French style flourishes on the high street

Passing sewage pipes and vendors selling chicken feet on the busy sidewalks of Rockey Street, ‘Ace’ Nsiala walks by in his Versace suit and Givenchy shoes into the local Congolese pub at Kin-Malebo pub. The Congolese father and husband is a member of the La Sape – a league of extraordinary gentlemen living in Yeoville who don’t allow circumstance to determine their fate.

Ace wears a silver watch and a look of nonchalance as he walks into Rue Du Faubourg, a boutique in Yeoville. He nearly bumps his head on an aerial that hangs loosely from the television set and throws it a look of disapproval.The store has a Parisian theme, with ornate gold mirrors and two armchairs fit for a king, but the bunny chow that sits on the counter reminds you that you’re in Yeoville.

Ace (pronounced A-say) plays with his silver-and-black ring embossed with the Dolce & Gabbana logo. Beneath the ring is a small tattoo that looks like it was done in someone’s backroom. His eyes wander the fashionable boutique and glance out at the busy street where grilled mealies and chicken feet are being sold.

“I’m wearing Zara pants and Versace jacket,” says Ace in English with undertones of a French accent. Ace is part of the Congolese fashion movement called La Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elégantes (The Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People) but more well known as La SapeThey are also known as dandies – men obsessed with personal appearance and flamboyant dress style, who wear exaggerated looks of careful indifference.

The movement was born from the two Congos, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the smaller Congo Republic. The two are also known as Congo-Kinshasa and Congo-Brazzaville respectively. Sapologie is the official title given to its members, who are called Sapeur.

The true religion of fashion

GIVENCHY FOR THE MEN: Member of La Sape, Basunga “Ace” Nsiala (30) wears a Givenchy cap and chains while waiting to meet other members at the local Congolese pub Kin-Malebo. Photo: Palesa Tshandu

To some people, the culture of La Sape is like a religion. It is like a prophet, a Sapeur a disciple. So a Sapeur is an apostle … A Sapeur is a student – a person who is entering into the kingdom,” says Robert Kalombo, a Congolese casting agent, who is familiar with the culture. He sees their relationship with clothing as a kind of marriage.“La Sape is a movement, but is a religion for young people. Young people base it on their out-set [appearance].”

Indeed they seem ever-present in the neighbourhood. Usually they wear normal street clothes: t-shirts and jeans, indistinguishable from the masses buying tomatoes and dried fish on the cracked pavements of Yeoville. Only a hint of flair emerges when these men pair their “layman” clothing with branded shoes or belts.

La Sape showcase their clothes in local pubs and restaurants. The Yeoville variety come from poor, working-class backgrounds but save their small salaries to buy expensive clothes and take part in fashion competitions.“It’s our culture,” says Lucien Baheta, sitting in the Congolese barbershop on Yeoville’s main thoroughfare, Rockey Street. While not one of La Sape himself, Baheta understands the culture and says he takes his influence from them. “When God made the world he gave the intelligence to the mlungu [white person] to sew the clothes, and he gave us the gift, us Congolese of Kinshasa, to wear those clothes.”

Ace is one of these working men, always looking to hustle a little more money to buy clothing. Both he and his cousin, also part of La Sape, frequent Rue Du Faubourg in their search for elegant clothing. Standing at the counter of the boutique, his cousin nudges him and asks about the interview: “Will they give you money?”

“Are you going to be paying me for doing this?” Ace asks and wears a look of disappointment when he hears the answer. Ace doesn’t go into much detail about how he earns his living, saying only that he works in Randburg “fixing white people’s aerials”. He is also coy about how he pays for his expensive clothes, simply saying that he gets them from his brother in Europe.

The “Ace” of all spades 

He moved from Kinshasa in 2008 and is one of many Congolese to come to South Africa, fleeing war or poverty, in search of a better life. Yeoville’s large Congolese community makes it easier to adopt cultural practices like La Sape, according to Kalombo.

Jean-Pierre Lukamba, vice-chairman of the African Diaspora Forum (ADF), says the Congolese are one of the largest foreign communities in Yeoville and La Sape are a big part of that community. “In South Africa, the capital of the Congo is Yeoville, the capital of the Sapeur is also in Yeoville.”

