A sneaker is taken off a shelf of Court Order vintage sneakers reseller shop in Rosebank, Johannesburg. AFP
Queueing outside an upmarket Johannesburg clothing store, young fashion lovers hope to lay their hands on the latest sneakers to come out of the United States.
For South Africa's city dwellers, sneakers are more than just shoes.
As a marker of personality as well as social status, they are cared for and worn with pride, and youths compete to hunt down the rarest models from a market flooded with old and new sneakers — including many fakes.
"Sneakers kind of tell your story," graffiti artist Rasik "Mr.ekse" Green said as he was spray-painting a commissioned mural on the rooftop of a building in downtown Johannesburg.
Green's elaborate graffiti designs — which he also uses to redecorate and personalise sneakers — are highly sought after.
The shoes are often an expression of geographic roots in a country with 12 official languages and dozens of ethnicities.
The athletic footwear craze is linked to African American hip-hop culture, which infuses South Africa's rich musical heritage as well as its fashion.
Collecting and trading shoes has become a hobby in Africa's most industrialised nation, with aficionados known as "sneaker heads".
Worn 'art piece'
Sneakers have not always been viewed positively in South Africa.
Gangsters terrorising townships during the 1980s often wore Chuck Taylor All Stars, a high-topped stitched canvas shoe manufactured by the US firm Converse.
The sneakers, originally designed as basketball shoes, acquired a "thug" reputation that stuck.
"My parents didn't want me to get a pair because it was mixed up with a certain culture that was for criminals," recalled Hector Mgiba, 28, who has an extensive collection of Converse All-Stars.
He said Converse shoes were also associated with "pantsula", a dance born among young black township dwellers as a form of protest against apartheid, and snubbed by older generations.
"Pantsula" dancers typically wore smart shirts, flare trousers and All-Stars — perfect for their quick steps and hops.
Today the rubber-soled shoe is worn with both formal fitted suits and casual dress by young South Africans of all backgrounds and skin tones.
Bringing us together
As demand for sneakers has grown, local entrepreneurs have become fierce rivals to international brands.
Unable to afford the latest sneakers as a young boy, local designer Lekau Sehoana made his first pair of sneakers from worn-out shoes, old jeans and polyurethane.
His "Drip" footwear brand, launched in 2019, gained popularity with its brightly coloured bubble soles and stretchy material.
Sehoana now uses part of the company's earnings to make shoes for children in townships.
"I guess it's one way of uniting us and bringing us together, as a people, as a country, as different races," Green said.
"Besides all our differences, at least we share one common thing... shoes."
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