I want to play at the Voortrekker Monument

Here's what some South African artists make of the country's politics.

Siya Mthembu of The Brother Moves On. (Photo: Tseliso Monaheng).

To get the pulse of a country journalists usually go for political elites or the “man on the street.” Rarely do they ask artists what they think about politics (and we’re not talking when a question about politics is thrown in at the end of an interview to promote an album, new music, a film or a performance). So I decided to ask a couple of South Africa-based artists about their feelings on the socio-political climate in their country. The context: with the ANC national conference in Mangaung firmly behind the party, South Africa still finds itself having to contend with pressing issues such as the president’s multi-million rand mansion, recent revelations about Premier Helen Zille and the DA’s own dealings with the Guptas, and as recently as yesterday, the world-renowned athlete, Oscar Pistorius, causing an international media stir for a murder he may or may have not intended to commit. The creative community in South Africa has been mostly silent on these socially-pressing matters. While there have been pockets of dissenting voices, the overall outcry over something like Marikana, for instance, has been nothing short of de-spiriting. What do artists make of all this? Here’s a few responses:

Jimmy Flexx (rapper):

Everyday is a struggle. I’m not disillusioned about who I am or where I am. I’m very aware of where I want to be, what I want to achieve, and I know where I am currently. I know where I come from. We stick to our guns. I can’t be obnoxious; when we have our traditional gatherings, I don’t want to be middle-class. I don’t know how other artists do that shit, where they can present something that is not really true. I know, every black motherfucker in this country has poor family, no matter how successful you and your immediate family might be. But, when the family comes together, there’s still that drunk uncle, there’s still that cousin who causes trouble. You must talk to him, talk to your cousin. That is where we come from, that is South Africa for me. The realest music in South Africa was done during the times of struggle, and even the artists were then producing their best work, I feel. They were overseas longing for home, longing for family; all of those struggles. Out of that came songs that, when you listen to them even today you’re like ‘what a great job!’ Think of all the issues that we have in this country; but somehow the youth are still having fun, still celebrating. It’s like an outlet, ignorance is bliss they say. No one wants this shit, no one wants to be aware of what’s going on. But we want to celebrate and party. It’s almost like we’re running away from something that we don’t really want to deal with.

Siya Mthembu, Vocalist for The Brother Moves On:

I don’t need you to care about all my issues, I just need you to respect me as a human being. As in, I explain my issue, take the time to listen, so you can understand. But that space is not given, I’m not even allowed to talk to you anymore! I come from a culture that says ‘let’s talk!’ We’re not in a good space, we know we’re not in a good space, we know we’re unhealthy. But to scream and shout about it from the rooftops … I want to play at the Voortrekker Monument. I wanna go there. If I’m going to be booed off stage, if something’s going to be thrown at me, let’s have it! We’ve gone to Hoedspruit [a hotbed of white rightwing politics–ed] where when we got off the stage, the emcee was like ‘Hoedspruit, Hoedspruit we must change man!’ When are we gonna have the human impact? Everyone’s in the high theory of it, the amazing discourse of academy. The man on the streets understands these issues as well, how about you speak in his language? You’re not engaging him, you don’t wanna speak in his language! You want him to say it in your language, you don’t him to be political; you want him to be apolitical!

Dplanet, Producer/label owner:

I am really worried about the future of South Africa. I honestly think that since 1994, it’s become so de-politicized. Everyone’s about making their money, especially in Jo’burg, it’s actually ridiculous! And I guess that’s what happens, it’s a younger generation. They don’t wanna hear about bad times, they want to party and just forget about shit. That’s one side of it, but the downside is that your rights are slowly being eroded away. I’m still shocked that there’s not more of a massive outcry, that the police could shoot forty-eight people, or whatever it was, who were protesting because they were treated like shit by a multi-national, multi-billion dollar corporation. It’s always been the case, we’ve got a one-party system here. There is no strong opposition. I think even if you’ve got good intentions, the ANC has gone from a revolutionary party to just a regular political party. I don’t really know what’s in the hearts of those people, what’s in [President Jacob] Zuma’s heart. But the way they’re acting says it all. How could anybody take 200 million Rand of the taxpayer’s money and spend it on their personal house? That’s the result of having a weak democracy where there’s one party in power. I hear it all the time; black people say to me ‘well, at least it’s our own people robbing us.’ No man, that’s not good enough! You deserve better than that, we all deserve better than that. Being robbed by a white person or a black person, you’re still robbed at the end of the day.

Professor Pitika Ntuli, academic, sculptor, poet:

I think all these forms of power constructions, constricting people, they undergo change, they’ve become more sophisticated. Banishment was very brutal, where they literally lifted you up and took you away. But today they don’t have to, they’ve got to move the locus of economic power to centers, and then you control those centers. It started, for instance, in the townships. Do you know that until after independence, when you entered into any township, there was only one gate you were going in and one gate you were going out? It was constructed as a military complex. So as to be easily controlled. They were, in a sense, banishment areas. You wouldn’t walk in town by night. After 9 o’clock, if you were a black person, you were not allowed to. The way you look at it today, the rising poverty, the gap between the rich and the poor is actually increasing, and the poor are being the ones actually isolated – banished from getting their slice of the national cake. People living in those informal settlements, they are dragged away from the rural areas. And those rural areas are actually being sold out … I think people are very angry, they’re still angry. It’s like this, your president says: ‘uyambambezela, leth’u mshini wam’. And then he builds a bunker. And then he militarizes the police into generals, brigadiers … this is a language not of civil society. A civil war has been declared, but you’re not even aware.

Further Reading

Mobilizing in disorder

Post the looting and failed insurrection, what would it mean for the South African left to undertake a populist political strategy? And should it look to South America for inspiration? A long read.