Lukamba also compares La Sape to a religion – but one that costs a lot of money. “The problem is that sapologie is like a religion. They got also the followers, and they got the newcomers you are growing like that – you can become like a bishop [but] you can’t not have a car, nice house or nice wife.”

“When God made the world he gave the intelligence to the mlungu [white person] to sew the clothes, and he gave us the gift, us Congolese of Kinshasa, to wear those clothes.”

Though he has the clothes, Ace is still a long way from having a nice car or nice house. He lives in a block of flats a short walk from Rockey Street. Climbing the short flight of steps, he reaches deep into his pocket for a security card to swipe at the revolving gate and enters the building with cracked walls and a rusted stairwell.

The building complex is maze-like and, leading the way to his second-floor flat, Ace jokes: “I got lost a lot of times when I moved here”. He knocks at the door and waits a few minutes before a tall man wearing reading glasses and a wide smile opens the door and gestures for him to come in.

From the outside, the flat looks like a normal home, but the bedroom set up in the living room tells the story of a makeshift housing solution typical for those living in Yeoville. Ace shares the three-bedroom flat with three other families – all couples with children. He points out his room before leaving a bag of groceries in the shared kitchen.The flat has two windows and light streams in through baby-blue curtains held up with a clothes peg. Neatly arranged in the room are a bed, a fridge and a flat-screen television playing soap operas.Tidily spread out across the hardwood floors are a row of his shoes, about a dozen of them. These are just his best ones. Ace says he has more in the wardrobe. “Pull the white ones out, they’re pretty.”

The wardrobe is already open, though even if it were closed, his expensive clothing would be visible through the large cracks in the wood around the edges.Carefully laying out the clothes on his bed, Ace gives a detailed account of every item, saying the names of the designers, his eyes alight with excitement.“See, the design, it’s Gianni Vegagi,” he says, trying on the Versace blazer. Hanging on the walls are small pictures of Ace’s wife and daughter, with whom he shares the small room.

The most money Ace has won at a La Sape competition was R15,000 at a competition in Melrose Arch in 2010. “At first my woman was getting irritated by my obsession with clothing, saying, ‘You are a father now, how could you be doing these things?’ But I’m bringing the money home.” Ace points to his fridge which he bought with the money he won.“[La Sape ] started with musicians, but we realised that everyone can become part of it,” says Kalombo.

A poor man’s culture 

The first La Sape were relatively wealthy but the movement soon filtered down to working men, with the Congolese civil war tearing down class barriers. As a former colony of France, they were heavily influenced by French fashion. But ironically, Kalombo says, La Sape became a way for people to “reclaim their identities from their colonisers” by adapting the clothes to Congolese culture.

ROYAL GUARD OF SUITS: Basunga “Ace” Nsiala changes suits in the rented room that he shares with his wife and daughter. Photo: Palesa Tshandu

However, Kalombo says La Sape is not a natural fit for South Africa or for Yeoville. He says the lifestyle in Congo is more relaxed, whereas in South Africa, people must hustle to make a living. “The life standard in South Africa and the Congo is different. The cost of life is not the same, making their living is not the same.”

Run-down buildings, overcrowded flats and crime are facts of life in Yeoville. The neighbourhood has become the site of struggle for the thousands who call it home. Many are foreign nationals who entered the country illegally or just with refugee permits. As a result, Yeoville is considered a poor, migrant community.

The reality of Yeoville life, where the streets are pungent with the smell of smoked fish and sewage, is in sharp contrast to the aesthetic culture of the La Sape, who meet every Sunday at the Kin-Malebo, the local Congolese pub.

“We host [this] kind of event because, mainly us Congolese we like clothes, we like to look good, to look smart,” says Kin-Malebo manager Francis Lokake. “So back home there are such competitions and because our community is here, we just build up that idea of competing. The most smart person or the guy who gonna dress [in] expensive clothes wins.”

Meet Ace – a member of La Sape – a league of extraordinary gentlemen in Yeoville, Johannesburg.

Meet Ace – a member of La Sape – a league of extraordinary gentlemen in Yeoville, Johannesburg. By: Palesa Tshandu

A bright-green sign of an eagle marks this spot as a bit of Congo in the middle of Johannesburg. In the parking lot of the pub, an assembly of luxury cars faces the lapas, and braai smoke fills the air. The La Sape are here in force in their tailored suits, many of the men smoking cigars and raising beers with wrists decorated with expensive watches.

