Hair today, gone tomorrow

However, this braidless, white reporter was disappointed to discover that ‘ in South Africa’s financial centre of Johannesburg, at least ‘ this is not necessarily the case. Salom’ Ntanda, a hairdresser from the Democratic Republic of Congo who has been braiding hair for 15 years, works mostly in exclusive private homes. “Most of my clients are in Sandton (a wealthy suburb). They are afraid to come here, so I go to them,” says Ntanda, who lives in a crowded apartment block in the inner city ‘ widely seen as crime-ridden. Whether done privately or in a salon, however, there’s no doubting that braids are big business. Mukhtar Ally, marketing manager for Stripes Industry, the manufacturers of Darling Hair Extensions, says the demand for braids and other types of extensions is on the increase in South Africa. “Every year we have more and more competitors coming into the market, and even with that our slice (of the market) is still growing,” he told IPS. Ally estimates that his company’s turnover increases by about 10 to 15 percent each year. The products it sells include braids, other hairpieces and wigs ‘ some of which are proving controversial. “You are now seeing more and more wigs (with straight hair). I think it has to do with a whole thing of people wanting to be white. It is as though women think, ‘If I wear my hair straight, I will be more attractive’,” says Gugu Nyandeni, a junior account manager at a public relations agency who sports short, funky dreadlocks. This view elicits an immediate chorus of disagreement. “Wigs give more flexibility. It does not have to do with being black ‘ it has to do with personal choice,” says her colleague, Vangi Dlamini. Dlamini does not wear wigs herself, but her current style involves hairpieces called “weaves” ‘ another way to create a straight look. Keith Dube, the hairdresser who created Dlamini’s weave, also disagrees with the suggestion that the popularity of straight wigs and hairstyles is a sign of black women trying to copy their white counterparts. “Long ago women did not wear trousers,” he says. “Now they do and it is not because they want to be men. In the same way, African people used to wear calf skins. Now we wear fabric clothes. Why? Because it is comfortable.” Dlamini suggests that black South African women’s interest in straight hair was originally inspired by trends in the United States. “It was influenced by black Americans, and they look great. We used to think it was their own hair. Then we realised it wasn’t, and we can do it too,” she says. However, there are also indications that the key influence on South African hairpiece trends is local rather than foreign, with soap opera actresses providing the biggest inspiration. “Celebrities play a big role and our soapies (soap operas) really influence trends. People ask for whatever new hairstyle an actress is wearing,” says Ally. While wigs have grown in popularity, braids still remain in demand, however. “Braids are huge and keep on growing every year,” says Ally. “Wigs are a quick fix . . . You can have a new hairstyle in a few minutes.” And, he adds, “It is not only black women wearing wigs.” Nor is it only black women wearing braids: fashion-conscious British footballer David Beckham was spotted wearing thick “cornrow” braids a few years ago. Ntanda says she has braided the hair of a few white clients in the past, and Nyandeni says she often sees white men and women with braids in the coastal city of Cape Town: “They look amazing, but you wonder where they come from. I assume they come from overseas.” Earlier this year, newspapers in South Africa reported that an exclusive Johannesburg school, Dainfern College, disciplined a white teenager for wearing braids to school. The student and her parents objected, as the school allows black students to wear the same hairstyle. On occasion, braids change not only the lives of those who wear them ‘ but also those who create them. Keith Dube turned to hairdressing after a stint in prison awaiting trial for house breaking. During the four months he spent behind bars, Dube says he came to a realisation: “I have hands and a head; I should be doing something.” After his release, he learnt the basic skills from his sister, then honed them over several years working for other people. In the meantime he also started putting money aside. Seven years ago he opened his own salon, Colours Hair, in the upmarket Johannesburg suburb of Illovo. Today Dube helps his customers realise their fantasies ‘ or at least gives them a new look for the next month or so. ‘ IPS.

April 2006
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