Two years ago, South African rapper and former frontman of The Volume, Tumi Molekane (stagename: Tumi) released ‘POWA’, a song which was as much a rally against women abuse as it was speculative banter in which the rapper imagined a post-Mandela South African dystopia. “When Mandela dies, who gon’ really care about us?”, he mused. That refrain has assumed various incarnations for the past six weeks of the old man’s stay in hospital. The media frenzy has been unparalleled, with (some) international news organisations rehashing the tired rhetoric of a warzone (here’s another example) where the natives drive the white man back to the sea sans Madiba. Mandela, the stately figure who became co-opted by the world as a symbol of the triumph of good over evil, has been transformed into little more than an extra in a soapie featuring ambulance breakdowns, exhumations, and ousted chiefs. In this media frenzy, the voices of artists have been mute, at least in mass media. So we decided to reach out to three hip-hop artists in order to get their perspective: Black Noise founder and African Hip-Hop Indaba organiser Emile YX; graf artist and spoken word mastermind Ewok; and self-proclaimed ‘legend of the golden mic’ Zubz.
Ewok, what are your thoughts on Mandela being deified in popular discourse (his presence on South African money, for instance)?
Ewok: I don’t dig the money vibe. South Africa is bigger then one man, even Mandela, and I’m sure he would agree. When we get reduced to a symbol as simple as a single figure then it becomes easier for those in power to manipulate that image for their own ends. It’s easy to fly a flag, it’s hard to fold it up and put it away and still get up and get to work. I think we are seeing that happen now. It’s like reducing the whole struggle against apartheid to a couple of songs. Madiba is being used to sell a pretty picture. It’s rainbow nation propaganda. As cynical as that sounds, that’s the reality. When we recognize the reality behind the picture that politicians would paint for potential investors, that’s when we become truly South African. We become a people who aren’t scared to face the truth of how segregated and fear filled our society is, and in true South African-style we make a plan and carry on. That right to reality is denied to us when those who can choose to make a man more than a man. Madiba on money is like Che Guevara on t-shirts, the commodification of spirit and strength and struggle into a product that pacifies those aspects of human nature. It’s a way of not having to deal with the problems that are prevalent and putting the past into a package that can be promoted prematurely. Madiba on money is a way of ensuring that his smile can stop being genuine and start being generic enough to print and produce whenever necessary.
And what of this underlying narrative that people are going to go buckwild and start rioting and killing each other after he passes away; where do you think that line of thinking comes from?
Ewok: That’s the old Swart Gevaar mentality all over again and it’s only really a small demographic of the population that perpetuate it. I think that white people need to realize that most black South Africans recognize that the biggest threat to their existence is more likely an unchecked police force being deployed by a corrupt government to silence and subdue a populace. If most white people scared of some kind of black revenge-fueled uprising stripped their blinkers they might see that the violence they fear is already a daily reality for the majority of the poorest South Africans. There is a dangerous level of ignorance inherent in that line of thought that betrays a significant disconnection with or distance from the reality of most South African lives. There is also a subliminal racism there that sees the poor black populace as uneducated savages, a colonial mentality manifesting in an exaggerated fear of “the other” without recognizing any common humanity. That’s what Mandela lived for, humanity, and those who rely on him and his amazing human quality for some kind of protection from a riotous onslaught, lack that humanity themselves.
Emile, what did Mandela symbolise on the Cape Flats during the political commotion of the eighties?
Emile YX: Initially Nelson Mandela represented the face of our liberation as he did to most people throughout the world. As we grew older he also acted as a symbol representing all those people that struggled for our freedom. As a statesman he often said that he was but one man that stood on the shoulders of giants and that was the faceless multitude of South Africans from all backgrounds that faced-off against the force of Apartheid. He was the symbol of our resistance. I have witten a story about my thoughts about Mandela, for example, called “Captive Sunbeams.”
There is a perception that coloureds have been sidelined post-1994, and there’s been a systematic operation to erase First Peoples’ status in South Africa. Is there anyone to blame for this? Could Mandela have done better to preserve the heritage of indigenous people in general during his presidency?
Emile YX: This is a difficult question to answer, as I do not see Mandela as the saint that can walk on water nor give houses to all South Africans. He is a man like all of us. I agree that the so-called coloured people have been side-lined and that first people aka “Boesman” (so-called Khoisan) have been purposefully “played” or bamboozled by the [attempts to write the wrongs of the] 1913 Land Act. This land belongs to the Bushman, as the first people, but now everyone else is claiming ownership because of the consideration of white settlers first instead of the first nations of this country. The secondary immigrants also saw that they could benefit from land that belonged to others and it was proof in the Afrophobic attacks that took place when their very not so distant relatives tried to come and settle in Southern Africa as well. Suddenly Apartheid lines and borders and racial language were okay. They were successfully enslaved to enslave others who looked like them … other Africans. The malls and other white-looking shops were acceptable because they are used to being oppressed by those types. The negotiations [of the late 1980s and early 1990s] are to blame. The capitalist power that strong-armed Mandela-them into being too friendly is to blame. Their violence that they showed through the Witdoeke [in Cape Town as well as the] IFP before the first election. There’s also the violence of drugs, AIDS and gang warfare which occupied the poor’s minds so much that we did not see the implementation of trade benefits for the same slave masters and their international criminals of capitalism. Yes, we could blame the ANC and their negotiated freedom, but we are to blame for dropping the ball on [fighting for] a government for and by the people. That’s what we fought for, yet as soon as we got it, we handed it over to people we thought we could trust. Political parties have the parties interest before that of the people. Yet, we trusted them with our future and we also made the usage of us and them easier to blame anyone but ourselves for the exploitation. It is a global safety mechanism that “We the people” do. We place the responsibility elsewhere so that we are never blamed. It is never too late I feel and I know that South Africans will create the same civics [that flourished in the 1980s and] that are more important than political parties to take care of their own communities instead of trusting a few massive political parties that seem to have more time to party with big business than to take care of the people. We are all to blame. In closing on this question, I don’t think that we can blame one single man for the decision of his party, because if the majority are greedy capitalist minded tribal fools, then the idiots rule and win the decision. That’s a capitalistic democracy, where the party interest is satisfying its financial backers more than to take care of the people that vote them into power.
