It’s easy, when discussing our current leadership crisis, to head straight to the Guptas’ arrival at Waterkloof airforce base. Or to Danny Jordaan, explaining with a straight face how the purchase of 20-something luxury Mercedes vehicles for the Safa big guys somehow constitutes sports development.
But what about the rest?
What about the general media? How is it that we accept so easily the scorn poured onto our heads via our TV programming (or lack thereof)? Are Cosby re-runs across all national channels all we deserve as a nation? What does this tell us about what our media leaders think of us as a people? What about eTV’s snake movies? The station is cynical and brazen in its continual re-running of a core set of very old flicks featuring either Nicholas Cage, large snakes, Cedric the Entertainer or a Marvel Comics character. Is this any way to handle the responsibility that comes with broadcasting power?
Yes, the government fat men radiate opulence and cynicism with their blue lights and 4x4s, but do our other big-earning leaders and business owners and celebrities not drive very similar vehicles? Gareth Cliff, for example, is happy to take partially amusing (and completely justified, it must be said) satirical pot shots at JZ and Mac on his 5FM breakfast show, and then, without a shadow of irony, treats us to “music” from the depths of generic global entertainment hell, before trotting off to judge Idols, a talent format designed to pull all originality and spark out of our aspirant young creatives until they finally fit the global pop star mould. Where is the social leadership? Is he the example we are supposed to follow? Is reality TV land our true creative/social nirvana? South Africa produces a good deal of powerful creative content within the realm of pop culture, but it seldom receives mass market listenership. Why? Because the effort of showcasing socially relevant and original music is just too much for those in leadership positions. Our media leaders want to bank their salaries. They do not want to alter a global status quo which has evolved over decades explicitly to generate revenue through the ad infinitum repetition of generic global beats.
Take, for example, the hip hop track Smoke, by Sifiso Sudan. In a society in danger of completely losing its practical and philosophical bearings, Sudan, through Smoke, offers an illuminating take on where we are as a people. He shines a light on our social cancer – the resulting view isn’t pretty, but at least if feels true. Will we ever hear Smoke on the radio? Of course not. No one has risked championing this song.
Sifiso Sudan is one of the more enigmatic characters working on the South African music scene. I ask him about the trajectory of his music career and he slips past the question twice (with most artists, the query sparks a three-hour monologue on the state of the entertainment business blah blah blah). Sudan’s social attitude reflects a hidden yet important aspect of local youth culture. He is one of a cluster of artists who are more social activists than musical careerists. They work in their communities, and let the light fall where it may. Sudan is not fundamentally coy, however. I ask him what Smoke is all about, and there is no ducking.
“Smoke is about our leadership,” he says. “Because soon we will see people around the world rising up against leadership that has sold them down the river. The penalty for them will be severe. This song is a warning to them.”
Released as part of African Dope’s Cape of Good Dope II compilation early in 2009, Smoke is a tantalising piece of hip hop. The production is slick, the beat is captivating and Sudan delivers one of the most delightfully slippery sets of political lyrics of the post 1994 era. The song sits awkwardly on the Cape of Good Dope II compilation, however, which is ultimately a collection of broken and abused beats, collated for the specific enjoyment of those who live in and around club land. Indeed, the track is filled with duality. The repetition of the word smoke in the chorus can, at a casual listen, simply be assumed to refer to a desire for (more) marijuana. As with all good hip hop, lyrical and thematic deconstruction requires effort. Sudan lets us have enough, just enough, and no more.
