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Culture, Reality

Street Talk

by Brandon Edmonds, image by Jason Bronkhorst / 01.03.2010

“I totally believe in acting international / while living locally” – HHP, ‘Make Monyeke’

How about that for a primer on behaving well come the FIFA behemoth in June? He lives it, does Jabba, Jabulani Tsambo, aka Double HP, linking up with rap royalty Nas while hatching rhymes in Tswana, Zulu and Sesotho. Act international, while living locally. It’s one of the strongest intuitions an entertainer has ever had about redeeming ourselves from the trinity of bad mental settings (xenophobia, entitlement and indifference) holding ‘our democracy’ back. It’s a timely aside. We ought to take Double HP to heart. We ought to listen.

When dancers appear in a public square in the ‘Make Monyeke’ video, slipping in behind Jabba like civic blooms, you get a sense of the South African city (so routinely drenched in fear and dread) as a claimable solution to ‘big questions’ (crime, conflict, want), a place hungry for harmony, open to surprising combinations, somewhere to link arms and enjoy yourself. After all, we built this city, and go on building it, a city is only ever the sum of its collective lives, the built expression of teeming human destinies. We can change it at will. Read Dickens or Mike Davis.

We’re surrounded by utterances worth hearing. (Pity then Double HP’s fly old skool party video only has 388 views on Youtube! A staggering index of the absence of blacks online, perhaps?

It may be noise to the driven consumer but those without wheels, the majority of the country, 60% of commuters, conduct their days in a stew of language. There’s talk on trains, on buses and in the street. Un-commoditized talk. Vivid, brutal, funny and alive – just take a listen. Put your ear to the surround sound.

In a Wynberg taxi recently, I was treated to the ‘zef’ satirical instinct that so animates an outfit like Die Antwoord (despite the NME’s ridiculous deflation of the band’s achievement, the genuine bite and attack of the lyrical flow, lazily labeling them ‘the District 9 Ali G’, suggesting it’s all a put-on, as if Coldplay cooled global warming, as if death metal ever killed anyone, as if Bono ever made dinner for starving Haitians, the culture incubating ‘zef’’ is very real, it’s out there on the streets).

Our gaartjie, the prison-familiar fare-taker who contorts into barely-there taxi space, was straight out of central casting: in need of dentistry, poorly fed, inked down his arms, and gifted with the kind of predatory eyes that settle the nature-nurture debate, society, our society, with its monopolized resource pool and broken families, had clearly made him what he is.

He kept up an antic refrain: ‘heeltyd is spieltyd’. All my time, is playtime. The way he sang the words, holding the vowels, stretching them out, making mischief of his ‘structural uselessness’, fooling with what the neo-liberal economy had made of him, a man with a bag of coins, on an endless ride, was hugely affecting. The song became a kind of anthem, a passing testimony to the human damage behind official unemployment figures. That, and he really did seem able to enjoy him self, someone with the gift of life, complimenting ladies, making jokes, sucking on a Rothmans, saluting the KFC colonel, really a man alive to his conjuncture, his social moment.

What made us passengers laugh out loud, though, was an exchange between gaartjies, an inter-gaartjie red robot exchange, which sounds like a lost Phillip K. Dick novel, and went like this. Our guy is singing his song “heeltyd is spieltyd” when a rival taxi pulls alongside and the rival gaartjie and he locks eyes for a beat. Then in exquisite unison, by some craven gaartjie telepathy, they both say the word ‘fokus’ and do a Marx Brothers gesture, two fingers pointed at each other’s eyes!
It was wonderful street theatre.

The seriousness of the word ‘fokus’ – its association with management theory and yuppie self-transcendence – the ‘focus’ of the ethical manager, the warm CEO, the focus of the cash-rich weekend warrior, tri-athletes, gurus, experts, the whole shitty cavalcade of late capitalist professionals with our laptops and organic breads – was brilliantly undermined. These two young men were parodying all that. Making light of the unbearable weight of under-employment. We laughed in recognition of their personalities, the undying wisdom of their instinct to upend ‘common sense’ and belittle received opinion. They had seen through the bullshit because they live the truth of our country everyday.

