In this paper, written in 2003, I draw on South African kwaito performance in an attempt to recast the analytic dichotomy between the local and global, between the old and new. Much current debate presents this dichotomy as somewhat transparent: as though the local and the global are represented in music by sonically distinct signs, or as though “this dichotomy is a difference between here and there, or now and then, between the particular and the general, the grounded and the ephemeral, between a set of practices and a system, a point of cultural production and a world of consumption” (Meintjes 1996, 3). Instead, I argue that the local and global are not discrete entities separating a lived sensibility from an apprehended system. Many “contemporary analyses assume that South Africa before 1994 was bound to a narrative of political liberation and that from the mid 1990s, new configurations were allowed to emerge” (Nuttall and Michael, 2000, 1). I will challenge this imposition of an artificial temporal boundary that is understood to signify history beginning anew. The local and global, the old and new cannot be indexed by separate sounds. Nor can each be captured as a snapshot at different moments. Neither space nor era is overtly articulated, as both are implicitly present in the moment of performance.
I was first introduced to kwaito at a braai (barbeque) in South Africa in 1996. My initial reaction was, “This sounds like house music, and I hate house music”. It turns out that kwaito is sometimes called “the bastard African child of house music”. Nevertheless it is the black South African music of my generation. So after a few more braais, university parties, and beach concerts the infectious bass lines had me hooked. Kwaito grew out of the black townships in the early 1990s and derives its name from kwaai, an Afrikaans word meaning clever or hip. There was also a street gang that operated in Soweto during the 1960s and 1970s called the Amakwaitos from which the word kwaito may be derived. See Glasser (2000) for a discussion of the Amakwaitos and other Soweto gangs.
Kwaito was born when local djs began spinning British and American house music tracks at slower tempos to fit the dance rhythms familiar to South African youth. mcs then began freestyling and singing over the transformed beats, usually in a mix of local African languages and street slang, but sometimes in English and Afrikaans as well. The result is a high-energy mixture of hip hop and dancehall reggae’s lyrical style mounted on electronic shock absorbers blending the house, reggae, jungle, and mbaqanga styles that have been the soundtracks for life in South Africa’s townships for some time (Stephens 2000, 258). While technically a hybrid, kwaito’s popularity in South Africa depends a lot on the incorporation of local rhythms and bass lines, and it reflects urban South African culture in a way that no imported dance track could. In an interview with DRUM, kwaito artist Mandoza expressed the strong influence his background has on his music. “Every song I write has something to do with me and my environment. And anyone who grew up in the townships can relate to it because it’s the reality” (Mathe 1999a, 110).
Kwaito truly captured my attention the first time I saw pantsula. I had gone to visit some friends in East London, and as usual we were looking for a party. On this balmy night, dozens of young people were hanging out in front of a dilapidated building, the former Queens Hotel. The building now functions as an apartment building/rooming house and low-key brothel, while the first-floor restaurant and lounge have become a makeshift dance club. Despite the rather sketchy setting, I had been traveling on a bus all day and was eager to move my body. I could hear the heavy bass line of a popular kwaito song before we even exited the car. We walked up the stairs, entered the dark building—which was still draped in royal red carpet and crystal chandeliers—and immediately made our way to the dance floor. But something stopped me in my tracks before I could make it all the way to the center. On the dance floor was a group of seven young men dressed almost identically in Gilligan-style hats, jeans and flat takkies, the Converse All Stars known as Chucks in the United States. The men were performing choreographed dance moves that made them look as if they were gliding across the floor. Their dancing was full of energy, yet extremely…smooth. At times they kept their hands in their pockets. Other times, they tipped their hats. Their feet moved at lightning speed, as they kicked, spun and shuffled. Completely mesmerized by their performance, I forgot how much I had been itching to dance myself, and was more than happy to watch them all night long. They were mapantsula, and they were cool.
In his analysis of youth gangs in Soweto, Clive Glasser elaborates upon the Birmingham school’s theories about hegemony and subculture, recontextualizing them to explain the black, urban South African experience. Subcultures to do not passively accept subordination. Instead they derive status through an intentional inversion of hegemonic values (Glasser 2000, 6). I have employed the idea of subcultural style, defined by Glasser as “a term use[d] broadly to incorporate clothing tastes, social values, leisure activities, and street argot”, to demonstrate how kwaito performers, rather than breaking with the old, are actually working within a well-established tradition of seeking success outside of socially proscribed roles and the “attainment of social or economic equality outside the…methods of political integration” (Rosenburg 2002, 2). What may appear as new and foreign is just a new trick of the old trade. The end of apartheid and global influences have merely added new tools to a pre-existing toolkit; they have not replaced the toolkit altogether.