Those who know each other greet one another with loud roars, knocking heads from side-to-side – a traditional Congolese greeting. There is a clear divide between the La Sape “haves” and “have nots”. An elevated concrete deck overlooking the parking lot is occupied by the men with nicer suits who drove to the pub from other areas in luxury cars.

Across the parking lot, Congolese men dressed in t-shirts and jeans occupy the pool tables, placing bets as they play. They are easily distracted by the cars driving in, shooting them looks of admiration or envy. With an expression of deep respect, Ace arrives to first greet his fellow Sapeur sitting in the lapas smoking cigars. But he soon finds there’s no space for him and retreats across the parking lot to the pool table where he finds many friends.

On competition days, the parking lot becomes a stage where Sapeur showcase their clothing. Lokake says the competition days are important because that is when the large Congolese community migrates to the pub to see the Sapeur in their best clothes.“We know that we dress nicer than all other countries,” says Lokake, going on to demonstrate what a self-respecting Sapeur should wear.

“You have to marry the colours first,” he says. Winning contestants should “kill” their contenders’ outfits by wearing better colours. “You can have even very expensive clothes but I can also wear the clothes for R10 in town but if I wear them … everyone must ask: ‘Where did you get these clothes?’”

Poverty and war have defined the Congo over the past 20 years and these have often created the image people have of the region. But the culture of La Sape is a way for some Congolese men to defy their harsh circumstances with clothes and fashion. But even fashion has its limits. Sitting by the pool tables, Ace signals for Lokake to come to him but is ignored. Finally, Ace walks across the dirty parking lot in his Versace suit and Givenchy sneakers and pleads for a free drink.

“One beer please man, just one beer.”

FEATURED IMAGE: ROYAL GUARD OF SUITS: Basunga “Ace” Nsiala changes suits in the rented room that he shares with his wife and daughter. Photo: Palesa Tshandu


That’s a wrap!

QUIET ON SET! Star and producer Joe Kazadi, director Cedric Wembe and the cinematographer on set prepping for a scene for the low budget student film The Missing Link.                              Photo: Provided

QUIET ON SET! Star and producer Joe Kazadi, director Cedric Wembe and the cinematographer on set prepping for a scene for the low budget student film The Missing Piece. Photo: Provided


THE AFROPOLITAN film independently produced by Witsies is nearing completion despite its low budget. The producer says this is due to careful planning and because everybody “came to do it with their hearts”.
The Missing Piece tells the story of a Congolese man named Joe who turns to a life of crime after losing his wife and child. The film also shows the relationship he forms with a little girl whose only companion is a teddy bear. The title of the film refers to the teddy bear.
When asked why people would want to watch their film, director Cedric Wembe said, “The problems and the issues at play in the movie are problems people face not only in South Africa but everywhere else.”
Joe Kazadi, the producer and star of the film, funded most of the film using his money which he set aside especially for the production.
He said, “Everybody came to do it with their hearts, no one came for the money.”
Despite the budget, Wembe said it was the aim of the crew to use the best equipment to make the best quality film people would want to see.
Wembe said the problem with making a film in Africa is always budgeting. There is never enough money to make a film in the “African context” especially when the production does not receive funding from external funders.

“Everybody came to do it with their hearts.”

Both Kazadi and Wembe have worked professionally in television and stage productions respectively but to them The Missing Link was different.
Kazadi said, “We [were] looking for the way forward. What was the positive and what was the negative and then we decided, yeah, we’ll do that.”
According to Kazadi, compared to other productions, this film had the most planning behind it.
“With the other productions we just rushed into it, we were not prepared mentally for it. That is why it [other productions] was not a full success,” he said.
The film is currently in post-production. Kazadi is looking to premiere the film at Wits University. They chose Wits because the film is primarily a student film. Students from Wits and AFDA film school in Auckland Park came together to write and shoot it.
“Ninety-five percent of people involved or 90 percent of the people [crew] are people who come from Wits,” Kazadi said.
Wembe and Kazadi want to take their film to the Ecrans Noir film festival in Cameroon, the Fespaco film festival in Burkina Faso and a film festival in Cape Town.
The trailer for the film has been released and is available on Wembe and Kazadi’s Facebook pages respectively.