Partying in a pandemic: inside SA's clubbing scene

The joyous, murky chaos that is nightclubbing is set to continue this summer — at least until pumpkin hour

29 November 2020 - 00:03 By Janine Stephen
Getting down at DJ Akio Kawahito's new event, Strictly Soul.
Getting down at DJ Akio Kawahito's new event, Strictly Soul.
Image: Leeroy Jason Photography

Jes Graham is on a Zoom call, time-travelling back to summer 2019. The third-year student's descriptions of nights out have a syrupy, luminous glow; already nostalgic despite being just months ago.'

"January was ... nice," Jes recalls. "Death of Glitter [an underground clubkid queer utopia event], my friends having gigs, happy times, dressing up, stopping at the Engen in the middle of the night for snacks ... strange characters that make a night memorable; everyone's happy, dancing ..."

Ah, nightclubbing. Lockdown caused the arrested development of an entire industry. Dust mice gathered on dance floors. The strobe lights clicked off. It is, officially at least, the last victim of lockdown, its sweaty, hedonistic spaces forbidden under the decrees of "regulation 72(1) and regulation 80(2) of the Disaster Management Act applicable under level 1".

And yet: nightlife is ever shifting, amorphic, transgressive by its very nature. Generalisations are impossible; it draws "normcore" students and professionals fond of conspicuous consumption, metalheads and sailors, sports fans, old soaks and trance dancers.

To be allowed out all night has become a rite of passage, and no curfew can entirely stop that human itch to get out and mingle, to see oneself through others, across a dance floor wreathed in smoke and mirrors.

THE BOUNCER

Duncan Blake, 44, has clocked up more nights out than most. He's worked as a bouncer for two decades, most Thursdays through Saturdays, seeing tides of teenagers ebb and flow through club doors in Claremont, Cape Town.

He doesn't go to gym. "A bouncer's not about being able to fight," he says. Post-millennial soft skills like understanding and patience matter more. "It's about knowing how to talk to people ... watching, listening and knowing when to step in."

A bouncer's not about being able to fight. It's about knowing how to talk to people ... watching, listening and knowing when to step in 
Duncan Blake, part-time bouncer

Yet he's a man for whom "old school" codes of authority and respect still count. Not that he finds much of that when at work on a door. The clientele isn't all loved-up; some can be abusive when denied entry for lack of an ID or drunkenness.

They "always know better"; the barbs strike home. "You're just a dumb bouncer and people think you've amounted to nothing besides standing at a door. People don't realise that I'm married, I have two kids, I have a full-time job, too, in print and packaging. I do this job to make extra money. Because they don't realise the economy is so bad. [They say] mean, hurtful things, you know? I know it's weird, coming from someone who's six foot 10."

Duncan, like so many in the nightlife industry, was hit hard by Covid. As clubs closed up, his extra income evaporated, as did his partner's full salary. He has the tone of a beleaguered man, stretched to the limit seven months later, school fees and personal loans a grinding weight.

There's no overt sign of bouncer stereotypes here: the pent-up violence or pockets full of pills (Duncan is not drug-friendly). He's worried about friends and colleagues whose entire livelihood has disappeared. "I think we've lost a lot of nightlife," Duncan says. "Say a venue has five to eight bouncers per venue? It starts adding up, how many guys are out of work."

THE CLUB OWNER

At Boogie, an '80s retro club a couple of doors down from Tin Roof, Claremont, the lights have just flickered back on.

Stacy Bester, 51, bought the club six years ago. Still "young at heart", with no children, she set about branding it as a place that would appeal to students with a casual vibe and more laid-back soundtrack.

Open 9pm to 4am, working six days a week, it survived, and by summer 2019, a student told me, was so enmeshed in the scene that "if you're in Tin Roof, and there's a song playing that you don't like, you walk out the door and go to Boogie".

Pre-Covid, Boogie employed 30 people to tend to the 600 to 700 youngsters who could visit of an evening: 11 security staff to keep calming eyes on every corner, resident DJs, back-of-house staff and bartenders.

"I honestly thought this year would be our best yet," says Stacy. "Then wham-bam, Covid-19 happened."

Unwilling to risk the club's good name, Stacy didn't open until she'd "run out of finance, of back-up, of everything".

In November, she reopened as a bar with Covid protocols in place; by the 10th, things were still warming up. Stacy is "hanging on by my fingernails, trying to save this landmark place".

Opening is about making a living, but clubbing feeds other needs too. "I'd see people come in here to have fun with friends. I remember being their age and doing the same thing — dancing, doing silly things, making mistakes, but learning, and forming your personality. I miss seeing that, so much. All these people, what do they do now?"

