Mapantsulaby Ts'eliso Monaheng / 02.05.2013
Poloko lives on the outskirts of Joburg with his grandmother and two younger sisters. At twenty years young, he’s seen first-hand all the ills of kasi life eMzansi. Up until last year, he had been attending the local high school where puffing the odd zol by the river nearby took pole position on his daily schedule. After getting lifted, he would slip back into the hood to check on his girlfriend who, at the time, was six months pregnant with their child.
The pressure of having a baby on the way with no gainful employment, amplified by taking care of his siblings and feeling trapped inside a public education system which persistently fails to contribute meaningfully to its students’ knowledge base, led to him seeking out an alternative. That old dirty crime story. The details are sketchy; he makes the odd comment about a near-prison stint, but evades my questions which attempt to prod further. We’re at a corner café in Braamfontein; what was supposed to be short banter has turned into full conversation as we wait for our orders – a kota for him, slap-chips for me. He gets uneasy when I mention jail, so we just skip the line of questions about the crimes he’s committed.
While he may be an iconoclast to kids in the hood, with many wishing to immerse themselves in dance so as to possess his level of skill, mainstream society is not so forgiving. He is an ‘outcast’, a mishap relegated to the outskirts of our inner circle – we the affluent, the influential, the upwardly mobile.
It was on Facebook that he learnt of the Redbull Beat Battle qualifiers; a friend had shared the event on his wall.
Since dropping out, all Poloko does is choreograph routines for the rest of his crew to practice. “We meet four days of the week with the guys” he tells me. While fitness is not an issue, time remains critical, and preparing for the qualifiers was not a breeze. Other members are still in school and others have side hustles which help them to sustain their livelihood.
This will be their second year competing, having been knocked out at the initial stages of the competition in 2012. “What I can say,” Poloko explains, “it’s the same script, different cast.” He lets out a sigh. He adds that there have been a couple of changes since last year; that despite time limitations, there is a greater sense of determination among all the crew members for this year. “Because it’s street dance, we also want to represent the genre, ‘spantsula!” He says.
The origins of the dance style are sketchy. While some attribute it to the gumboot dance techniques of the early 50s, ispantsula is more likely to have originated in more urbane settings – Sophiatown or Alexandra – where the marabi and jazz rhythms influenced the evolution of its percussive, high-energy structure. The choreography is said to have always attempted to tell a story: catching a train from the outskirts of the city to Jozi Maboneng – Park Station to be precise; getting mugged and attempting to seek out help from one’s neighbours; or merely getting wasted with amajita at a tavern somewhere in the townships. Whatever the case, one thing is for certain: towards the end of the 80s pantsula culture had matured from a small baby into a teenager. Hell, the old apartheid era SABC even agreed to screen the film Mapantsula in 1989, a movie about “a petty gangster who inevitably becomes caught up in the growing anti-apartheid struggle.”
I grew up amongst pantsulas, and two things were always inevitable regardless of location. One was their immaculate sense of style which comprised of Converse All-Stars and Dickies-branded khaki pants which flew a few centimetres above the ankles, along with a jersey courtesy of Pringle and head-gear courtesy of Dajikorp. The other was a sinister obsession with violence and intimidation. Almost without fail, one would hear of a pantsula cat getting stabbed at a bar over the weekend; fights were commonplace. Pantsulas’ love for knives – three star or okapi traditionally, or a ‘Rambo’ knife for the more militant – was legendary.
After our meal, we take a few minutes’ walk back to the Alexandra Theatre where the qualifiers are being held. We re-join his crew and our chat is eerily devoid of any talk of violence. Instead, we speak of their dreams and aspirations and our shared love for kwaito music. The genre played a big part in sensitising mainstream audiences to pantsula culture. The biggest song on commercial radio in the early 2000s was about pantsulas – Kabelo’s “Pantsula 4 life”.
I ask what opportunities they foresee by partaking in the Beat Battle competition. “If there are opportunities for an overseas tour, just for people to see what we are about, we would like to take it.”
Before long, the team disappears into the main theatre. The plan was to hang out longer, perhaps even pay them a visit back in the hood. They walk back out with smiles on their faces, not because they made it through to the finals, but because their collective resolve supersedes any loss or setback they may endure along the way. Poloko gives me dap, adding that “there’s always a next time”, before heading down Stiemens Street towards the orange-tinted Jozi skyline. He is the archetype for many youths across South Africa whose last resort is dancing joyfully out of dire living conditions. And I am the idiot who, through forgetfulness or ignorance, didn’t take down any contact numbers to make a return visit a reality.