South Africa

Kwaito, Dagga, 'Edutainment,' and the Generation Gap in South Africa

Yizo Yizo South Africa
South African TV and music star Bongikosi Dlomani, also known as "Papa Action" and "Zola."

Reading the South African press, one would think that the first generation of youth to come of age since South Africa scrapped apartheid in 1991 has gotten off to a rather bad start. South African newspapers carry daily stories lamenting the country’s myriad problems. The AIDS virus now affects 10 percent of the population and 300,000 children will likely die over the next 10 years. Johannesburg, the economic capital and cultural heart of the South African nation, has felt the full impact of the free-market adjustment ordered by President Thabo Mbeki’s government. Now, in the historical “townships,” almost 50 percent of the population remains unemployed, most of them between the ages of 18 and 25.

Sadly, a visitor first entering this sprawling city of almost 10 million inhabitants finds this vision of Afro-pessimism confirmed. Downtown Johannesburg, once a mecca for business, now transforms into an unsettlingly quiet wasteland after 7 p.m. The highest skyscrapers in Africa have been converted into cheap furnished flats for Nigerian and Congolese immigrants. And, from Alexandra to Soweto, the “sacrificed generation,” which has gone from political guerilla warfare to gangsterism, from civil disobedience to nihilism, again counts its dead. Shootings, robberies, rapes, carjacking and other violent acts of former comtotsis (gangster comrades) each day fill the columns of The Sowetan, the city’s primary daily directed at a black audience. The South African youth who turned up for the protests surrounding the U.N. Conference on Racism at Durban voiced some of the dissatisfaction that such conditions can engender.

In short, despite the Organization for African Unity’s July 2001 New Partnership for Africa’s Development and other generic remedies, a dark pall hangs over South African society that leaves very little to smile about, let alone to joke about. Or so one would think. But on daily broadcasts on Y FM, Johannesburg’s most listened-to radio station, DJ Rude Boy Paul is cackling hysterically. In his laughter, one can hear the voice of a young generation pursuing its own revolution as their parents look on and listen with worry.


“Ecstasy is no good for the ghetto. But you can grow all the plants you want. Yeah!” At the microphone of Y FM, DJ Oscar, 29, is warming up the audience before the opening of a freestyle jam. On the other side of the soundproof windows, about a dozen young rappers dressed in Fubu, and Converse—the Sqwatta Camp Gang, they call themselves—rehearse the rhymes they will soon recite over the air. Earlier, there had been a tense moment when one of the rappers had been asked to leave his gun at the door. Scenes like this have made Y FM the number one radio station for the kids in the townships of Johannesburg. Created five years ago, the station welcomes the best DJs and MCs in the country as guest radio hosts. And so Y FM takes on the direct and provocative tone of South Africans between 16 and 25. Y FM’s young audience has reciprocated by making it their favorite spot on the dial in Jo’burg, as the city is commonly called.

“Y FM is the first radio station created by and conceived for the black youth,” DJ Oscar says, explaining the station’s success. “It is not a community radio station. It is the mirror, both festive and lucid, of the new generation. Here people talk about everything that concerns them or that challenges them in the townships: violence, drugs, AIDS. It plays the music they like: deep house, R&B, hip-hop and, of course, Kwaito.” Kwaito—the rage (Kwai) of the Townships ( To). If there is any symbol of the change that has taken place between the apartheid and post-apartheid generations, it is this music. It emerged—and this is no accident—with the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. The music is a high-energy mixture of politically-conscious lyrics mounted on electronic shock absorbers blending the reggae, jungle, house, and mbaqanga styles that have been the soundtracks to life for South Africa’s new ghetto generation for the past eight years.

DJ Oscar himself contributed to the explosion of this style. He produced the greatest groups, from the Bongo Maffin to the Brothers Of Peace, and his label, Kalawa Jazzmee, is one of the most dynamic of this seething scene. “Black Empowerment [the South African government’s aid program for black-owned businesses], has not benefited us!” DJ Oscar exclaims. “Kwaito, for the first time, has allowed the young people in the ghetto to create their first real black business. We now have labels, studios, and stars who sell over 150,000 records. Today, it has even become a [commercial] culture, [expressed through] its own brands, like Loxion Kulca or Woola Seven. Unfortunately, many of our elders don’t hold us in the same esteem. They see us just as gangsters.” Listening to DJ Oscar, it would be easy to imagine him as a pioneer of hip-hop from the late 1970s in the United States, when the new black generation discovered in hip-hop a way of expressing their new worldview and setting themselves apart from their elders.

A similar change has occurred in South Africa since the end of apartheid, but on a different scale. While the political war for liberation is over, the battle over morality has just begun. And Kwaito is one of its new front lines. Young black men and women love it; their parents hate it. “Vulgarity,” “musical poverty,” “indecent”—the deeply religious women and men who fought with the African National Congress against apartheid do not have words strong enough to decry this new music from the ghetto. Even a songwriter of the stature of Arthur Mafakote, who penned the hit song, “Don’t Call Me Kaffir” in 1993, and has brought out crates of albums since, is completely shunned by the professional, “moral majority” of South Africans.