THE STUDENTS

Jes (pronouns: they/them), for one, hasn't been out, not to campus, not to a club. Their father is a doctor; their great-grandma is 102 and vulnerable. They didn't go out all that often and are very particular. They don't like places where sexism rules behaviour, and being hit on can be confused with abuse.

And then clubs are often hidden up stairs, in basements or uneven territory, and Jes has a physical disability. They won't pay a door fee at most places, because "I feel I shouldn't have to contribute to a system that doesn't invite me in".

And they don't drink alcohol, "so going out for me is very cheap". They'd go to dance, for hours and hours and hours; to the extent that it replaced physio, it was so beneficial.

And now: physio over Skype, walks around the neighbourhood. Nothing more.

"Dancing for me was like, literally great, spiritually, mentally and physically," Jes says. "So this year's been really tough, losing my outlet for feeling."

Dancing for me was like, literally great, spiritually, mentally and physically ... So this year's been really tough, losing my outlet for feeling
Jes, a student

Even as nightlife reignites, some behaviour has changed. Students tell me about brunches and picnics, renting houses with groups of friends, dinners and hiking. Some have better sleeping patterns, or are eating less junk because there's time to cook. All-important 21st parties are being traded (hopefully) for 22nds. Life is less busy, and more home bound.

Lauren Gericke, 19, had to find different work. In grade 9, she'd started taking shots of friends at parties. And in her circle (affluent schools, privileged families), kids had lots of parties.

They may not have been allowed through club doors, but they'd rent out venues and charge a fee, or persuade a club owner to let them in: fresh-faced entrepreneurs could make R5,000 on a party for underaged teens.

And Lauren photographed such occasions, getting to know club owners along the way; her mom waiting in a car outside, not saying "no" because her daughter was proudly earning her own money and sober when working (in some sweaty, crowded places, Lauren says, "it sounds bad but you really need a couple of drinks to be able to enjoy yourself"). Shooting from 11pm until 2am was the sweet spot — "it's still pretty. After that, people look a little rough." She's an expert at editing out nipples.

DJ Akio Kawahito's new event, Strictly Soul.
DJ Akio Kawahito's new event, Strictly Soul.
Image: Leeroy Jason Photography

Like so many young people, Lauren's astute, noticing oddness and contradictions. How some rely on going out and getting hammered. And how others make money off them. By stealing phones ("like every Monday, on Instagram Stories there's at least four people who are saying my phone was stolen"). But also, club owners who allow underage parties because they're profitable. And the odd fact that "a lot of people my age, their parents run stuff". She knows whose parent/s own Tin Roof, and Vortex; she sees the clubbing world in unexpectedly material terms.

By late October, Lauren hadn't been clubbing again; after her first night out at a friend's place, the empty streets felt apocalyptic, and she was stressed about making curfew. People have stopped posting about their parties and gatherings on social media, because they don't want to get in trouble for not wearing masks or social distancing.

"How long is this going to go on for?", she says. "I don't want to miss, like, all of my early 20s ... but maybe my entire era will party a little later into their 20s because they missed a year or two."

THE DJ

Many won't wait. A trawl through Instagram tells of the uptick in events: Cosy, sexy vibes on Rhythm Tuesdays at Sumo in Joburg (no mask, no entry #Covidrules), Halloween Ball Matinee at Truth, Midrand (limited to 500 people, from 2pm to 11pm, all Covid protocols in place), E.S.P., Randburg, with Trance Fusion, limited tickets and, yes, masks.

"This is the first winter I've experienced in, like, six years," says Joburg-based events organiser and DJ Akio Kawahito. Usually, he follows the summer party seasons: SA and Africa in the southern hemisphere summer; Europe and the US during our winters. His Stressfree Saturdays events collapsed during Covid, annual events like the Alchemy Music Festival were cancelled.

DJ Akio Kawahito.
DJ Akio Kawahito.
Image: Leeroy Jason Photography

"During quarantine, there was no work; for four, five months I got one cheque — from Jägermeister, who booked me for some online streams," says Akio.

He used the time to start up a new event — Strictly Soul — first just streamed to build the brand. But for a natural showman, "cutting [social life] out felt like I was missing a part of my personality".

Even now that events have started up again, with limited numbers, carefully chosen spaces and protocols, he doesn't usually go out except to work, to limit his exposure to the virus.

But besides the early bedtimes, it seems that many are partying in much the same ways as before. By October, with no sign of the second wave, some Joburg "dancefloors are packed; people are grinding", someone tells me. "People are like, fuck this, I wanna dance." Other say social distancing, even at bars, is tough.