The key to Smoke is the chorus, but it is given its power by a set of verses that encapsulate South Africa’s current social discord:
Our politicians write these speeches /
and it’s back to the beaches /
some of them buy these four by fours /
what does this teach us
We live a life of lazy living /
though I gotta hand it ta ya /
best conditions on the planet /
even underwears are branded /
helicopters landed on the playground where I went to school /
rich kids don’t have to act cool /
they’re never stranded
I’ll tell you a secret /
rich people don’t bling /
mandela washed away their sins /
tonight they sleep with a grin /
I’m gonna make a soundtrack for the have nots /
guilt free money that we won’t get back
All of which makes the chorus, even though half of the lyric is alluringly muffled, ring ominously true:
We all choke /
but check the murderer… /
When all we need is hope hope, smoke /
Sudan grew up in KwaZulu-Natal but lived in New York from age 13 until he was a young adult. It was in the Big Apple that he started rapping, and he brought his skills back to the local hip hop underground. With Smoke he hits on a fundamental truth – namely that it’s nigh impossible in South Africa at the moment to identify exactly who the metaphorical “murderer” is. He subverts the typical South African racial approach, replacing it with a more current and nuanced South African social offender: a 4 x 4-driving, beach-loving suburbanite who sleeps with a grin, untroubled by the forces of history that are klapping so many in the immediate vicinity. Is the murderer a businessman? A politician? An advertising exec? An Apartheid-era nationalist? A unionist? Well, all of the above actually. The job description doesn’t matter. But the fact of the ongoing social murder does.
When I asked him for his take on current politics in South Africa, Sudan’s answer encapsulated an ethos that is common across many of our creative youth, but that seldom finds voice beyond social media.
“I read up on politicians not to hear about their celebrity lifestyles but because I’m concerned about our future in their hands,” he says. “Every day I see people around me who are better role models. Better organisers. More patient teachers. Harder workers. And more visual and vivid thinkers. Yet these people are silent. They are absent. They are tweeting. And that is why we are in the condition we’re in. In our music today we are calling all Kings. We are calling all Queens. We are [calling] the rightful heirs to the throne.”
Sudan is by no means alone. The notion of profound social rot recurs, for example, in the work of young folk singer Bongeziwe Mabandla. He operates on the other side of the musical spectrum to Sudan, but he sends essentially the same message in his song Freedom:
I used to believe in justice /
and tales with joyful endings /
that no one could ever struggle /
until their life is over /
but I had to go and change my mind /
when I see the truth before me /
is it everyone for themselves? /
is that the way we’re conditioned?
There are significant numbers of creative youth in our communities who work hard at their art and their craft not to become famous in the Idols sense, but to make a difference in the lives of their parents, siblings, children and surrounding communities. While our politicians and unionists roar around in blue-lit 4x4s… while our businesspeople bemoan the state of the country from the safety of the golf estate… while our media celebrities douse our spirit with their so-called content, these socially conscious youth are carefully trying to stitch the rotten fabric of our country back together. In the process they write songs and poems which we really can’t be bothered to listen to. Because it takes too much effort. Because Rhianna and Jay Z and the rest are easier to instinctively swallow and digest.
Rappers and poets are not the only youth sending messages to leadership, and the message is by no means being sent within South Africa alone. In 2011 London’s youth tore the city to shreds in a raw rebellion that was treated with disdainful alarm by the likes of Sky News, the British parliament and the BBC. Egyptian youth kicked out their leader. In the US, young and not-so-young counter culture types delivered a conceptually vague – yet still notable – sit-in protest outside Wall Street, while our own youngsters have been burning down their shoddy communities for years in service delivery protests that our leaders glibly write off as irresponsible, before heading to their holiday homes and celebrity weddings. Globally, youth are warning their leaders in many different ways. Poetry and music are actually the easiest to perceive and accommodate, but still we pay them scant regard.
The evidence mounting up around us through each strike season is clear: South Africa urgently requires a philosophical and economic revolution. Our society is structurally fragile and has been so since worthless beads were swapped for valuable land all those centuries ago. It is naïve indeed to expect anything to change now, unless we actually decide to change it ourselves. Sudan and his peers are saying this challenge currently rests in the hands of leaders who, thus far, have shown us only the disturbing sight of their rapidly fattening asses. Sudan says we are outsourcing important ideas of social change to people we don’t trust, and who we increasingly struggle to respect, and in doing so he makes a very good point. In calling for the young Kings and Queens, Sudan et al are saying South African society needs to seriously re-look its essential ideas of leadership. The logical end of Sudan’s idea is that it is us (you, me, your neighbour, the jock on the radio station) who are the true, required leadership in South Africa. If that’s the case, then we might all need to start thinking as seriously about our own behaviour as we do about that of the easy targets. DM
Bumblebees can fly higher than Mount Everest.