Dancing to the ballot box
THIS past weekend’s festival of political rallies, manifesto launches and street bashes in the name of democracy was proof of a well-known fact, that South African politics at its best is a study in ear-busting raucousness. The lengths political parties went to, to create a carnival atmosphere through song while talking serious politics at the same time, revealed once again just how central music is to our political DNA. [pullquote]Even those groups who contested SRC elections last year pin-pointed music as a route into the hearts of voters.[/pullquote]
On Saturday, Julius Malema’s red berets rode into Tembisa on a colossal wave of volume. Motorcycles with screaming engines, cars packing sound systems powerful enough to raise the dead, and an army of foot soldiers chanting non-stop the irreverent refrains that have become the Economic Freedom Fighter’s (EFF) trademark, raised the roof off Mehlareng stadium.
A few kilometres away, a version of the ruling party’s youth league refused to be outdone by the new kids and plotted a guerrilla offensive of groove by hosting what they called an “election festival”.
But without the gymnastic gyrations of Chomee and her team of dancers, the ANC’s get-together was a downer, drowned out by the EFF’s jamboree.
A day later, many kilometres north of Johannesburg in Polokwane the DA, blessed with less vocal supporters if Loyiso Gola’s Late Night News is to be believed, called on rapper AKA and pop-indie band Freshly Ground to add vibe to its campaign soiree. [pullquote align=”right”]“If you’re going to sing about political things what will you sing about? That you’re disappointed in what government is doing or that there is an alternative party you like better?”[/pullquote]
Even those groups who contested SRC elections last year pin-pointed music as a route into the hearts of voters. Project W promised Witsies an international act for O-week. They went on to win seven seats in their first attempt. DASO sang little and sank. While the PYA-led SRC has for years prided itself on being able to belt out rousing war cries, whether in celebration or defiance, at the drop of a hat.
Add to this landscape significant moments in our history that married politics and dancefloors in pursuit of liberation – the exile-based Amandla Cultural Ensemble of Oliver Tambo and trombonist Jonas Gwanga, Brenda Fassie’s iconic “My Black President”, and the National Party’s banning of Prophets of the City’s The Age of Truth album in 1993 – and music’s role in our political destiny becomes an undeniable fact.
Prof David Coplan, chair of Wits’ anthropology department and author of the remarkable book In the Township Tonight, chronicling the intersection of South African music and political cultures, said the political usefulness of music has changed and pop-struggle songs were not as popular as they once were.
“If you’re going to sing about political things what will you sing about? That you’re disappointed in what government is doing or that there is an alternative party you like better?” Coplan said.
The five songs currently topping VoW’s charts, as well as the charts of Rhodes, UCT, Tuks and UJ’s campus radio stations, are testimony to the decline in popularity of the pop-struggle genre, or at least its changing nature. Our politicians though, wittingly or not, seem aware of the powerful chemistry between music and politics.
Coplan’s take is that there exists a musical politics other than “saying down with this and up with that”.“There is a politics which gives people heart and doesn’t even have to have words. One of the big struggle songs was a jazz tune called Yakhal’ Inkomo by Winston Mankunku Ngozi.
“It had no words but people took it as an anthem of the township, about the desire to be free,” Coplan said. Our official anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica, was conspicuous by its absence at all three of this weekend’s vote-baiting bonanzas, as it is at most political events.[pullquote]“It had no words but people took it as an anthem of the township, about the desire to be free,” [/pullquote]
The national anthem, on the evidence, does not seem to be the rousing hymn-come-pop-struggle jingle to get a democracy fresh out of adolescence on its feet and dancing to the ballot box.