Imbamba – Uthunyiwe: On the Social Impact of Migrant Labour
“There is art that involves, that creates empathy.Susan Sontag
There is art that detaches, that provokes reflection”
Spiritual style in the films of Robert Bresson
the feeling is always bittersweet
when leaving home-sweet-home for the pungent smell and clichéd bright lights of THE city, Johannesburg. Not because of that which you leave behind – friends, family and foes – rather because of the possibilities that lie ahead, the promise of a better future beyond the sale of the body as labour – and the possibility of complete failure.
Then why still go to Jozi?
This longstanding question, a question once asked as “why did Jim go to Johannesburg” is the underlying leitmotif that foregrounds the short documentary film Imbaba – Uthunyiwe (2019) by Joburg-based art collective BLK THOUGHT. Shot in Jeppestown/Doornfontein, Johannesburg, the short documentary film opens with a fast-moving scene in point-of view-style, visuals reminiscent of a moving bus, train, or taxi ferrying you from no-one cares where to Jozi-Maboneng, the city of milk, gold, honey and dreams deferred, if not denied.
an insisted existence
The moving-pictures are accompanied by a re-arrangement of Mantombi Matotiyana’s Wen’ use Goli melody in the background, redone by the music-component of the collective. This tune plays throughout the duration of the film, laced with the voice of a Zulu-speaking male figure – who we later come to know as the chief/induna of the Wolhuter Native Men’s Hostel otherwise known as Jeppe Hostel, iNduna uMvelase – seemingly giving, at the onset, the answer to the burning question:
“uma usuk’ ekhaya, usuk’ uBab’wakho engekh’ ekhaya. Uthunywe uMa’ wakho eGoli! Ak’hlabel’ inkukhu ak’nikel’ idombolo, athi hamba mntanam’ abaf’wenu uyobathola phambili”.
“When you leave home, your father is not at home. Sent by your mother to Johannesburg! “Don’t sacrifice a chicken, don’t give a damn, say go baby, you will find your brothers first”.
The film introduces us to ‘Imbamba’: a newcomer to Johannesburg, dizzy on the prospect of finding employment, a squatter who, because there exists a Black solidarity among those of a similar fate, is housed and taken care of by those who have come to the city hostels before him. It reads as a re-phrasing/posing of the question, “why did Jim go to Joburg?” and consequently a rereading of the 1949 film African Jim (better known as Jim Comes to Joburg) by British director Donald Swanson and producer Eric Rutherford.
The difference is that at this moment the question is being applied to a contemporary South African context that has direct linkages to colonial land dispossession, apartheid and (forced) labour migration.
Imbamba also comes to denote an “illegal” alcoholic thirst quencher brewed innovatively out of the most bizarre ingredients including yeast, sugar, water with the killer kick coming from battery acid, old shoes and/or underwear. The brew is also known as skokiaan, ibheya, igavi or umtshov’alale and mostly enjoyed by men in the many drinking spots and brewing homes around the country’s townships.
The brewing of Imbamba put food on the table of majority women-headed homes, however its lasting legacy has been Black women jailed by a racist-sexist apartheid regime that deemed the brew(ing) illegal, fractured family lives and dysfunctional communities due to an unshakable dependency on the thing.
courtship the periphery
Upon arrival at the Men’s Hostel in Jeppestown, Johannesburg, due to the fact of being a Black + poor migrant, life for Imbamba is constrained to and lived on the margins, though with a nascent refusal, a fight back, against this kind of a life; that of depravity both in the minds and stomachs of the dwellers beyond a mere survivalist kind of living.
One of the ways in which this alienation is tussled with is through music. Here, music – more so that of the Maskandi and isiCathamiya genres` – was/is a driving force behind creative forms of courtship and exuding love, actions that eventually le(a)d to the formation of romantic and otherwise relations between those whose lives are spent on the periphery. Music in the hostels, notes Bheki Khoza, also takes the form of a vehicle or time capsule, transporting them in nostalgic fashion between time and space, home as it were before the pilgrimage to Johannesburg.
As it is with the idea of refusal, the film also speaks to ideas of (dis)obedience and transgression. Obedient in the sense of listening to uMzali, uMama, and taking the dreaded, monumental sojourn to Johannesburg for labour-related purposes, but soon to explore and propel an art form, jazz, idiski or isicathamiya; to ultimately chase freedom. There is also a transgressing against the odds, against an anti-Black government and its systems and policies of censorship.
