image via Jamal Nxedlana

UMSWENKO: Johannesburg’s Post Sub-cultural movement

The earliest existing use of the hashtag UMSWENKO can be found on a May. 31, 2012 photo posted by @1phiko (Phiko Mditshwa) a member of and digital co-ordinator for the rap crew Boyzn Bucks. The image posted was a screenshot of Siyabonga Ngwekazi aka “Scoop Makhathini” performing in Khaya “Bhubesii” Sibiya’s music video for the track “Members Only” (Scoop and Bhubesii also happen to be members of Boyzn Bucks). Nine hundred and two days later, the hashtag has been used over 8000 times, in what seems to be the embrace of a post-subcultural approach to the creation of youth cultural identity in South Africa’s emerging black middle-class.


Swank is an English word, which means to “display one’s wealth, knowledge or achievements in a way that is intended to impress others” (The Oxford Dictionary, 2014). It is through the appropriation of this word into the Zulu vernacular that “swenka” and #UMSWENKO have their roots.

Portrait of swenka, Adolphus Mbuyisa (photo by Jamal Nxedlana)

In the Zulu language “uswenka” is someone who is well dressed, that is the premise on, which “swenking” (the subculture) was later formed. Mr Ngubane, chairman of Iphimbo Scathamiya and Swenka Music Organisation believes that “swenka’s” were around in Johannesburg, as early as the 1920’s. He says that “swenking” had a code, “there was a way of behaving and a way of dressing”.


The latest incarnation of the English word swank, is the hashtag UMSWENKO, which shows, through its remix of the word swenka, consideration of the words historical and cultural significance. At the same time though, by remixing the word swenka it signals an attempt to assign additional meaning to it. Adding “um” as a prefix to the word swenka, changes it grammatically. It changes from verb to noun and in doing so creates a word that denotes a much broader youth cultural-identity. That identity, in its outlook is unified only by its post-modern attitude, which legitimises affiliation with many “different” identities. Everything from footwear, to clothes, rings, bags, watches, hair, the body, “combos”, dance, music, alcohol, cars, electronics, events and even work, have been hash tagged UMSWENKO. And there are no rules governing how they should be appropriated or consumed. Nor is the consumption of commodities “practiced as a strategy of resistance” as was common in subcultural movements. UMSWENKO can be understood better through post-subcultural theory, which envisages “consumption as creative process of youth style distinction” (Bennett 1999). Thats not to say though that there isn’t a predominant style underpinning the hashtag. Currently streetwear, in particular the sneaker and the bucket hat, are the most significant symbols of the trend.


Solo artist and Boyzn Bucks crew member Smiso Zwane aka Okmalumkoolkat is the embodiment of the trend. His image, impersonations of his image, as illustrations and renders populate the feed, together with images of Rikhado Makhado aka Riky Rick, another member of the Boyzn Bucks crew. If Zwane was instrumental in coining and continuing to reimagine what UMSWENKO means then Makhodo, with his mass-appeal is certainly the Reason the trend has gone viral. The release of Dj Speedsta’s track Hangout, which features a verse where Riky Rick riffs on the hook “Umswenko! rip it! Umswenko!” of upcoming Boyzn Bucks single “Umswenkofontein” coincides with the period the hashtag really began taking off.

History will credit Okmalumkoolkat for UMSWENKO as he first embedded it into popular culture in mid-2010 (before Instagram was even a thing) when he recited the lines “umswenko is a must, sidume njengesinkwa” on the LV track “Boomslang”, which was released through London based label Hyperdub. The “power of consumer images, objects and texts”, which Roberts (2007) feels “evoke heightened levels of reflexivity among youth” cannot be discounted though, as they provide valuable insight into the complex “cultural terrain” within, which the trend emerged. (Bennett, 2011).


The concept of terrain now includes the virtual realm as well, which allows identity to be constructed through posting as opposed to purchasing. UMSWENKO has also been hash tagged on other social networking and blogging platforms signalling perhaps, the beginning of a new chapter in South African youth movements. It is however Boyzn Bucks’ embrace of “individual lifestyle and consumption choices” (Shildrick, T. A. and MacDonald, R. 2006) within the framework of a collective that will define post-subcultural movements in South Africa. Okmalumkoolkats juxtapositional expressions “uptownskhothane” or “internationalpantsula” (both are also hashtags) perfectly sum up the emerging sentiment. The youth does not need to identify as local or as international, they can be both at the same time. They can be whoever they want to be no boundaries…VOETSEK!

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