The end of apartheid marked a time of great hope for future changes to come. But “does the notion of ‘post-apartheid’ ha[ve] any tangible basis in reality, considering the historical, contemporary, and near-future actuality of the South African context” (Kunnie 2000, ix)? In actuality, pantsula sub-culture is historic, spanning more than a quarter of a century, and is also contemporary, as it has seen a major resurgence in recent years. Pantsula is generally traced to the Johannesburg area townships of Soweto and Alexandra during the mid-seventies from where it spread to other parts of South Africa. It is a lifestyle among young men that is linked to the spirit of struggling against all odds, and is highly infected by machismo.
In 1988, disguised as a gangster flick, a film entitled Mapantsula became the first anti-apartheid feature film by, for and about black South Africans. Mapantsula has been translated by American film critics as ‘thief’, ‘thug’, ‘streetwise’, or ‘small-time crook’. Another interpretation is that amapantsula is slang for “the wide pants of contemporary fashion” (Beittel 1990, 756). Still another interpretation holds that mapantsula are similar to tsotsis, notorious street gangs of black youths who fell prey to the evil effects of Westerns and thriller films (Commission 1950). The pantsula sub-culture encodes elements of each of these descriptions, but is really a response to alienated township life, one neither fully urban, but neither rural nor traditional. It is an exaggerated way of talking, dressing and swaggering. “What you wear is what you are, mama”, says Panic the lead character in Mapantsula to two bemused women bus passengers as he brazenly puts on clothes in the moving vehicle. He had moments before shoplifted these from a Johannesburg store. Mapantsula refuse to accept class and racial subordination passively, and they express their own denial of consent through style. “In the case of clothing, withdrawal of consent is expressed through the use of familiar imagery with inflected meaning as in the case of, say, a smart suit worn with short trousers or sports shoes. The middle class is deliberately mocked” (Glasser 2000, 6).
In the case of tsostis like the character Panic in Mapantsula, the pursuit of wealth, expensive clothes, and social prestige were not merely a mocking gesture. Tsotsis had a contradictory attitude towards the white middle class. They simultaneously held middle-class values in contempt and aspired to high levels of comfort and accumulation. It was not the wealth that was rejected so much as the middle-class methods of accumulation. Steady employment and answering to a boss were undignified. Instead, robbery, gambling, and bootlegging were prestigious methods of accumulation (Glasser 2000, 7). Pantsulas glide as if on ice, a super-confidence masking insecurity and social and political ignorance. “This form of ostentatious expression provides a way of winning self-respect and control over one’s life, otherwise dangled within invisible social, economic and political structures beyond the comprehension of most individuals” (Tomaselli 1991, 53). Pantsula is a form of self-assertion through which ambivalent individuals negotiate symbolic spaces for themselves.
The dance floor is one such space. When mapantsula are dancing, they command all of the attention, all of the respect. For the duration of a few songs, the power belongs solely to them. Who and what they really are do not matter in this space. What is important is that they have the right clothes, the right attitude and the right moves. The Zulu word pantsula can be translated to mean to waddle like a duck or alternately to walk with protruded buttocks—a characteristic of this dance form (Elias 1999). The word also had a more sinister meaning, that of “insolent person”, reminiscent of Jamaican rudeboys who raged against racial prejudice and poverty. Rudeboys perceived themselves as gangsters and dressed the part wearing sharkskin suits, dark glasses and pork pie hats, taking the easy way out of the slums by packing guns and playing the cheap thug. Similarly mapantsula sometimes became indistinguishable from everyday tsotsis who got ahead through robbing and stealing with impunity. They wear expensive clothes as the ultimate status symbol, the hallmark of this style being the flat takkie, the Chucks. The high-top version of the takkie is called ‘Voetsak’ and was made popular by the lead character Panic in the movie Mapantsula. Kwaito is a spontaneous expression of life that developed in the male dominated townships and reflects the enmity and angst of that environment. Pantsula expresses this same mood through movement set to a kicking beat and driving bass line.