This meant that they had to create music in a manner that avoided overtly political lyrics and messaging, focusing, instead, whole works on “softer” themes, mostly love and relationships. I am convinced though, that this in itself was subversive in that during a time where Black people are despised by (white) South African society, encouraging ideas of Black self-hate, the music became a force and spirit that countered this self-hate, inculcating instead a love for the Black self and those in community/communion with this self.
Interestingly, because of its interview form of narration/ing, at least visually, the showing onscreen of both the interviewer – who also happens to be one of the filmmakers – and the interviewee, there is a self-inscription into the narrative of “Jim coming to Joburg”, particularly if the music score of the film is taken into consideration together with the inclusion, in post-production, of footage of the filmmakers themselves performing their music, a music that is “truth-searching”. Theorising on this notion of music and the truth, the collective describes itself and the nature of song they are devoted to in these terms:
“song is truth. Kosa ke Nnete: the meaning of BLK Thought Music whenever it thinks what it feels. Ke Nnete when the BLK Thought stage is a place of sound-making, a space of ethical-combat, under the influence of things and beings.”
In this way, the music that is explored, spoken about and duly carries the film throughout as its soundtrack is a “hidden transcript”, to borrow the concept of James Scott. He uses the term to characterize discourse that takes place “offstage”, beyond direct observation by powerholders. Thus, the notion is derivative in the sense that it consists of offstage speeches, gestures, and practices that confirm, contradict, or inflect what appears in the public transcript. Black Thought’s very own music in the film and generally – because of its “truthful” and subversive nature – becomes the speech and gesture that Scott speaks of above.
Noting a similar subtext in the 1949 film Jim Comes to Joburg and the importance of the sonic in the visual, film theorist Lindiwe Dovey notes that “the political efficacy of music was vested largely in its ability to simultaneously convey pleasure and pain, and to be both uplifting and subversive, thus concealing its essential meanings from the white power establishment.”
Seemingly, the inverse is true in democratic South Africa, where, as iNduna notes, the Maskandi of today is overtly political and sectarian in that it ends up fuelling Black-on-Black violence, a salient feature of a politics of self-hate.
a visible and invisible silence
Amidst the talking and the music, there is also a visible and invisible silence in the film, an element I find quite curious. In the multiple scenes and sequences that feature iNduna, there is, seated next to him, a younger man who never gets to speak but is acknowledged in the credits as Sibusiso Mbhele, who only listens and responds through laughter and gesture; and because of his age, this silence thus deprives us of knowing what he and his contemporaries make of ukuthunywa eGoli in democratic South Africa. We never learn about his vulnerabilities of being born to Imbamba and whether he shares any spiritual connection to Maskandi, isiCathamiya and other music from ‘home’.
The same can be said about the absence of women in the film, giving credence to the false idea that migration, forced or “voluntary”, is solely the preserve of men. The history of hostels is however largely shaped by this reality, where apartheid policy dictated that men and only men can and should be residents of hostels. The name of the hostel where the film was shot says it all: The Wolhuter Native Men’s Hostel.
To paraphrase what film theorists Lindiwe Dovey and Angela Impey wrote in African Jim: sound, politics, and pleasure in early ‘black’ South African cinema, this rereading of African Jim by the BLK THOUGHT collective suggests that within film studies in general, and African film studies in particular, it would seem vital to acknowledge the need for more profound studies of the complex ways in which African soundscapes – African music, African people’s life-stories and African languages – contribute to the multiple meanings of films that are made in this context.
That said, BLK Thought’s film Imbamba: Uthinyiwe is a welcome attempt at just such a study, as an investigative visual text in itself. And much like the duty of Black film/documentary making pre-94 of having to challenge the “official” narrative of South Africa by giving voice and light to Black people’s struggles and triumphs, the filmmakers of Imbamba: Uthunyiwe – coming from within and outside Johannesburg city and Gauteng province – continue in this tradition of filmmaking, probing and interrogating their place as Black people and artists in the so-called new South Africa, more pointedly in the city of Johannesburg and all it represents.