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Culture, Reality

Chisa Nyama Disneyland

by Rémy Ngamije, images by David Bloomer / 20.04.2011

House music blares. Beer flows. Sweat on unwashed skin adds a salty, musty tang to the air. The smoke and smell of spiced meat cooking is oppressive. Flies land on people who have come to “experience” township life at Mzoli’s. From ten in the morning the queue for meat grows and by two it winds around the block. “Block” in this case is purely metaphorical since there are no clear demarcations where one property starts and another ends. Ownership is another of those hazy concepts that change over time here.

Half of Cape Town seems to have descended on the small township braai house. The black half. The white half are enjoying the Kirstenbosch Summer Concerts – in the middle of Whitesville. There’s a certain sombre something that ensures those who frequent Mzoli’s seldom show up at Kirstenbosch on a Sunday. On my last visit to a Summer Concert, I mentally stacked the black deterrents: R75 for a ticket, minimal liquor, lots of old folks around, and children, and too many flowers you can’t smoke. The acts are deterrents too. Bands not really about bump and grind. It’s clean cut. Too rigid, expensive, sober and far. In short, too white.

Mzoli’s is different – it’s rowdy and packed. Stray dogs outnumber the flies who are outnumbered by hungry kids waiting for scraps. Shouts of “WOZA! WOZA!” accompany every track change, dance circles open and close. The queue to the bathroom often merges with the dancers and you don’t know who needs to go and who’s just jiving. Mzoli’s in full swing.

My sobriety makes me stand out. Big women with gold teeth entice me with Black Label while others tempt me with meat. I shut them down politely. Unwelcome stares greet me at every turn – a black person turning away black hospitality. There is always someone not having fun. Today, I am that darkie. A pool of anti-Rémy deepens around me – the rock of sobriety in a sea of boozy black madness, dotted by random white tourists soaking up the vibe.

Mzolis Gugulethu

Everyone knows Mzoli’s is the place to go for the best meat in the city served up with a genuine township vibe – the place to experience “authentic” black culture. But what’s so good about ghetto life? My opinion is that hoods like Gugs are made to be gotten out off, not gotten into. You can eat meat anywhere. Mzoli’s is not that special.

But it does do an excellent job at letting tourists and intrepid pale locals safely brush up against the other half. A quick sociological fix. Quite a few of them on the bus ride home exclaimed how much they loved the township vibe. “Definitely coming back again!”

Beer, music and meat suggests an abundance that isn’t the whole story. For an authentic township experience, you have to wake up with your belly growling like a pack of wolves, and wonder where your next meal is coming from. Jam has to be a familiar word, but an alien taste. The free-wheeling frivolity of Mzoli’s rarely spills into the street. It doesn’t exist around the corner. It’s a very controlled experiment. A social placebo – you experience a lot, without experiencing much at all.

Outside in the parking lot, cars mounted on the dirt strewn kerbs stretch endlessly. Golf GTIs, Audis and Mercs. High-end rides guarded by dirty children waiting for a Rand from the drunk patrons inside. One BMW number plate reads “TENDER – WP”. The contrast between this wealth on wheels and the surrounding poverty brings out the commie in me. I want to see a working class revolution there and then. Where is the SACP when you need them? (Most of them are inside. Marx rolls in his grave.)

Mzolis Gugulethu

Mzoli’s progressively descends into a state of nature as time passes. Meat buckets spill. Grease coats every surface. Bathrooms clog. Drunken men embrace you – soaking you in pork juice and beer sweat – while older women work their butts into your crotch as they dance. Sober, Mzoli’s is a nightmare.

Questioning unbecoming black behaviour is taboo in Mzansi. Because of Apartheid, in the New South Africa, black people do what black people want to do. Questioning this implies social detachment, proof that you’re incapable of understanding “what we have been through” and “who we are.” Sacrosanct black experience is the all-trumping card that squashes any and all debate about the kind of regressive cultural shortcomings most communities display. Criticism of any kind is not welcome – it’s not black.

But try sitting at Mzoli’s sober, surrounded by the black middle class idly blowing money, with nothing better to do on a Sunday than drink and eat themselves comatose while raggedy kids beg for money outside. Your conscience awakens. It’s shocking. And you feel bad. Traitorous even. It is as though that Windhoek Lager guy shakes his head at you and asks, “What are you doing Rémy? Hmm? Think thinking like this is helping anyone?”

Mzoli’s is not black – it’s a Sophiatown Disneyland selling the image short. It’s a profitable franchise doing very little for the desperate community surrounding it. Just another drinking hole in Cape Town. We should stop buying that it’s “cultural” just because it’s in a township.

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