In South Africa, when the country was still in the grip of apartheid, men from the nation's rural areas often journeyed to the cities in search of work. Hoping to impress the families they left behind, the men would often buy stylish new suits for their visits back home, and practice looking slick for their friends and neighbors. Over time, this behavior evolved into a practice called "swenking," in which working-class South Africans would meet on a regular basis for competitions in which they would see who could put together the best-looking outfit, and who knew how to move best in it. Swenking is a hobby that still exists today in South Africa, and The Swenkas is a documentary which looks at both the past and present of this curious blend of fashion and sport, as filmmaker Jeppe Ronde explores the history of swenking as well as profiling the son of the leader of a group of swenkas who is contemplating joining in the place of his late father.
~ Mark Deming, All Movie Guide
At the shows, they’re judged for their outfits, their attention to detail, and the little moves they do to call notice to both. It’s real flourishy. The winner takes a cut of the door fee, which is generally a fraction of the cost of one suit. At Christmas in Durban, all the local swenking organizations get together for the finals and name the swenkiest guy in all South Africa.
Because most swenkas earn about $400 a month and a top-end tailored suit costs about $1,200, they buy clothes on layaway, spending like a year visiting a suit in the shop and making little homeopathic payments on it, dreaming about it at night. Basically, all that My Beautiful Laundrette, Horatio Alger stuff is in full effect, minus the gayness and the wealthy relatives on the one hand and America and rising up on the other.
It is about dreams, friends.
On special occasions such as Christmas, the best swenking is rewarded with a live goat or a cow on a leash
There's even a Sapeurs vs. Swenkas group on Facebook for those who cannot reconcile the idea of two separate groups of distinctly attired, sartorially-minded men of African descent
The Swenkas strike me as a more charismatic movement: their silhouettes and colours are more considered; their love of hats more harmonious; their fondness for the 1980s more personally resonant; their personae more enticingly ludic
And they dance. That's rather an important characteristic for those who dress with refined abandon