The minute you decide to go to a club or party, you're taking on a certain degree of risk. If I get sick, I've got no-one to blame but myself
DJ Akio Kawahito

Akio reckons social distancing and mask-wearing matters when going to the grocery store or the office. "Then you have to take everyone's health into consideration. But the minute you decide to go to a club or party, you're taking on a certain degree of risk. If I get sick, I've got no-one to blame but myself."

Right now, he's doing every gig he can, mindful of second waves. The music could be switched off once again. Already, following the Tin Roof superspreader event, the Western Cape police sent out a stern circular. "As soon as the music is played to such an extent that the patrons start dancing, this club would fall under the definition of a nightclub," it intones.

No dancing like its 1999, or 2019, then ...

THE BAR TENDER 

Xanthe Lardner-Burke, a fine arts student in Cape Town, works in a popular bar. Pre-Covid, she'd start a shift at 4.30pm and momentum would build and there'd sometimes be no time to even pee or wash glasses and she'd get home after 3am, stinking of bar fumes, exhausted.

She liked the adrenaline, the need for a Red Bull; she appreciated the bouncers, a "symbol of protection" against potential drunken grossness. They'd hug people hello, they walked her to her car after a shift. It was a community. Now, it's quieter, less profitable. Different.

She feels annoyed by patrons who don't mask up before coming to the bar; respect for employees, she thinks, can be lacking.

Personally, the pandemic has thrown up moral dilemmas. Newly single, Xanthe has "never wanted to go out so much", but first impressions and mask-wearing don't gel. There are no Covid protocols on Tinder. And sometimes she feels guilty and privileged, having the cash to go out in the face of a second wave. It's about choosing to go out and possibly spreading the virus, vs workers who have no choice but to go out to subsist.

THE EVENT PRODUCER

Andiswa Dlamini, aka @Andee, shuttles between Joburg and her home town, Durban. A DJ with a love of house and event "curator", she started a party called Same Sex Saturdays first in Durban, in defiance of a lack of openly queer clubs. She wanted spaces where people were visible and could be seen, "not only meet in the corners of the night". The event now also happens in Joburg.

Nightlife may be about transgression, but it's also about escape. Think of Billy Monk's images: the opposite of apartheid homogeneity, punters sprawled at tables in glorious defiance.

Partying at Same Sex Saturdays.
Partying at Same Sex Saturdays.
Image: Ayanda Maphosa

Andee went into a bit of a black hole during lockdown, worrying about youngsters for whom club events are support systems, even communities. "People need spaces that are an outlet," she says. "They may not even have come out to their families; they need to find like-minded others and communicate; to make friends and network."

For now, the parties are back, and attending is a choice. She puts safety protocols in place; all know the risks. Those who live with a vulnerable person might have to party then isolate; others might have to stay home.

"Somehow we have to be okay with the world we're living in now; gatherings are going to happen, whether it's 20 people or 200 people," Andee says.

"We took that euphoric feeling of just being around happiness [pre-Covid] for granted. Just the ability to forget, and be around strangers. At our parties, the majority were there with a common interest: to be happy, feel free and have a sense of safety ... Not everyone is into the night scene, but socialising is a part of the human experience. To be able to contribute, we need to be around good human beings. Being in isolation, when are you going to meet that stranger, that being who changes your perspective in this journey?"


GANGSTAS DON'T DANCE

Nightlife and the underworld are old acquaintances. Drugs, for some, are not recreational; territories are strictly controlled.

Caryn Dolley, author of The Enforcers: Inside Cape Town's Deadly Nightclub Battles, points out that "as lockdown restrictions were relaxed, claims of businesses in Cape Town being extorted started picking up. The claims were that various businesses, not specifically nightclubs (as was previously the case) and including coffee shops and eateries, were targeted. Based on claims, it would seem that the alleged extortion net was cast wider to rake in more money. Even national police commissioner Bheki Cele, during a press conference in September, referred to alleged extortion affecting businesses in Cape Town."

"The first week we'd reopened, underworld guys knocked on the door and demanded that I take their security, and they were going to charge R25,000," a Cape Town bar owner says. It was "not an option": paying that money after months of lockdown would have meant going bust.

Global drug routes are reported to have changed thanks to Covid, and so has recreational drug use. The Economist noted an uptick in dagga and prescription drug use in the West during lockdown. Party drug use plummeted, ecstasy by 41%, cocaine by 38%.

Back home, it's said people used their drug dealers to buy alcohol during lockdown.

• Report extortion anonymously to the South African Police Service via their extortion hotline: 021-466-0011.