The official flipside of that subversive, freewheeling talk, the genuinely free speech of the streets, what canny Marxist linguist Mikhail Bakhtin once termed ‘carnivalesque’ – a notion well-worth googling, lies in Danny Jordaan’s Darth Vader-like pronouncement: “Today as we welcome this trophy, we announce the death of doubt”. Think about that a bit: “we announce the death of doubt”. One ought immediately to yell, fuck you, Danny, my doubt is my own; keep your FIFA-smooching hands off it!

You can’t “announce” the end of a private disposition. You can’t legislate a feeling. It is why most countries honor the separation of church and state. Doubt and belief, rigidly applied, made into public policy, is dangerous, ask the Taliban, and have no place in the circulating exchange of rational talk. A press statement has no business banishing a mood. Doubt is an outlook, subject to change, it can’t be decided for us, despite us. This is how ideology works. It assumes it knows us, it presumes it speaks for us, it shuts our own voices up and subsumes us in a made-up whole, a nation, or ‘an international community’, that barely even scratches the surface of who we really are.

Worryingly, the “death of doubt” is not only an official injunction – you, South Africans, love your World Cup, or else! It is FIFA operational policy. Squash dissent, shut out debate and rule like Stalin – what the leader says, goes. These accusations aren’t muck-racking, they emerged as far back as 2002 when FIFA’s 2nd ranking official, secretary-general, Michel Zen-Ruffinen, accused Sepp Blatter of making the presidency ‘the all-powerful center of FIFA’ and using huge TV and marketing revenue ‘to consolidate its power base’ – without organizational transparency. He was fired for his troubles.

Big Soccer Brother (BSB) is run like a “dictatorship” and that means the media have to be shaped and “embedded” to ensure they stay on message, and toot the company horn. Clauses in FIFA’s “accreditation regulations” rule out stories that “negatively affect the public standing of the Local Organizing committee or FIFA”. That’s like telling Woodward & Bernstein, look, great Watergate story and all but we aren’t really supposed to make the President look bad!

Faced with local media outrage, FIFA then pulled the classic bait and switch power move: the lynching of press freedom is necessary for our own good! “The purpose of the media accreditation terms and conditions is to regulate the behavior of people entering the 2010 FIFA World Cup venues, first and foremost to ensure the safety of everyone in those venues”. Please mentally conjure the back end of a bull – now imagine steaming turds plopping from it. How press restrictions equate with public safety at venues remains a Blatter-dipped mystery. German media didn’t accept press restrictions 5 years ago, why should we?

Plucky Anton Harber, veteran journalist, and the guy with his hand on the rudder of the Mail & Guardian’s long gone best years, puts it like this:
“Fifa has banished those people who try to make a living around the stadiums, they have made us divert development money into fancy stadiums, and we have had to give up all sorts of rights for the month they will be in control of our cities. But if they mess with our freedom of speech….they are going to have a fight on their hands.”

Let’s close then with two more instances of South African talk, one conciliatory, the other gloriously combative, yin yang, two sides that say most about us here and now. One comes from the most high, that dirty dawg, our President, JZ, and, the other, deal with it, from the most exciting local band to emerge in this country in, oh, a decade at least, Die Antwoord.

“Let us display the Rainbow Nation to the world, let us display that here on the southern tip, where mankind originates from, we can make the home of everyone!”
I think that’s choicely put. The home of everyone – its Mbeki-lite, ubuntu ingeniously re-packaged for a recession-hit tourist crowd on its way to our shores.

Now watch ‘Taxijam presents Die Antwoord’

Taxijam presents Die Antwoord from taxijam on Vimeo.

Amongst other things, including being riveting, the video dramatizes the following passage from Jeff Chang’s brilliant Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, a burningly essential history of the hip-hop generation, on the global commercialization of this liberating music, “What does it mean to ‘keep it real anymore’? What did it mean to be true to something when that something had changed? Could one preserve any kind of individual agency or did one have to ride with the new flow of exploitation? Identity was on sale.”

That’s the truth. From the guy in the taxi performing for us by being himself, to Double HP, rapping native tongues in a borrowed form from a foreign country, to Danny Jordaan speaking on behalf of an outfit that shirks the democratic ethos he was jailed for upholding, to Die Antwoord, trying on the clothes and attitudes of a Cape Flats street lingo and look born of generations of ongoing ruin and suffering – identity is for sale.

Image courtesy and © Jason Bronkhorst

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