Today's slide show: Soweto Hip-Hop
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—Shugasmakx and Sliquor strutted into the cafe, baggy jeans hanging low on their hips, their pants bunched up above new pairs of Adidas sneakers. With their hat brims pulled low over their eyes, they looked like kids I might run into on a college campus in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago.
"Hey, what's up, sistah?" Shugasmakx greeted me with a complicated handshake and coolly plopped down at the table.
Shugasmakx and Sliquor, two of the seven members of the hip-hop group Skwatta Camp, are among South Africa's brightest stars. Their latest CD, Mkhukhu Funkshen, released last year by Gallo Music Group, was the first rap album to go gold in South Africa.
Music played a strong role in the struggle against apartheid, as the recent film Amandla!("Power") documented. It was a tool that brought oppressed blacks from Soweto and other townships across the country into a united front of harmonious protest.
Although that struggle came to a halt with the downfall of white rule 10 years ago, another battle has emerged in the country since the African National Congress came to power: the fight against backbreaking poverty. My two guests have faint memories of apartheid; they were still children when Nelson Mandela came to power in 1994, and they represent the first black South African generation to grow up in a post-apartheid nation.
"We've aligned our music strongly with the economic struggle, with what people are going through," 21-year-old Shugsmakx told me as he sipped on a fruit shake, which he pushed out of frame before I took his photograph, so that he'd look tough. "We are the youth. We have a voice and need to speak. … We talk about things that happen around us, we just reflect the world."
Sowetan-born Shugasmakx and his six partners did just that by composing the controversial song "Politics," from Skwatta Camp's 2002 album, Khut en Joyn, which ruffled some ANC feathers when it hit the airwaves. Skwatta Camp effectively took the liberation struggle's old tool, repackaged it, and unleashed on its inventor.
Some DJs who prefer to play Kwaito music—the light dance beats born in the townships—think South African hip-hop groups such as Skwatta Camp produce nothing but imported noise that lacks local flavor. Some former fighters in the liberation struggle now fast approaching middle age would probably agree.
"The young people of today only care about America," a senior member of the ANC government, clearly nostalgic for the struggle of his youth, recently told me.
Although Skwatta Camp may look and sound American, they are distinctly South African. Their lyrics express disillusionment with the revered ANC of the liberation struggle and caustically criticize the government for leaving "the people" behind in its scramble to the top:
The struggle goes on and the people still suffer. Papa President, when your jet is flying to all other lands, remember there are people here who don't understand. Your campaign punch line was "Better Life for All." Five years later your punch line was "Stall." There's nothin' positive to sing about my government … To me political parties are like escort agencies, those that fuck around the most get more money. Of course they work hard to make their own pockets fat, but they don't give a fuck about you and me, it's all an act. …
Call me ignorant, but I know my shit. I got directions, why the fuck do you think I don't take part in these elections? Signing out, A-N-C you later. Funny how you never starve when you're an MP, while the people you represent are in poverty.
DJ Bad Boy T hosts a music show on YFM, a South Africa radio station that caters to youth and features hot local talent. When he played "Politics," he received some serious flack, especially from the ANC Youth League, the organization founded by Nelson Mandela decades ago. To work through the problems, Bad Boy held an on-air workshop during his daily show, during which the youth league and Skwatta Camp came to a truce.
"It's time for hip-hop, because it shows exactly what's going on in the streets," 29-year-old Bad Boy T told me. "When I first heard "Politics" I was impressed somebody had the balls to say out loud what we were saying in the corridors and at home. The response was stupendous."
The South African people placed an enormous amount of faith in the ANC-led government when it came to power in 1994, expecting it to right decades of horrific wrongs immediately. But, to its surprise, the ANC inherited a country mired deep in debt and bankruptcy. Despite this, conditions in the country have improved dramatically. South Africa boasts a sound macroeconomic policy and attracts international investment. Millions of blacks who previously lacked basic facilities now have electricity, housing, and running water. Thousands of schools have been integrated, and many blacks have been steadily climbing the economic ladder.
Many signs of this newfound prosperity can be found in Soweto's Orlando West neighborhood, referred to as the township's "Beverly Hills," where the streets are lined with spacious, two-story houses. Expensive cars are regularly parked in front of Nambitha, a swank new restaurant that would be right at home in London or New York.
Yet millions of South Africans still live in squatter camps (hence, the group's name), jobs are scarce, and poverty is rife.
"A major problem is that we don't have viable opportunities in the country, and there is a fear that the ANC will become complacent or already has," said Phakama Ntshongwana of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. "But there are strategies [to improve people's lives] in place. It won't happen overnight. This is still a young democracy, and you have the good and the bad. People's hope was unrealistic during apartheid. We had to have that to survive. We had to believe everything was going to be all right when the ANC came to power. But today, the ANC Youth League needs to educate, to reach out—and not just when they're campaigning."
Maureen Mnisi, who lives on the other side of Soweto in Protea South, is one of those living in squatter camps, euphemistically known as an "informal settlements."
"We voted for our government because we believed the system would change. But so far it still hasn't benefited the poor; we're still suffering," Maureen, told me on a scorching day last month. "For 10 years now they have been promising us [the government would provide housing]. How can we trust them?"
Maureen, a lifelong ANC supporter who says she won't vote in the April 14 elections, gave me a tour of her neighborhood. The muddy, pot-holed roads were strewn with garbage, and an endless maze of shacks dotted the area.
Back on the hip-hop scene, I met Dice, Bushweed, Crack, Africa Sobhusa, Bobby 6 Killa, and Jika Joe at Jam & Sons Bar and Grill, which has recently started a weekly open mike session in a rundown neighborhood of downtown Johannesburg.
All from desperately poor backgrounds, and many from a former life of crime, the six now prefer to channel their frustration and angst into their rap music.
"We talk about the problems we're facing as youth. We don't have money to educate ourselves," Dice told me. "We don't rob somebody. We're trying to get ourselves together." They hope to be as big as Skwatta Camp some day.
"My father died with nothing. I don't want to die like him. I don't smoke drugs, I work to reach a good point in my life," Jika Joe explained as the jam session ended. "Our fathers were oppressed. We didn't have facilities after Mandela opened the doors. Now it's up to us to open our own doors."