Jessica Mahlekisi wears a travel bag, often used by immigrants coming into South Africa. Image by Andile Buka

Immigration Revolution: Wearing the birth of a new blackness

First published at

As tempting as it is to start any article at the beginning of 2017 recapping how terrible 2016 was, we’re in the business of black womxn magic here. Amidst the election of Donald Trump, and an upsurge of racist social media rants, its easy, understandable and completely legitimate to get choked up by the past year’s ugly anti-blackness.

But in between this, bubbling up from the cracks in the pavement, a new wave of blindingly brilliant, beautiful, onyx-black women pushed past it all to claim their place in the sun. And as we waded through an onslaught of anti-black violence, physical and otherwise, more black immigrant women, in South Africa and abroad, stepped up to the plate to create a space for us all.

I am constantly harnessing and drawing upon my inner strength, in order to shape the course and direction of my life against all the odds
–Deola Sagoe

As a young dark-skinned woman, born to Kenyan and Nigerian parents and moving to South Africa in 1993, the presence of striking dark skinned women, who embraced their style allowed me to find a space to exist, in a country whose land, language and traditions were not mine. But it’s bigger than just me as an individual.

In South Africa, immigrant women have always been axes of challenge and change, even in their most subtle performances of their blackness. Ghanaian women in Johannesburg make even the most casual kente* cloth look regal, and Nigerian women in Durban don’t only bring out their gele* for special occasions. I guess that’s because everyday is a celebration when you’re a first lady of the universe.

I’m too black to be up there fam

This hasn’t always been the case, and even now, the path towards black (and especially dark skinned black) personhood is tricky. From Skunk Anansie to Kele Okereke to Skepta, even international immigrant artists have been speaking out about the process of moving from a negative awareness of blackness to embracing it as part of their artistic power.

For South Africans, the place of immigrant women, and their bold presentations of self are incredibly important, earmarking something to grab hold of and run with, in the face of a current of crushing white dominance. These ‘traditional’ fabrics, styles and the legacy they came with have had a massive influence on women in South Africa, who, pre-1994, had few unregulated, unregulated spaces for traditional wear to be ‘everyday’ wear.

Legendary musician Ringo Madlingozi highlighted this point in an interview some years ago, asking why South Africans only seem to take pride in indigenous wear when it’s worn for special occasions. Now, with the emergence of designers like the prolific Kisua, Laduma Ngoxolo and Deola Sagoe, who are bringing this pride back, local women are embracing kaftans, fully printed suits, traditional-inspired jewellery and ‘Western incarnations’ of their local wear in all sorts of spaces. Black women in South Africa, like their Northern counterparts are showing up and showing out in private and public, for nights out, at work and everywhere in between — and it’s not just the ‘yellowbones’ or the Alek Wek ends of the black girl spectrum.

In many ways, this isn’t a perfect story. There are still reasonably stereotypical presentations of African fashion presented by local and international designers; and you’d be hard pressed to find a story of African fashion which doesn’t make use of the words ‘bold,’ ‘bright’ and ‘colourful’, even though this is far from the only aesthetic that exists.

But the fashion world is learning, (making some serious appropriation blunders) and learning some more, and we have everyday black women from near and far to thank for this.

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