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Culture, Music, Reality


by Brandon Edmonds / 30.12.2013
Image © STEVE GORDON/Musicpics.co.za

We all know how truth and reconciliation worked out. Closing in on 20 years later, it’s now clear the TRC, that downcast flipside of 2010, was a kind of mnemonic Tutu toilet designed to flush away the political substance of victims’ memories and experience (the moral content of any radical demand for a socially just South Africa). While offering actual killers and architects of horror a cuttlefish upon which to dull their consciences. Sorry we threw your son on the braai. Whatevs.

An extraordinary encounter between gangsters and the community in Manenberg proves that that emotive talkfest still floats like an ice chip in the problem solving talk soup of this nation. It has left a legacy.

You must know Manenberg schools were temporarily shuttered recently and that gang violence in the “poverty-stricken” area reportedly killed 50 people (many “innocent bystanders” i.e. too old or too young or too gainfully employed to belong to a gang). Stray bullets flew in broad daylight like Bosnia. Egypt, Fallujah, Kandahar and Sandy Hook. A bystander was shot in the throat. Think about that. Try swallow and breathe thinking about it. This is happening. Every day. Right here. Another quantum of bloody excess tossed on a heap marked FUBAR.

Thug Life

A teacher at Silverstream Secondary in Manenberg told the media she looked up to see her students at the window watching a chase scene out of the Bourne Identity. An armed man chased an unarmed one across her classroom window like a flat screen TV. The men outside might have turned to see a line of children’s faces smooshed against the glass, distorting their features, in an image worthy of tik, of Rob Zombie, of a reanimated Jamie Uys.

How do you go back to subtraction after that?

Western Cape Premiere, Helen Zille, to the rapture of the scared shitless comment thread-ariat, literally called for an internal occupation by the SADF, giving a taste of life for the underclass in Zillestan should the Kolisi’s dragons mature come the 2014 election.

We give the floor now to a gangster called Chicken caught in the act of doing what the media can’t stand: expanding the parameters of the shorthand it uses to pre-package his middle-class reception. Here Chicken, a “gangster”, appears lucid, compassionate, and insightful: “I told my brothers there are laaitjies affected and this thing cannot continue (Chicken means the killings, the community disruption). We all need peace.”

Wait. Stop. Listen to “Manenberg” while you read what Chicken has to say. Seriously.

“I grew up in Manenberg and people know me. This is not about me, the Americans or the Hard Livings. It is about the people of Manenberg. We are here now, not to please the HLs or the Americans, we are here to help the people of Manenberg.”

Chicken said as much in a church at a “peace meeting” meant to find a way back to whatever passes for normal in Manenberg. There’s a flood of history and sociology to explain all this: group areas, forced removals, space, race, work, no work, mothers, fathers, drugs, rap, nihilism and guns. But “this is not about me,” Chicken said. Let’s take him at his word. “It is about the people of Manenberg”. What Chicken may be saying, possibly under duress, at the behest of powerful men whose bodies are inked postcards from the mind of Hieronymus Bosch, men who want all the exposure, fuss and bother to end so the game can continue, making him lie in a church, what he is saying is, we understand belonging: we’re gangsters.

What the bosses of the Americans and the Hard Livings made Chicken do is widen the lens of belonging for a moment, from gang to community (“it’s about the people of Manenberg”). Violence is suspended in the space of that adjustment because each attack in gang mode appears destructive of a community reliant on law-abiding civility.

Image © Don Pinnock.

What Chicken revealed is that gangs know very well what is at stake with each kill, sale and robbery, each violent criminal act. They are destroying the community and they know it. That they do so regardless is the failure of this society to provide enough compelling, de facto reasons to keep kids from narrowing the focus of allegiance to a gang: no family, no work, no future.

As some worthy academic once put it: gangs “embody the structural bond between the dominant social centre and its peripheral communities and they are the expression of the cultural and economic contradictions between the two.”

You’re still listening to “Manenberg”, right?

Chicken didn’t get off that easy. This is Manenberg after all. Long-term resident, Melanie Manuel, gave him a piece of her mind:

“We will not let you get off so easily. This community is traumatised. People have been injured and children have seen these things happen. You must remember this is a memory that will not go away. You must know how you hurt us.”

Chicken lives in Ibrahim’s ageless composition and Melanie Manuel, too. Chicken is there in Basil “Manenberg” Coetzee’s sax, chancy, racy, and rude and Melanie is Ibrahim’s constant, rolling piano, the notes holding everything together like a spine or a railway track. Music so vital, so perfect you could keep looking until you find everyone who ever lived. Here is one of the greatest bits of South African anything ever made. The piece’s dignity, depth and precision put our constant failure of each other to shame.

Be safe, Manenberg.

Abdullah Ibrahim

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