Born of struggle

What an amapiano song tells us about post-apartheid South Africa.

Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Image credit South African Tourism via Flickr CC BY 2.0 Deed.

On April 27, 2024, South Africa celebrated 30 years of multi-racial democracy. As the country marks this milestone, it looks ahead to its seventh general election, scheduled for May 29. 

I am reminded of this as I work out blasting Kabza De Small & Mthunzi’s track called “Imithandazo.” In this prayer masquerading as optimism, a plea of the upright with hunchbacks, the vocalist recites “izwa imithandazo ya bantwana bakho, yehlisa umoya wakho wempumelelo, Nkosi, sikelela” (hear the prayers of your children, let down your spirit of success, God bless us), a different rendition of Enoch Sontonga’s “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica,” which was written as a Black plea to a white God amid colonization. 

Sontoga’s “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica” made its way to the South African Native National Congress (later ANC), which then adopted it officially as its anthem in 1925. From there it would be sung at political rallies, funeral ceremonies, and other spaces where Black people would continue to bargain with this God who held the key to ending their suffering under colonial oppression and apartheid brutality. When the apartheid state attempted to ban it from existence, the prayer sought refuge in the song “Weeping,” by the South African band Bright Blue, hiding in plain sight. 

After the dawn of democracy, “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica” was incorporated into a medley to represent the “rainbow nation” and declared as the South African national anthem. It was a mixture of the continued desperate cry of Black people who still bargained with God to bless and protect them in a colonial situation, forced to coexist with the Apartheid national anthem in which, and through which, the Afrikaners delightfully reminisced about their triumph over the land and its inhabitants. This absurdity of an anthem is sealed with an English reconciliatory demand that we all stand together, united through the land dispossession, poverty, and the general discomfort of the Black majority. I believe they called this “compromise,” a negotiated settlement. 

Even with its incorporation into the national anthem of the “new” South Africa, “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica” never left Black parched wagging tongues. The plea could still be heard at political rallies, fists clenched in the air and hearts insisting “not yet uhuru;” also, at funeral services where Blackness was at home, a bit too comfortable and familiar, a truth that left us with dis-ease; and, at church services where we collectively consensually hallucinated about a better tomorrow that would be delivered through long blonde hair and blue eyes. These prayers would be sealed with the somber cry: Makubenjalo! (Let it be!)

The prayer is a rolling stone, wherever it lays its head it finds a home. In 1998, it made its way into the popular band Boom Shaka’s embrace and later moved on to multiple other renditions, including Zim Ngqawana’s jazz iteration. Eventually, it was resuscitated by the disgruntled lips of Fees Must Fall student activists as the “decolonized anthem.” They expressly pleaded with God to give them strength because with student debt, lack of accommodation, colonial education, and low prospects of employment post-graduation; life on earth was unbearably harsh. The unkept promise of the “new” South Africa. Makubenjalo!

Today, the prayer has crossed tracks and made its way into DJ Kabza the Small’s amapiano soundtrack, which serenades the drinking rituals that South Africa’s Black youth observe devoutly. From Phuza Thursday to Mogodu Monday, they continue to cry out to God to hear their prayers; this time, ushered by Mthunzi’s vocals, they also implore him to let down his spirit of success (yehlisa umoya wakho wempumelelo). Makubenjalo!

The context of their prayer is the South Africa that rumors say, “belongs to all those who live in it.” Youth unemployment sits at above 50%, with crime and violence at an all-time high. Daily, the youth are exposed to the crumbs of the South African economy that are snatched by tenderpreneurs and routinely circulated as vulgar opulent lifestyles by Instagram influencers. The vocalist encourages “Khomelala mungana wa mino, Nita vuya mungana wa mino, Unga rili mungana wa mino, Swita lungha mungana wa mino,” in Xitsonga. Here, the vocalist encourages the listener to hold on because, although they may be facing hardships, there is hope that their situation will improve. The vocalist repeats similar sentiments in isiZulu: “bambelela mngani wami, siyo phumelela yizwa ngami, lento ngeyethu sinikiwe, sobuya k’sasa ngamanye amandla.” The last line, “sobuya k’sasa ngamanye amandla” (we will come back tomorrow with renewed strength) echoes the final words of another South African music artist Ricky Rick before he died by suicide following a long battle with mental illness. In his final tweet, Ricky Rick declares “I’ll return a stronger man. This land is still my home.” Makubenjalo!

Drinks in hand, Black youth sway, skip, turn, drop, and rise to shout along to Imithandazo, a visual and sonic depiction of their navigation through violence, poverty, and mental illness. The vocalist, giving voice to the agony that lives with the audience, asserts:

Kukhalwa esikaNandi isililo, liyokhala nini ke ‘cilongo, uzozixolela zonke le zono, ngoba silala kunzima, kunjani ngomso? Moya oy’ngcwele ma’wehle, Inyembezi zingabi namahla emihleni, noSathane athuk’thele ajik’ndleleni, sicel’injabulo engapheli, Nom’ihlukene imindeni, uthando lwakho lusanele. 

This is a prayer of those steeped in agony, the vocalist speaks of the uncertainty and tears that have come to characterize the reality of the South African Black youth. Consequently, he adds to Sontonga’s plea that God lets down his holy spirit to wipe their tears, meet their needs, and conquer the devil. These are the contemporary cries of the Black youth, prisoners of desire, those that can no longer be exploited, to borrow from Achille Mbembe. Makubenjalo!

Ironically, today, Makubenjalo is also the name of a well-known nightclub/pub in Soweto. Its tagline: “let it be, home of the good vibes.” Here DJs like Kabaza the Small routinely facilitate sacralized rituals from Phuza Thursday to Mogodu Monday, what David Chidester would call wild religion, which refuses to be tamed, domesticated, or restrained. It is here where Enoch Sontoga’s plea finds new life, “Nkosi Sikelela, Yizwa imithandazo yabantwana bakho, khomelela, unga rili mungana wa mino.” 

Black pain has come full circle, this time drink in hand and a catchy melody to nod to. Yet hope remains because the truth sits within us as we sing “lento ngeyethu”, izwe lethu, the land is ours.

Further Reading