Dreadlocking in South Africa is the Ultimate 419/Sakawa/MLM Scam

The South African hair care market was valued at $ 451.8 million in 2017 and is projected to reach $490.4 million by 2023. (Source: Industry Reports)  Black hair is versatile, and allows those of us with curlier locks a dynamic range in styling options: cornrows, box braids, relaxers, wigs and weaves are but a few styles in the Black woman’s purview of choices. There is a lot of money to be made in the natural hair industry – an industry that is ever expanding and altering its definition – and as a ‘natural’ consequence, the faces of the players involved have morphed over time. Not to be left out of the feeding frenzy, Black men have found a way to capitalize – and in this country, monopolize – an entire segment of the beauty industry. I’m talking about the SA sakawa (swindler) dreadlock boys.

There has been an enduring stigma that men who have pursued hairstyling as a career have faced; one that calls their masculinity and virility into question. Hair salons have traditionally remained female territory, remaining so insular that men instinctively remove themselves from the vicinity without request. Male energy is a nuisance in a salon. If a Black woman is getting her hair done, there is a 99.9% chance that another Black woman is on the other end of the blow dryer, because we are the only ones who understand how our hair works. And for many years, we were exclusive in the styles were chose and wore.

As gender roles and perceptions have relaxed, we’ve seen a crossover in Black women and men’s hair care and styling. We’ve both worn jheri curls. It’s not uncommon to see a brother with a slick perm. When the negative perceptions around locking hair began to dissipate, more of us began to embrace the style that has long been associated with marijuana and sloth. Whereas hitherto a woman was more likely to apply chemicals, rollers and other more technical/complicated aspects of hair styling, dreadlocking allowed men a way to get into the action and maintain a patriarchal sense of their masculinity.

Unlike the pretty pimp, men like Bob Marley, Snoop and to that dude that Tyler Perry always cast to float around with his shirt off all serve as examples of respected, audacious, conscious and successful masculinity, now more broadly accepted. Now at last was an in, and opportunity for Black men to get their slice of that multi-million dollar pie. Now was their time to ruin a good thing!


Now that I’ve spoken to you eloquently on the matter, allow me to express myself freely. These 2×4 boys are destroying Black women’s hair, and they must be stopped. Any nigga with a rat tail comb and a gallon of gel thinks he’s a Lock Master. In fact, Jimmy, the man who most recently touched my hair, told me that there is no hair that he cannot do; but as my Aunt Cookie (before she was saved) used to say, “they ain’t doing shit but fucking shit up.” And from beyond the grave, she was right. Jimmy knotted my hair, put three sores on my scalp and had me up swallowing prescription pain killers all night.

I have had my locks for 21 months and in that time, I’ve only had my hair styled seven times, by six different “stylists”. My roots cant handle more manipulation than that. Each time, without fail, I came home with a massive headache and half a jar of gel in my hair. The way South African men re-twist hair is as follows:

  • Wash the subject’s hair with Sunlight soap
  • Place a glob of gel on the back of your left hand
  • Part the subjects hair with as much anger and fury as you can muster
  • Slap the gel onto the roots
  • Pull and twist as cause as much tension to the root as possible
  • Don’t ask the customer what style she wants. Never ask her opinion
  • Pick a style, no matter how basic and matronly it may appear
  • Pull every lock until you detect the presence of a pimple on the scalp. The more redness the better
  • Sew the style in place with yarn, pulling the ends as tightly as possible
  • Demand a ransom at the conclusion of the session

You are sitting there, thinking that I’m exaggerating. Here are some tweets from victims of overtwisting. These are their stories.

Everyone in South Africa knows that this is a problem, but no one is willing to do anything about it. When I complained to one woman after suffering at the hands of one of these masochists, she offered me a confused stare and asked whether I had not taken any Panado with me to the salon.

“No. Why should I?”

“Because they are going to pull your hair tight,” she said simply.

Oh. Yeah. Well. Of course.

There’s no reason for this level of torture. The dreadlock industry in South Africa remains highly unregulated. There is no training or certification required, but there is lots of money to be made. Two different stylists (for lack of a better term) told me how much they enjoy life after deciding to do women’s hair.
“I started in Eastern Cape with my cousin,” said Alundi. “There was one guy there that was having a nice car. He finished his house. He’s enjoying life! All from dreads.”

He proudly showed me a series of pictures of his hometown hero and his red car and two motorcycles. He chuckled and continued, slapping gel onto my scalp and pulling as tightly as he could.

“Now me, when I go to the club I buy Hennessey, but these guys who didn’t finish matric and have to do day laboring, they have to drink common beer. In one hour, I make more than what they make in one day. They are jealous!”

Jazzed by this realization, he pulls my hair with more enthusiasm.

After all his talk, this is how I walked out of his salon

Palm rolling – the favored method that these 419 boys have employed – allows these boys the quickest result with the least amount of effort. This is what has allowed them to corner the market, and at the same time, lock women out of it. I have yet to encounter a female locktician in South Africa (or at least in my corner of it), though women make up the bulk of the clientele. Another gent told me that dreadlocking was “easy”: the hardest part was getting over then other men laughing at you.

“If you allow people laughing at you to stop you, you will never go far in life.”

He too earnestly glazed and pulled on my hair. With all the money he rakes in, it’s easier to drown out the laughter. And as for ‘ease’? Of course South African dreadlocking is easy. When you are doing any nonsense by heart, of course it’s easy!

Modda demmit…

To put it in perspective, a domestic worker can expect to earn between R150-250/day. Dreadlock boys charge as much per head, and can do between 4-6 heads a day.

This is why I refer to it as a multi-level marketing scheme: You need no training to operate, very little investment and you can pull whoever you want to on board, whether they are qualified or not. In the meantime, the customers are the ones getting the shaft. It’s 419 in plain sight!

It gets much worse. There is now a criminal element to contend with. Dreadlock theft is on the rise in South Africa, in what is known as ‘cut and run’. You heard that right: You can go to lunch with a full head of hair and leave the mall bald as the day you were born. There are folk who will jack you for your locks, no matter how dusty. Nothing a quick rinse can’t fix.

It may be time for Chris Rock to do a follow up to his documentary, Good Hair. Black hair is all the rage now.