Goodness Muntswu smiles into the mirror as she looks herself up and down, turning to throw a glance over her shoulder at the simple bow on her back. She wears a long black dress, like the gowns in photographs saved on her phone. Muntswu is trying on the first of many options but says, “I put the dress on and I saw that it had a high slit, and it looks amazing on me and it also feels amazing.” Unlike the dresses she found online, she and her family won’t have to pay anything for this outfit.
Muntswu is one of dozens of teenagers who have come to Hotel 224 in Tshwane for a fitting organised by The Cherry Blossom Project. The non-governmental organisation (NGO) has collected over a thousand of what its chief executive Taboka Kombanie calls “pre-loved” dresses, accessories and shoes that girls can borrow for their dances. She and her team of volunteers work together with schools to identify learners who may not be able to afford the expense of an outfit and host various other supportive events throughout the year such as wellness and career days.
Kombanie explains: “We just want them to feel good and look good without having the financial stress.” Her team of volunteers spends time with each girl to make the experience of finding a dress fun and special. She says not having to worry about the price tag creates a “sense of relief to the family, to the breadwinner in that family, and to the girl as well”.
Mavis Moya sits at the edge of the room, quietly watching her daughter, Fikile Moya, laugh with friends as she tries on one dress after another. The mother says of the event, “I think this is a good idea, because people are not equal.” She explains: “Because I’m a single parent, [buying an outfit] was going to be difficult for me.” Moya works in the construction sector in Belfast, Mpumalanga, because she was not able to find a job in Pretoria. She visits at month’s end and on long weekends.
Fikile is the first of her children who is expected to pass matric. “I’ve already bought some stuff, but it was not enough,” Moya says of the around R800 she has spent so far for the dance. She had already bought Fikile a suit and shoes because her daughter wanted a look that was different to the norm. Cherry Blossom has given her options of outfits.
Fikile admits that she was a little hesitant at first about the NGO’s initiative. “I expected maybe old dresses or something,” she says, “but then immediately when I came in, I was so surprised. I saw beautiful dresses, and I was so confused.” Fikile is aware of her mother’s financial restrictions, but says she lacks nothing and knows Moya “tries by all means that I feel like other children, even though she is a single parent”.
Moya is anticipating the costs of nails, hair and make-up, and says she will see what she can do to afford this. Right now, she is very happy seeing her daughter find a beautiful outfit.
The price of the dance
Commercial dress prices can vary wildly, starting at around R750 in stores, according to Moya, and reaching easily into the thousands if custom made. Beyond this, matric dance costs often include nail and beauty treatments, transport and in some cases the cost of an after-party. Tickets to the dance itself range from R300 to R950, according to various learners and parents at the fitting.
These costs add up for parents and can be in tension with their children’s desire to attend the dance and pressure from friends and peers to look the part. Miranda Mathabathe, who works in the administration section of Bokgoni Technical Secondary School in Atteridgeville and helps organise the school’s matric dance, sees this play out among her matriculants.
“There is a lot of pressure because their other friends are coming from rich families, so they have to compete. How can you compete with someone when you know you don’t have anything? You sleep with a hungry stomach.”
She has brought 12 girls to the Cherry Blossom event, most of whom she says come from single-parent homes that sustain themselves on social grants. The parents would like their children to be able to attend the dance but simply cannot afford it. If it weren’t for projects like this, the school’s teachers would have likely pooled their personal money for the learners’ outfits, “so that they can look like the others”. It is part of their role as “second parents”.
One of the learners who came with Mathabathe, Boithabiso Marie, who is an orphan, says that she dreamed of her matric ball, “but the problem is that when I thought about it, I don’t have money, even parents, so I was confused about what am I going to do?” She says she considered finding work to pay for the dance, but is very excited to have found a dress here.
Her final choice, after trying on dozens of options, is a mermaid shaped, gold sequin gown. Marie laughs cheekily when explaining she took a long time to decide because she knew she wanted a dress that showed off her cleavage, and didn’t want to settle for anything less.
Making a plan
Her classmate and friend Lerato Felicia Koote echoes the feelings of pressure, saying that when she first heard of the matric dance she was unsure if she’d be able to attend and about what to wear. She says the dance is very important to her because it is an opportunity to celebrate despite the exam stress. She is relieved to have an outfit, but says she is still a little worried, “because I don’t know what I am going to do with the make-up and hairstyle”.
Mathabathe says they “will still make a plan” about the extra costs, while Kombanie hopes the organisation will help in other ways. In the past, they have made arrangements with make-up artists and others to volunteer or discount their services. At Tsako Thabo Secondary School in Mamelodi, Tshwane, this need will partly be filled by a teacher with make-up skills who has offered her services free to some learners.
The matric geography and history teacher of that school, Itumeleng Luthuli, sits outside the Cherry Blossom event while some of his learners come out to twirl and show off their finds. He is visibly excited about the dance, explaining it is special because it is the school’s first in nine years. The school community has come together to make this possible for all of the 80 matriculants. For instance, some parents have agreed to buy outfits not only for their own children but also for learners who cannot afford them.
The ones with him today are part of a group who “actually are in desperate need of help”, Luthuli says, explaining they are mostly from child-headed homes. “Today is like a dream come true,” he says, since most of them have never had the chance to try on formal wear.
There are three boys with Luthuli, sitting to the side and giving enthusiastic opinions on their classmates’ looks when asked. While Cherry Blossom is not the only NGO that offers this kind of opportunity to girls, few projects of this kind exist for boys. Luthuli’s school planned for this by allocating male matriculants to each male teacher, who will take the responsibility, often out of their own pockets, to make sure the learners have all they need for the dance and are supported in other ways. After the event, he is taking them suit shopping.
Muntswu leaves the fitting like most other attendees – with a big smile and plastic bags bursting with colourful fabric or shimmery stilettos. Her older sister, Dembe Muntswu, is with her and thinks back to her own dance. She tells a story of a friend who spent around R8 000 on the dance, including a custom-made dress, but did not have money to pay university registration fees in January.
She feels torn about the tradition, seeing it as a beautiful and unique celebration, but admitting that she thinks “that money could have been spent on something else”. For her sister, like many of the girls who have been helped by the Cherry Blossom Project and similar efforts, a middle path has been found.