Within kwaito there are several groups, including TKZee, Alaska and Trompies, who despite maintaining a satisfying recording career continue to identify with pantsula. Trompies’ 1997 album cover featured the group in fashionable pantsula attire, wearing the ubiquitous Gilligan-style hat, robes that could maybe pass as smoking jackets and of course Chucks. References to pantsula are liberally sprinkled throughout the album, and the videos for Magasman and Jakaruma, two number one singles show the group dancing the fleetfooted African tap-and-glide style characteristic of pantsula.
Four years later, seven young men scowl menacingly at the record-buying public. This is the cover of GUZ 2001, the latest album by TKZee, one of South Africa’s hottest young kwaito groups.
On the first track, Dr. Mageu, a vocalist, performs a passable impression of an AK-47 submachine gun. This is pantsula, a slick lifestyle that according to the discourse about “the new South Africa” should have been abandoned with the February 1990 reforms. On the contrary, Glasser writes
Observers have become concerned and often bewildered by the extent of anomie and criminality among black urban youth…Rising expectations were not matched by concrete changes in their way of life. During the 1990s, unemployment amongst black urban youth spiraled out of control. In 1993 it was reported that fewer than 5 percent of South African school-leavers were absorbed into the job market. If anything, the situation has deteriorated since then. A recent survey suggests that over 80 percent of Soweto’s population between sixteen and twenty years old, and about 65 percent of those between twenty-one and twenty-five are unemployed” (2000, 1).
Due to these realities in the townships, it is not surprising that not all young black men have accepted the invented temporal shift from apartheid to post-apartheid and pantsula remains a thriving part of township life.
As the film Mapantsula so vividly illustrates, life in the townships has always been an uphill battle and not everyone was interested in political action as a means to progress. Nevertheless, the unremitting stereotype of politicized youth in South Africa has persisted since the 1976 Soweto uprising. Kwaito artists, who for the most part are markedly apolitical, are shattering this myth. This can be attributed to three factors. First, few young people can resist the omnipresent consumer culture prevalent in South Africa today. Coca Cola was the first to greet me upon my visit to Soweto in 1996. A gigantic billboard emblazoned with the Coca Cola logo read “Welcome to Soweto.” As a university student in Port Elizabeth the following year, I was shocked to find that beer and cigarette companies maintained a constant presence on campus. Company “street teams” mingled on campus giving away free samples. Unlike universities in the United States where student organizations throw parties and the university office of campus activities sponsors concerts, most of the parties, concerts and pageants I attended at several universities and technikons in the Eastern Cape had corporate sponsorship; Castle Lager, Peter Stuyvesant and Dunhill cigarettes being the most common. Automobile manufacturers Delta and Volkswagen also made an appearance. Stephens writes, “The marketing strategy of Pepsi in South Africa has been to identify with images of upwardly mobile black society” by incorporating culturally significant semiotics into its marketing and advertising (2000, 259). Sponsoring performing arts festivals, including pseudo-traditional art motifs in their visual advertising, and of course using soccer stars to endorse products almost guarantee sales in the young urban market. Corporations are peddling upward mobility through consumption and the young people are buying it. Not only are they buying it, but young kwaito artists are reselling it too. Much of kwaito’s lyrical content consists of bragging about the cars, jewels and technological gadgets the artists have accumulated. Both Motorola and Mandoza are promoting the virtue of material gain. True Love magazine juxtaposes the artistic accomplishment of a kwaito group with its material achievement; “They have also performed overseas and all four members now sport cellular phones—how’s that for success! (quoted in Stephens 2000, 259).
Second, this opportunity for material achievement exists in part due to the presence of a mainstream economy in South Africa. Unlike many African nations where “access to the public institutions of the state is seen as the main means of personal enrichment”, (Chabal and Deloz 1999, 9) South Africa has a legitimate public sector in which youth can seek financial success. Although employment prospects are pretty bleak, forcing many young people to turn to illegal activity to support themselves, at least participation in a sector other than the political is understood to be the primary means of enrichment. Kwaito music production is one such means. DJ Oscar explains, “Kwaito, for the first time, has allowed the young people in the ghetto to create their first real black business. We now have labels, studios, and stars who sell over 150,000 records. Today, it has even become a [commercial] culture, [expressed through] its own brands” (Servant 2002). Stephens elaborately details how kwaito’s production is marked by economic empowerment.
The new availability of music technology and mobile formats has opened up possibilities for the informal production of music, which threatens previous industrial methods. In using computers and digital technology, there is no need for highly skilled technicians and engineers [most of whom were white]. The financial investment needed for equipment is far less than ever before and does not need the support of large record companies…A kwaito record can be produced from start to finish by one or two people in one room (2000, 260).
