
Back in Nandi’s, Blanchard (stage name Blanco Bilamba le Koraman, which has no easy English translation) draws on his substantial experience and is the last member of the society to arrive for today’s Independence Day celebrations. This should ensure that the bar has had plenty of time to fill, maximizing audience numbers for his grand entrance.
But on this occasion his plan backfires. By the time he enters in beige chinos, matching waistcoat and hat, sunset orange suit jacket and gloves, all rounded off with a $600 pair of brogue shoes, many of the revelers have already taken themselves off to bed.
* * *
It’s a month on from Independence Day and Blanchard is late again. He took a little too long pressing his pants and missed his bus into the city, so he had to call a friend for a lift. He steps out of the battered Fiat Punto and brushes himself off. Unbeknownst to the bystanders who stop and stare at him with a mixture of awe and bemusement, he’s dressed in the same outfit he wore on Independence Day.
Back in Brazzaville, this would be an unforgivable faux pas, but good quality clothing is hard to come by here in South Africa, Blanchard says in self-defense, while the cost of having it posted from overseas is a further obstacle.
At the entrance to the Industry Bar, the Congolese doorman takes issue with Blanchard’s cane. He’s particularly concerned that the sharp beak of the cane’s bronze eagle decoration could be used as a dangerous weapon.
Blanchard patiently explains that he is president of the Cape Town Society of Sapeurs. “I don’t like violence. I can’t ever like violence. We sapeurs spread the message of peace. We love peace.” He seems somewhat shocked to have to reassure a fellow countryman, but the doorman is young, and perhaps left Congo before he came to understand how things work for the sapeurs.
Eventually, the manager — also Congolese and several decades older and wiser — arrives and reprimands his doorman for having tried to take the cane away from Blanchard. “That’s part of his style,” he says to the doorman. “It’s important for him.” Blanchard enters with the cane.
Seated inside, Blanchard opens a portfolio he has brought and proudly shows off a few clippings from local newspaper and magazine articles about him, as well as photos of him “in costume” at an event hosted by the French ambassador to South Africa, and certificates for winning various local sapeur “championships.”
With a sad smile, Blanchard looks at all the memorabilia laid out in front of him and says, “My wife always says ‘yes, so everyone knows you now, but we are still poor.’ She is tired.”
Even after all these years in South Africa, Blanchard continues to struggle to make a living in Cape Town’s informal security sector, which provides some kind of employment for the majority of Congolese in South Africa. Military background, a lack of recognized qualifications, a less than perfect command of English and questionable immigration status all play a role in the ever-growing prevalence of Congolese in this sector.
“We do certain kinds of work in spite of ourselves,” Blanchard says. “There’s no choice. It’s not the kind of work that we really want to do. But you have to live. If you cross your arms and say ‘no,’ you can’t live. Life isn’t easy in South Africa. You need to be strong-willed and have a lot of courage.”
Currently, Blanchard is working as a “car guard” at a local shopping mall in the sleepy northern suburb of Melkbosstrand, where he watches over people’s cars while they shop, in return for small tips. He doesn’t earn any salary, and he must pay a supervisor a daily percentage of his total earnings. In a good month, working six full days a week, he might take home R5000 (about $300). His current outfit is worth more than twice that. To an outsider, it may well seem like sheer madness, and both Blanchard and other sapeurs struggle to explain their unwavering dedication beyond saying “it’s my calling,” or “it’s innate,” followed by a brief addendum acknowledging the long lines of sapeurs in their respective families. Being a sapeur is not something one does, it’s something one is, they insist. As Ulrich Christoph says, “I work as a welder to buy clothes that allow me to express who I really am, that allow me to be myself. That welder, that’s not me.”
Blanchard dreams of one day being able to make a full-time living from La Sape. After all, “it’s art, it’s like music, or like theatre,” he says. “But for it to evolve it needs people to support it, it needs patrons or sponsors, because we don’t have the means, we can only just get by. We could do so much with La Sape. It’s possible, with the right will.”
But as it stands, Blanchard is forced to spend the vast majority of his time inhabiting a very different reality that he is reluctant to speak about. Like Christoph, he doesn’t want anyone to connect that reality to the person sitting here in all his finery, carefully shuffling his press clippings and accolades and putting them back into his leather binder. Outside the bar, before he makes his way to the bus stop to catch the last bus back home, Blanchard asks if he can borrow some money for the fare.