“Kwaito: Gangsta Paradise Or Spiritual Awakening ?” asked the headline of Johannesburg’s popular magazine, Hola, on April 18. The question was a reference to the initials of Johannesburg’s Gaunteng Precinct, now tellingly nicknamed “Gangsta’ Paradise,” in a play on its initials. The members of the group Natizea, brilliant heirs of this genre, answered: “Kwaito is our way of contributing to change in this country. It is also a way to remind public opinion what the ghetto expects from change: jobs, better schools, and peace on the streets.”


Bongikosi Dlomani, 25, was still in high school when Nelson Mandela won the 1994 presidential election. He insists that we visit the school in Soweto. A young ruffian from Zola, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Soweto, far away from the comfortable suburb Orlando, where Winnie Mandela lives, Dlamani might have ended up in prison like so many other of young men deprived of “mortal fields of combat” when the war of liberation ended. But destiny decided otherwise: Bongikosi is today known as Papa Action, the hero of the most revolutionary series that has ever aired on a public station in the new South Africa: “Yizo Yizo.” As many as 4 million viewers—the most to ever watch a South African TV show—were glued to the screen in spring 2001 to watch the second season of the hard-hitting series. The show’s success can likely be attributed to its frank portrayal of the problems South Africa’s 19 million black youths under the age of 20 face: failure in school, dilapidated school buildings—40 percent of which still have neither water nor electricity—carjacking, broken homes, conflict with teachers.… The education department of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) boldly spared nothing from the show’s scripts.

Reason enough for the rising black middle class to blast this series for showing only the uglier face of South Africa. “Not only does our culture not allow us to watch these kinds of things with our children,” an ANC representative complained, “but this show makes no positive contribution to the society we are seeking to build.” Others demanded that the series be yanked. The case made it as far as the floor of Parliament after an episode depicted sodomy in prison.

It was all in vain. Not only are the producers of “Yizo Yizo,” a multiracial group clustered within Bomb Shelter Studios, preparing a third season scheduled to be filmed in September 2002, but Dlamani has transformed himself from Papa Action to a Kwaito star named Zola, after the neighborhood where he was born. Performances of “Yizo Yizo”’s theme song, “Ghetto Fabulous,” which features lyrics like “Even if you have the worst problems, never give up because you will always be Ghetto Fabulous,”—and an all-out marketing blitz—earned him an esteemed place on FM station play lists. By the end of the year, he had won two awards at the last South African Music Awards, a contract for a weekly FM radio talk show, and a BMW. Just last year, he was saving and hoping to buy a Volkswagen some day.

Still, Dlamani—now Zola—goes from high school to high school in Soweto, delivering the same speech. “You know what I saw while we filming an episode of ‘Yizo Yizo’ in prison?” He asks. “Some guys I went to school with! They thought crime was the best way to get out of here; that the teachers were useless. No! It’s education that’s going to allow you to get out of Soweto. No future without knowledge!”


Fendi bowling bags, malls, digital commercials, cigar bars, and South African wine cellars: Welcome to the other South Africa, the one that reflects the dreams of would-be expatriates who now arrive from the former Yugoslavia and other East European countries. Standing behind the counter of the Picasso, the bartender has never watched “Yizo Yizo.” He doesn’t listen to Kwaito either. Instead, on Saturday night, he will surely go out to the “hardhouse” rave party to be held in the former central heating plant downtown. In Jo’burg, two worlds continue to coexist: the bunker—as the rich white suburbs are called—and the ghetto. Protected by cohorts of private security companies, the white satellite turns and lives at its own pace at a careful distance from the 40 million inhabitants of the great dark sun. “Today I am convinced that the whites are more dangerous than the blacks,” one French journalist living in Jo’burg confided. “Everybody is paranoid here and chemicals do nothing to improve people’s heads. With Special K [Ketamine], X [methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or Ecstasy], and Quaaludes, South Africa is becoming a damned molecule pharmacy, as though the whites needed to blow their minds so as not to see the reality that surrounds them.”

“Racial apartheid has been replaced by a sort of social apartheid,” says Isaac Shongwe, a prominent black businessman and a major investor in “Yizo Yizo.” Among the first blacks to graduate from the very white and very selective Rhodes University, Shongwe advocates what he calls “social capitalism”—private investment in the townships—as a means of leveling South Africa’s inequalities. “Now I live in a white suburb,” he says. “My children go to a white school. They don’t go to the school depicted in ‘Yizo Yizo.’ And that is the problem that is posed for many of us: As soon as we succeed, we tend to forget where we came from. We need to overcome this narrow thinking and we need to understand that the things that are happening in ‘Yizo Yizo’ are things that are really happening.”