With this sort of opportunity for quick fame and fortune, why should young people concern themselves with political issues? Realizing that a high proportion of potential voters are young, political parties began trying to reach them through kwaito. In 1999, I saw an ANC election poster in Soweto that read: “Kwaito today, but without your vote the future is jungle.” The poster plays on the double meaning of the word “jungle.” First, it is a type of music played at clubs throughout South Africa that does not speak to or speak for young blacks of the nation. It is also a pun on the usually unspoken fear that South Africa might go the way of other liberated African states.
Finally, there is a reluctance to criticize and/or betray leaders who have fought long and hard so that these young people would have the opportunity to pursue music or any other career they so choose. George Ayittey’s argument concerning African Americans’ refusal to acknowledge poor African leadership and to denounce corruption, murder, slavery and other atrocities perpetuated by Africans against Africans is applicable in South Africa as well. Unlike most African nations, South Africans like African Americans “have always seen their oppressors and exploiters to be white” (Ayittey 1999, 287). The idea of black tyranny is foreign. In addition, South Africans’ failure to openly criticize their government may also stem from a need to prove something. Black South Africans, like black Americans “have been shut out of government—perhaps in a racist belief that blacks are incapable of ruling (Ayittey 1999, 289). This sentiment was echoed on 30 May 2003 in Thabo Mbeki’s weekly letter for the ANC:
We should not and will not abandon the offensive to defeat the insulting campaigns further to entrench a stereotype that has, for centuries, sought to portray Africans as a people that is corrupt, given to telling lies, prone to theft and self-enrichment by immoral means,” Mbeki said in a weekly letter for the ANC.
He was responding to what he sees as the largely white-controlled media’s overzealous coverage of an alleged 43 billion rand arms deal with a consortium of European defense companies in an attempt to press the notion that African governments are corrupt. With such a huge burden to bear and the deplorable legacy of so many African leaders looming large, it is understandable that South Africans may be reticent about challenging their own leaders. Responses to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s conviction on charges of fraud illustrate how many South Africans find it difficult to accept the idea of black treachery, preferring to “put the conviction down to a racist witch hunt against a caring and unique woman” (Sunday Times [Johannesburg] 25 April 2003). Despite continued legal woes and marginalization from the corridors of power, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela continues to enjoy popular support.
Many South Africans have been cautious about condemning the “Mother of the Nation.” Young people stood outside of the courthouse chanting “Viva Winnie. Viva,” with raised fists (Sunday Times [Johannesburg] 25 April 2003). One man told BBC, “I am here and all these people are here to show solidarity to our leader, Winnie Mandela” (allafrica.com 24 April 2003). Today’s ANC politicians have lived in exile, in prison, and under house arrest, have suffered numerous beatings, interrogations, and forced separation from their loved ones. How can young South Africans who were not even old enough to vote in the first democratic elections criticize those who have suffered so greatly for their liberation?
I should note that while kwaito artists do not deal directly with politics in their music, some of them do so indirectly by issuing social commentary about HIV, poverty, and education. Trybe’s 1999 album produced hits Millennium, “a vibey anti-AIDS song” and Sbali, “a peace song that discourages violence” (Mathe 1999b, 111). Female artist Andile has been honored for her lyrics that promote safer sex and respect for women.
In an interview with DRUM, thirteen year-old kwaito star Mzambiya said, “I write and sing about the things I see—especially wrong things that should be highlighted and criticised. You know the shootings, car hijackings and petty jealousies among township folk” (Mathe 2000, 18). Positive messages are much needed in kwaito, and artists who promote them should be commended. However encouraging listeners to use condoms, stay in school, put down the guns and quit smoking dagga places the blame for society’s ills squarely on the shoulders of individuals and their actions. The government’s complicity in the continued spread of HIV and the lack of quality education, housing, employment opportunities and other services available to many black families is never addressed.
For those South Africans over thirty for whom protest songs were a part of the soundtrack of township life, kwaito’s apolitical materialism and gangster posturing is disturbing. Part of the reason the older generation sees kwaito artists as gangsters is due to a belief that they are imitating African American gangsta rappers. Miriam Makeba says, “Honestly, when you listen to these stations (radio stations geared towards black youth) you don’t know if you’re in Africa or California” (McCloy 2001). I think that most kwaito artists would deny that they are imitating hip hop artists, and I would have to agree with them. Kabelo of TKZee popularized the following chant for young South Africans: “It’s plain to see, you can’t change me, cause we are pantsula for life!” Over fifteen years ago, “It’s plain to see, you can’t change me, cause I’m a be a nigga for life!” was made popular in hoods across the United States by N.W.A. (Niggas with Attitudes) of Compton, California.
