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‘We are asking for unity’ — art, music as powerful sites of political youth agitation

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Kolosa Ntombini is a PhD candidate in the Department of Environmental & Geographical Science at UCT. Her research interests are in agriculture, mining, land reform and justice. Her PhD thesis explores questions of spatial justice by analysing land redistribution policy and practice in South Africa.

Young people’s participation in political expressions of art is a political practice that is equivalent to, if not more significant than traditional political practices such as attending political rallies.

Many South Africans are familiar with the word “uManyano”, which is the shorthand of the Women’s Guild, oMama boManyano, a prayer organisation within churches, mostly distinctly the Methodist Church.

But this last week Friday, this was the title of one of the songs in Kitso Seti’s “Revelation 18 v 4” performance based on his upcoming album. I have had the privilege of watching most of Kitso’s shows since 2017, so I am familiar with the electric nature of his performances, but Friday’s performance was something else. Cape Town’s Selective Live was packed to the brim with young people singing with conviction, “UManyano, sicela umanyano”, which translates to “Unity, we are asking for unity”.

As a social scientist watching this, some thoughts naturally came to my mind. This was no ordinary Friday night. It was Friday, 23 February 2024 when the voter’s roll was officially closed ahead of what many argue is the most crucial election since the dawn of democracy.

Since 1994, the number of voters has continued to plummet, with political analysts often reflecting on how few votes the ruling party secured in the 2019 general election and how the unregistered youth could have unseated the ruling party by their sheer numbers had they voted (differently, we assume).

At the core of these discussions is the suggestion that the youth are apathetic and apolitical. Yet, looking around Selective Live, I saw young people who resonated with music that is deeply political.

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA youth not apathetic but no longer believe elections are best path to change

In his performance of uManyano, Kitso starts by playing an extract from a song by the Methodist Church, reminding us that his music, too, must be read as a prayer — a plea for help. The song’s lyrics reflect on moments in the struggle for freedom across the continent: Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah’s killing, Miriam Makeba’s time in exile, Chris Hani’s murder and the bloody fight between Inkatha and the ANC in the lead-up to the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) negotiations.

Kitso then goes on to lament the incoming government for its inability to address Afrophobia in South Africa post-1994. In all this, he concludes that the only viable option is uManyano. UManyano, not superficially, but as a recognition that to move forward as a country and indeed a continent, we must actively strive to relate better.

I could talk endlessly about the lyrical prowess of the whole performance, but at this stage, I think it is essential to reflect on the audience. Young people in South Africa are struggling economically, battling inflation and one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, yet they came in their masses to watch this performance. What is it about the performance that made it so?

Youth unity through art

In tough economic times, consumers tend to cut back on non-necessities, and entertainment is often the first to be cut off; hence, artists often struggle more in times of economic difficulty. When young people continue to spend very actively on art, we should stop and think more deeply.

Young people are interested in music that not only entertains but also honours their experiences, and this is the balance that young artists effortlessly strike.

Here, I am not just thinking of Kitso; there’s Msaki, Zoë Modiga and iPhupho L’ka Biko, to mention a few. This goes back to our historical continuum; the likes of Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Brenda Fassie, Zola, and Bongo Maffin — art in South Africa has always been political.

And so why do we have this disjuncture between the everyday political awareness that underlies music and art choices and this view that young people are apathetic?

Perhaps the answer lies in how we expect young people to be political. We try to gauge young people from places where there is no attempt to include them in politics. I am moved by Nkanyiso Ngqulunga and Bwanika Langa’s article which reflects on how the exclusion of young people from politics starts with political party manifestos.

Young people are not disinterested in politics wholly; they are disinterested in the current political party politics as they do not reflect their challenges, views, or aspirations.

I am left wondering what it would mean for our starting point in the youth participation discussion to be to recognise that young people are, in fact, very political. Our failure lies in not paying attention to the spaces where young people are voicing themselves and practising politics — albeit differently.

Instead, we need to acknowledge that young people’s participation in political expressions of art is a political practice that is equivalent to, if not more significant than traditional political practices such as attending political rallies.

Where and how young people voice themselves matters! Spaces like Selective Live are political spaces of artistic expression that need to be recognised as such if we are to redefine politics in ways that centre young people.

Perhaps, more radically, politicians need to actively engage with these spaces or mediums where young people are expressing themselves, for example, listening to their music as a means to understand their struggles, fears, hopes, and aspirations.

Maybe then, the politicians who claim to want change would be able to mobilise the people that matter:  the young people of this country – our future. DM

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  • Lawrence Sisitka says:

    What an absolutely superb article – congratulations Ms Ntombini! Yes, if the young people are to be engaged, it needs to be done as part of their culture, not the old dying-on-its-feet churn of manifestos, slogans, dreary speeches, political rallies free (and mostly very ugly) t-shirts and the rest of the conventional political claptrap. A new vibrant politics, which is what we desperately need, needs new vibrant creative thinking and this is where the arts: visual, audio, and everything in between, must lead. I am fairly sure that none of the political parties currently contesting the elections can come anywhere near what is needed, and in fact we need to move away from the idea of political parties anyway, and just leave them to stew in their own lack of imagination. A politics of the streets, of communities, of the youth is the future, so stand back and be blown away!

  • David Forbes says:

    As I’ve been saying for almost a decade now, the time for political parties and trade unions is OVER! They are past their sell-by dates, with their rigid hierarchies, ideological stiffness, unbending quest for power rather than serving the people. No wonder young people are sick of our current politics (and not just in SA, it’s a worldwide trend). Young people should lead more, and we, the older people, should give them the space to lead, ESPECIALLY in arts and culture, which are routinely only discussed by politicians as a wooden “social cohesion”, as if we are just so many wooden blocks to be stuck together with some magic kind of glue! Voetsek politicians, let’s get back to street committees, area committees, and democracy by The People, as envisaged in the Freedom Charter, so that we care for the poor, the needy, the hungry, the unemployed and we shun conspicuous consumerism, virulent competition, and create a kinder, more ethical society. There, rant over!

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