A horse-drawn cart, barefoot children, hard-packed dirt surfaces, glances that fluctuate between surprise and cold rage. Rosebank is light years away—and yet just 30 kilometers—from this remote and dangerous corner of Soweto. Mzambya, at 14 years old, the youngest Kwaito star, used to live here before he moved to a quieter area of the township, where he can be found most days playing the keyboard surrounded by the bare walls of a house he has just given his parents. Its rooms are still empty, but it is a real symbol of success for this son of Zulu laborers. A crowd of kids, one asking for a new book bag, another for a pair of shoes, clusters around the boy who wrote the 2001 hit song, “Jezi No. 10.” Mzambya greets the kids and starts rapping about the importance of condoms: “Buddies, this weekend, don’t go out without them.” The kids laugh; the message has gotten through. Here, sexual relations begin, on average, at age 12.

Whenever you talk to him about a possible girlfriend, Mzambya shows his young age. He stammers and looks down.

Yet he is not a timid type. Mzambya had to fight to get himself known. “I used to go downtown every Friday to get involved in the TV shows aimed at youth” he recounts. “At first my mother was afraid too. For her, going down to the studios of the SABC, all the way downtown, was a major trip. And then, one day, the producers spotted me.” Mzambya is now the darling of the Kwaito scene. Everyone agrees that the kid is one of the future's great African stars. “But I will never quit school,” he insists. Later on, Mzambya, who likes Method Man and Das FX, ‘Yizo Yizo,’ and soccer, sees himself in the role of a producer. “Like that, I can give some younger brothers a chance. The Ghetto is a real treasure trove of potential stars !”


“Just because you come from the ghetto doesn’t mean you’re a gangster. Just because you’ve been found innocent by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [the TRC was initiated in 1996 to try members of the former government and liberation movements for human-rights abuses] doesn’t mean you’re not a criminal,” sings Thabo, who is known only by his first name. When he’s not dancing with his group Alaska, Thabo goes back to being a barber. “It’s a way to keep from losing touch with my neighborhood,” he says.

In front of his salon, some young, unemployed men are rolling joints with marijuana—or “dagga,” as it’s called here—from KwaZulu-Natal, in northeast South Africa. The atmosphere is relaxed, the southern sky is blue, but thoughts are gray. “Now blacks can go anywhere they want to, there are no more passes, but where can you go when you don’t have 10 rand in your pocket?” one young Zulu, who dreams of a career playing soccer as a power-forward in Europe, tersely comments. “I can understand how some choose the path of crime to get out of here.”


We return to the eerie shadows of the towers looming over downtown Jo’burg. The street generation is getting ready for the weekend. Young Rastafarians rub shoulders with girls decked out in clothing that recalls singer Erykah Badu’s fashion sense. A director describes the documentary he has just filmed on the taxis of Jo’burg, someone strums a guitar unmusically, people exchange cellphone numbers. Jo’burg is burning.

A few days before, we had met Norma at one of the many St. Valentine’s Day concerts organized to fight AIDS. In the time since, she told me her life story. Though she is only 22 years old, her life could already fill a book: family strife, life on the streets, and the sordid business of survival. We meet her again standing with some men in dreadlocks. “Apartheid still lives in people’s heads,” the young woman sighs. “Look at the racist attitudes of some against Congolese or Nigerian immigrants. Listen to what our elders think about decriminalizing dagga.”

South Africa, the second largest producer of marijuana after the United States, is the only African country where the young openly call for decriminalizing the drug. In January 2002, Gareth Prince, a Rastafarian who wanted to take law courses and who was denied entry to a law school because of his drug habit, filed a complaint with the constitutional court in Pretoria so it could rule on the question of whether it is legally permissible to smoke dagga for religious reasons. In a country where Rastafarianism is gaining ground, the case led to a nationwide debate. In the end, three of five judges denied Gareth Prince’s appeal.

Dagga’s prevalence among the youth has made parents anxious, perhaps with good reason. A September 2000 study showed that 39 percent of arrests in South Africa during the previous year had been for smoking dagga.

“Our society remains ultraconservative,” Norma says. “And AIDS? Do you really believe that making young Zulu sisters take virginity tests will prevent the scourge from spreading?”

Norma and some of her friends from the streets have set up the Rime Organization, a small association that brings together toasters [masters-of-ceremonies at reggae dances], rappers, Rastafarians, and amateur hip-hop artists to promote the use of condoms among young people in the ghetto.

“We go where the major NGOs no longer go because they’re afraid to have their cars stolen. We take our message to their airwaves of Y FM. That’s where it’s happening. The young are disillusioned with political speeches. For them, Madiba [Mandela] is already a long time ago. The struggle fought by their parents is an old war story for them. The only way to reach them now is not with history courses, but with edutainment. You have to teach and entertain at the same time. ‘Yizo Yizo’ is edutainment. Kwaito is edutainment. Our group does edutainment. This way we can keep in touch with the street. And when you listen well, you know that anything can still happen.”