Kwaito artist Mandoza defined his group Chiskop as “township boys with an attitude” (Mathe 1999a, 111). This allusion to African American life in South African performance illustrates the dialogic relationship between the global (hip hop) and the local (kwaito), rather than an imitation of the former by the latter. At first glance, it would be easy to conclude that kwaito is attempting to emulate African American hip hop culture. People point to the similarities—both were birthed in oppressed black communities; hip hop and kwaito are both the result of club djs producing a new sound from an old genre (hip hop originated from the instrumental breaks in disco); young people understand the genres to be expressions of their realities and/or fantasies. However, upon deeper inspection it becomes clear that kwaito is not merely taking African American hip hop and putting a South African face and language on it. Instead artists are using all of the resources at their disposal to communicate to the millions of young people who have been dubbed “the lost generation.” Kwaito reflects a certain comfort with and pride in African culture; foreign influences and sounds are borrowed, but reshaped to serve local needs, leaving the underlying rhythms and themes indigenous in origin. There does exist a South African hip hop that is more closely related to its United States counterpart. The key difference between it and kwaito, reminiscent of the two main branches of South African jazzFor a discussion of South African jazz see Christopher John Ballantine, Marabi Nights: early South African jazz and vaudeville (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1993). that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, is one of approach: South African hip hop, like mainstream jazz, emulates imported styles, recreating foreign sounds with a local edge. In fact, many of the artists rap in English, dropping lyrics peppered with American slang. But kwaito, like the style known as Cape Jazz, transforms and improvises upon its influences, creating sounds that have both foreign and local flavor, while being neither foreign nor local. It is the foreignness of South African hip hop that enables it to draw multiracial audiences in a way that kwaito does not; the social space that hip hop music creates is not particularly local in character, and hence it is nobody’s home turf; all can enjoy it on a more or less equal basis. Kwaito, on the other hand, despite its ties to American and British house music and Jamaican dancehall does not fit neatly into post-apartheid South Africa’s “rainbow nation” attitude. Its roots in black townships and pantsula posturing make it a little too local and too black for non-black South Africans.
This pantsula posturing is heavily reliant on a stylish and expensive wardrobe. Clothing was the most easily identifiable marker of pantsula sub-culture. “It was competition, who was the best dressed gang. Most of the mapantsulas then were very stylish, very cleanly dressed…Dressing in labels was very important, so John Stevens of London, Dobson and Stetson, was vital. You could make them out by who they wore” (Mogotlane 38). Kwaito stars (like African American hip hop artists of late), many of them recently poor, celebrate sumptuous parties, designer jewelry and mobile phones, and revel in fast cars and sharp clothes. When kwaito artists appear on stage and in videos decked out in FUBU gear and Timberland boots with gold and diamond jewelry, they are updating pantsula, not imitating the African American hip hop artist. The hardcore, street attitude of hip hop artists who don baggy jeans and jerseys actually jives well with the gritty, grimy nature of the townships. By dressing in a fashion that appears on the surface to be derivative of African American hip hop culture, kwaito artists are expressing local township culture with new agility and rigour.
Kwaito performance perfectly encapsulates the locations and dislocations of many black youth in South Africa today as they struggle to come to terms with “the new South Africa” while holding on to valuable resources from the old. Kwaito artists consistently use their music, lyrics, dancing and fashion, not to mention social and economic influence to trespass across temporal and spatial borders. Use of a transformed American cliché like, “…pantsula for life” to capture an idea as close to the heart as remaining true to one’s roots blurs the line between the here and the out there, the old and the new. Performed in this way, the global cannot be understood as an all-encompassing system that swallows up the local. At the same time, 1994 cannot demarcate a strict borderline for determining attitude, behavior and expression.
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|There was also a street gang that operated in Soweto during the 1960s and 1970s called the Amakwaitos from which the word kwaito may be derived. See Glasser (2000) for a discussion of the Amakwaitos and other Soweto gangs.
|For a discussion of South African jazz see Christopher John Ballantine, Marabi Nights: early South African jazz and vaudeville (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1993).