Urban politics: thrifting in Jozi

Mpumelelo Mfula organises Babatunde gear at his RHTC stall at The Grove Market in Braamfontein

Mpumelelo Mfula organises Babatunde gear at his RHTC stall at The Grove Market in Braamfontein

On Sunday mornings, while most people go to church, inner-city Jozi becomes a refuge for urban youth looking for spaces to express themselves.

The Grove Market in Braamfontein turns into a platform where urban cool kids like Mpumelelo Mfula and Andile Jila meet to further their cause.  Vintage print jackets and tweed pencil skirts constitute their voice of protest – affordability and exclusivity providing them with a weapon against urban consumerism.

Thrift shopping or “thrifting”, as it is commonly called, is the art of finding one-of-a-kind items of clothing at markets and buying them for next to nothing.

A stall owner, who would give her name only as S’ponono, sees thrifting as her way of sharing her sense of style with the world. While doing her regular price negotiations she said: “I just feel like, if I’ve seen a piece for too long, I have to give it away.”

This is at the centre of thrifting culture – the sharing of exclusive items with people who share your passion for being different.

While profit is not the main goal, thrifters benefit from the income they make. Andile Jila, 1st year BA, uses the money he makes from thrifting to pay his fees.

“I’m paying the NSFAS interest, I buy my own books and I have to live. I’m surviving, though. Girls love clothes.”

Thrift stores have evolved from selling women’s clothing only, to becoming mini-department stores in their own right.

Bright African wax print bow ties and colourful clutch bags are some signature Babatunde brand items sold by Mfula, who started wearing the bright hats and matching ‘90s style sweaters when he was a Witsie years ago.

“It all started from varsity culture and wanting to be unique. I started wearing certain things before they were popular and that became my form of expression.”

Mfula, who has an honours degree in Politics, admits that thrifting is an unusual career choice for a graduate.

“People always say: ‘You have two degrees, you could do so much with that’, and I could be, but I’d be dying on the inside. I believe I’m part of a movement of urban politics.

“About five years ago we would take our money and spend it at the malls. Now our money stays in these circles and we benefit from our culture by developing an economy. It’s quite progressive.”

Asked if he felt the money from thrifting could sustain him long-term, Mfula admitted the average person would not think so but that it was good enough for the lifestyle he preferred – a “humble” one.

Mfula plans to grow his online store and one day develop pop-up stores around the country. “I want to promote the street culture that comes with thrifting and have stores for a few months in different spaces.”

He said it was important to remember that living with purpose wasn’t easy. “I’m building from the ground up and taking a stand in what I feel is an urban politics.”

 

buyisiwe@witsvuvuzela.com

Cool but costly

Cool but costly

It may look cool, but graffiti is costing Wits University tens of thousands of rands every year.

The removal of graffiti cost the university R88 000 in 2011, up from R38 000 the previous year.

According to Grounds Manager Andries Norval, American films glamorising graffiti have influenced Wits students.

Norval said it is easy to paint over graffiti on a white wall. But with a lot of Wits buildings, the colour is in the plaster, so painting doesn’t work and the patchwork can always be seen.

“You can sandblast if off… using sand that is sprayed under pressure…but if you do it on surfaces like wood and marble, you actually damage the building.”

Visible patchwork where painters have tried to cover unauthorised tags on the walls of the Umthombo Building. Photo: Hazel Meda

 

“Proper graffiti is a work of art.”

Norval made a distinction betweengraffiti and “the squiggles they call tagging”.

“Proper graffiti is a work of art. If it’s done with the proper permission and in the right places, I’ve got no problem with it.”

He pointed out that Wits has a few designated graffiti zones, such as the pedestrian tunnel between East and West Campus, where students can paint without consequences as long as the material is not offensive to anyone.

Clarifying what is and is not allowed, Norval said: “Definitely not political. Definitely not religious. And definitely not contentious.”

Vuvuzela asked Norval what he would say to taggers who argue that the university is curtailing their freedom of expression by restricting them to designated areas.

He replied: “Ask him: if I paint on his car that is parked in a public space…would he like that? Yes or no? And does he not think this money could be better spent on better teaching facilities or fixing lecture venues or even library books?”

Campus Control officer Aaron Ngcongolo agreed: “It’s not good, because this thing is making the place untidy.”

Sharni Hart, an honours marketing student, said: “It’s a campus and it should be kept neat and clean. You can express yourself in another way. You don’t need to write all over campus.”

Graffiti depicting President Jacob Zuma. The tunnel between East and West Campus is one of the designated graffiti zones at Wits. Photo: Hazel Meda

“A youthful feel”

Several students expressed their appreciation for the graffiti in the designated zones.

As he walked past the colourful murals in the pedestrian tunnel connecting East and West Campus, 1st year economic science student Tarrin Skeepers said: “This is one of my favourite spots at Wits. Period. Because I just love the artwork. I just love the creativity.”

Ngoni Goba, a 1st year LLB student said: “It gives the university a youthful feel.”

Norval could not speak about the situation at other universities in South Africa, except to say that he visited the Soweto Campus of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and saw no graffiti there. The UJ officials he spoke to told them that they do not have a problem with graffiti.

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