* * *
Blanchard had agreed to a photo shoot featuring him, Prestige le Grand and Eau Potable. But for the next six weeks the shoot is repeatedly postponed. Cedric (stage name Maillot Jaune, “yellow jersey,”) one of the oldest members of the Cape Town Society of Sapeurs, has fallen terminally ill and cannot afford either the required hospital treatment or a ticket home to Congo to spend his last days with his family. After two weeks in the hospital, he dies.
Blanchard and the rest of the society want to return his body to Congo, but there are various complications. The dead man’s family does not have enough money to have the body sent home. Blanchard and some of the others put in extra work hours or put some of their meagre savings towards a collective donation from the society.
The deceased sapeur’s homecoming is then further delayed by an eruption of violent protests across Congo in response to authoritarian president Denis Sassou Nguesso’s move to alter the country’s constitution. The changes allow him to stand for a third official term and extend his total years in office to well beyond three decades. Scores of protesters are killed in state crackdowns and all local Internet and telephone networks are blocked.
Eventually, a fragile peace returns and Cedric goes home.
On the day of the photo shoot, the weather isn’t playing along and Eau Potable has canceled while Prestige le Grand has vanished altogether. So Blanchard has enlisted the services of a new sapeur on the block who goes by the name of “Kid.” Affirming his credentials, Kid says: “When I was a child I would cry to my mother to buy me only the finest trousers. I started La Sape when I was six years old.” Kid is currently unemployed and has to borrow money from his European girlfriend to buy clothes.
The two sapeurs put on a good show despite the wind and rain, stamping their feet in-between an occasional skip or missed step, pulling provocative and sometimes plain ridiculous faces, biting down or puffing on unlit cigars, flapping their jacket lapels to flash the designer labels and pulling up their pant legs to reveal their socks and shoes. Whenever there is a pause in shooting, Blanchard and Kid repeatedly lament the weather and its effect on both their performance and the audience. But the response from the occasional smattering of South African onlookers is overwhelmingly positive, and this hints at another function of La Sape in the South African context: it can help to win over the locals and differentiate the sapeurs from the homogeneous masses of “foreigners,” and thereby the accompanying negative stereotypes evoked by many South Africans.
As Blanchard puts it: “Generally all people like to see someone that is well-dressed. There is nothing wrong with that — it’s good. You have this demonstration of peace and gaiety — it creates a good atmosphere. Then South Africans might protect me during eruptions of violence against foreigners because they like to see us dressed like this.”
At the end of the shoot, there is time for a quick beer at Jamaica Me Crazy on Roodebloem Road before everyone makes the long journey back to the suburbs. When the Congolese doorman spots Blanchard and Kid approaching, he jumps up and bows before the two sapeurs, shaking their hands effusively, as if he were meeting the Queen. It’s a strange sight — he’s almost double their height.
He ushers them toward the best table in the house and says again and again, like a stuck record, “I’m so happy, I’m so grateful. I’m so happy, I’m so grateful.” Ever the consummate professionals, Blanchard and Kid take it all in their stride.
* * *
It’s a Saturday afternoon six weeks later and Blanchard is on duty in the car park. It’s the end of the month, just after payday for most South Africans, and the shopping center is particularly busy. Blanchard has to run back and forth to greet the arriving cars and ensure the departing ones don’t leave before he’s got his tip. In his cheap, plain uniform and yellow high visibility vest, he’s almost unrecognizable, while his demeanor too is markedly changed. He’s diffident, unimposing, unremarkable. Some drivers fail to even see him as they reverse out of their spaces and pull away without leaving a tip. He looks after them and says simply “life — it’s like that.”
A little after eight p.m. Blanchard calls it a day, pays the supervisor his cut and takes the short bus ride home to his wife and child. The family shares a room in a small three-bedroom house. In the other two rooms sleep seven Zimbabweans and a South African. Blanchard’s wife, slouched across the half-collapsed sofa, doesn’t look up from the television as she greets her returning husband. Blanchard goes upstairs to find his son Nathan and brings him down to introduce himself.
Nathan was born and raised in South Africa, speaks only English and has no first-hand knowledge of his parents’ home country, but even after all these years, Blanchard remains steadfast in his conviction that he and his family will one day return to a peaceful Congo. Blanchard stares at a patch of damp on the living room wall and says, “When there is peace, there is La Sape.”
* * *
Christopher Clark is a British writer and wanderer based in Cape Town. He has twice been featured as one of South Africa’s best young writers by The Big Issue magazine.