What do you make of the way Mandela’s story is playing out in mass media now that he’s nearing the end? Also, do you think it was a wise decision to put his face on South African money?
Emile YX: It’s really sad that he has been blown up this way by their corporate machines above that of the many that made him who he is. I do understand that this is what capitalism does, they take a hero and they make him saintly and then they destroy the image of anyone close to him so that people think that the man is an island and that no others like him can come from South Africa. I have news for them. We had a few others from the same street in Soweto Vilakazi Street. Imagine the greatness of our people in South Africa if that is possible? To me they had to make it seem that it was impossible for that to become a reality again. They had to make South Africans feel small in the over-manufactured legacy of Madiba. It is not his creation, but theirs. Carefully done so for the benefit of their silencing a potential revolutionary like him to rise up again from South Africa to take the peoples minds and hearts by storm. Capitalism cannot afford that. It is for this reason that they also played down Winnie Mandela’s role in our revolution or that of Steve Biko or Chris Hani. Capitalism sells servitude and they found the best version of it to sell Mandela. Never his leadership of Umkonto We Sizwe, nor commands that brought about the deaths of the people’s enemy. No! They will sell what is safe and promote the “scandal” of his children to destroy potential revolutionaries from believing that another could come from this magnificent country of ours. I say wake up and smell the reality TV show that is nullifying South African revolutionary greatness.
Zubz, you’re one of the artists who’ve contributed to the canon of great (and not-so-great) songs about Madiba. What emotion(s) were you trying to convey when you penned “My distress”?
Zubz: A not-so-biographical, sonic biography. When we did “My Distress” we really just wanted to portray to my audience at the time the human being behind the name Nelson Mandela. Sure, we get that he was an ordinary man doing extraordinary things with his life, but do we really get how ordinary he was? The key with “My Distress” and doing it all in 1st person was in understanding that we can all be Nelson Mandela, ordinary choosing to be great and impactful, just as we are. I wrote it in my language, Hip-Hop, as me, Zubz. So like when he’s imagining being out of prison after so long, what would he be thinking? I’d be thinking: “how the world’s got/ man, I’d even get to see the Italia World Cup/ But what would really blow my head the most is/ if we were so free we’d even get to host it…” We must never forget tata Madiba is a regular man. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the song that way.
What are your thoughts/feelings about how mass media has covered Madiba’s story? Do you think the reporting has been fair?
Zubz: Of course we understand that the Madiba legacy goes beyond his life, his truth as a man, his native country SA and even his time. We also understand that the Madiba phenomenon has gone from a rallying flag for a movement, to a talismanic, magical motivator, to an ideology. As with many ideologies it has lent itself up for scrutiny, discussion and most importantly, selfish utilization. Media use the Madiba story as a smoke screen for subtext at best and a fishing hook worm for remotely related agendas at worst. Today you are more likely to read a Madiba piece focused on the failings of the Health Ministry or the petty in-fighting amongst close relatives to Mandela than about tata’s inspirational story of triumph over oppression or even illness. I also feel like perhaps the world has been given ample time to prepare themselves emotionally for any outcome regarding our great leader, and in mass media’s eyes the only real way to make a greater story of it, is to stir up issues that lend themselves towards more animated responses to Madiba. I’ve always felt like the media goes too far in their probes of public figures and does not know where to draw the line. Tata has been no exception here. The medical records released were unnecessary and aimed to incite. Just as the story on Ambulances breaking down was also meant to incite, as well as the in-fighting among close relatives…all of this in my opinion is meant to add more drama to what would otherwise be a relatively drama-free, healthy and soul-easing transition into a new era in SA’s ( and the world’s) continued walk to freedom.
What does Madiba represent to you as a human being? To some people he’s a symbol of hope. Is it the same for you?
Zubz: To me, Madiba is a man who played a key role in creating the SA that exists today; one that allows me to exist here, make music, fall in love, watch movies, eat out with my friends, live for the most part free. For that I will always revere and honour him. Symbolically, tata Mandela reminds me of who we are (black Africans) where we came from (colonialism and oppressive rule) where we are (post-colonial, global Africa) and where we are headed. It’s so easy to forget the key lessons of the past, sacrifices made, strides made etc in a world wrapped in social network chatter, medical and scientific wonder and the pursuit of that “baller” life. It’s easy to lose sight of what the goal was for what Mandela and his peers did. Personally Madiba reminds me to take a second to remember that we are who we are, where we are, not by accident but by deliberate effort. It’s sobering and inspiring for me, not to mention grounding.
* Ewok is part of a French-South African collaboration called Blue Gene. They will release their debut album “These Meditations” and will tour in France 17th-31st July. Emile YX is having an event at Princess Vlei on the Cape Flats on Saturday, July 20th. Details here. Zubz’s latest project is a Digital only release called “DragonLion_FullCircle.” You can follow Zubz on twitter: @zubzlastletta.
This article originally appeared on July 12, 2013.