The rise and rise of the Rastafari

The reggae band Horry Quagga is busting a groove on a Sunday afternoon in Wesbank, a township near Delft, north-east of Cape Town.

Band member Barry Korana is tongue-twisting a series of clicks into the microphone, the quills in his animal skin crown dancing to crunchy guitar chords. The combination of reggae music, vocal acrobatics and plumes of marijuana smoke lends a spectral quality to the performance.

After his set, Korana says: “We sing about the Khoisan people, the aboriginal people of this country, and what has actually happened with us.

“It’s about being disrespected by other races, having our land stolen from us and how we need to rise up from what is happening with us now—young people using drugs, drinking, unemployment, our people having no future—and needing to unite and fight the system.”

Korana is speaking to the Mail & Guardian in a car park next to one of the ubiquitous glass-strewn, balding patches of grass that double as recreational grounds in Cape Town’s ghettoes.

On the stage behind him, a “selecta”, or deejay, is dropping dancehall tunes to a crowd of about 400 people gathered for a “One Love” concert, one of several hosted every year by Rasta communities.

Aside from the methodical—and constant—cleaning and crushing of marijuana, which is then stuffed into bottleneck “chalices” for consumption, the gathering has the appearance of any other Sunday afternoon community get-together.

People move between groups, laughing and talking. Rasta mothers in headscarves tend to young children, while catching up on the latest gossip over shared flasks of tea and sandwiches. Dreadlocks swish through the air like momentary peacock tails as young and old cut loose to the beats and bass.

‘Targeted persecution’
Judah Bush (also known as Winston Scheepers), a Bush Radio disc jockey who has a weekly reggae show, which also deals with matters Rastafarian, says Cape Town’s Rasta community has been “pushed through targeted persecution” to provide its own entertainment and cultural needs. “We don’t really have nightclubs, coffee shops or restaurants—places we can call our own and emerge as business people—because the police are always raiding us for marijuana, harassing us or trying to solicit bribes,” he says.

The Rasta response has been inventive: dancehall sessions, known colloquially as “dubs”, have sprung up in several of the informal settlements that pockmark Cape Town.

From one-off gigs in community halls in Tafelsig to the regular events at Marcus Garvey settlement in Philippi and the Thursday night sessions at Hangberg’s Red Lion shack club, with its panoramic views over Hout Bay harbour, the city’s shantytowns are heaving to some big bass sounds.

Papa Sam (51) has started his own “dub” session in a lean-to in Eerste Rivier where he caters for crowds who want “conscious roots reggae, because there is so much new dance-hall that is all about sex and disrespectful of women,” he says.

Part of the early generation of Cape Town’s Rastas, Papa Sam, I-Man-Taxi and King Tubby are selectas considered to have been influential in spreading Rastafari through the reggae music they were playing in the early Eighties.

Of the early stages of Rastafari in Cape Town, Papa Sam says: “There were not many Rastas, or reading material then, because of apartheid. But there was the music and the lyrics were of a higher consciousness.

“Then I was a nobody, but I became a somebody with the music and the message, the political message of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh—the music taught us about being African and proud and standing up for our rights,” says Sam after his deejay shift in Eerste Rivier.

It’s a view shared by Trevor Ebden (48) who became a Rasta in 1981 as he became more politicised and active in the anti-apartheid struggle. Ebden, who worked as a deck-hand on ships, said his travels and those of others, “to places like New York allowed us to buy banned or unavailable reggae LPs, which we made into mix-tapes for the brothers and the deejays who helped spread the message in the beginning”.

Although there are almost no statistics available, many in the Rasta community agree that the city is experiencing a significant “uprising”—more people, especially so-called “coloureds” are becoming Rastas.

Younger generation on the rise
Ras Reuben Tafari, a member of the Elders’ Full Circle, which was formed in an attempt to bring together about 30 of the older Rasta heads from around Cape Town to work through divisions in the community (there are several) and to conscientise “the younger generation who are rising,” says: “Ten years ago I would walk down Long Street and knock fists [in Rasta greeting] with maybe one brethren, today you can’t go a hundred metres without meeting a Rastaman.”

But, he says, the “uprising” comes with its own problems, not least that younger Rastas believe it gives them free rein to “smoke the ganja and act cool”.

“Rasta is not about being cool. With the Elders’ Circle we are trying to teach the youth men about what it really means to be Rasta,” says Tafari, adding that this includes conscientising people about the pan-Africanist political philosophy of Marcus Garvey and the religious tenets found in the Old Testament.

There are several hypotheses being bandied about to try to explain the “uprising”.

For Ebden, it is about the fulfilment of Rasta political prophecies: “The markets are falling and the revolution—the peaceful Rasta revolution—is on its way. The economic system’s downfall was prophesised by Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, and a new age is about to start, that’s why people are turning to Rasta,” he says.

Bush suggests there is also growth across generations as first-generation or so-called “water Rastas” from the Eighties and Nineties grow up, get married and “give birth to pure-bred Rastas”.

There are also Cape Town-specific reasons. Many youth and elders say it provides an alternative to gangsterism for ghetto youth who are marginalised, ill-educated and see no futures for themselves. The anti-establishment, alternative lifestyle nature of Rastafari fits in well with their disenchantment.

For Kurt Orderson, a 29-year-old Rasta filmmaker who goes by the moniker Ras Azania, combining Rasta and black-consciousness philosophies “provides a political and revolutionary platform from which to question the post-1994 status quo and send a message to the mainstream that a luta continua. If you are working class, poor and unemployed in Cape Town, Rasta becomes your voice,” he says.

The denigration
Academics have drawn direct correlations between the denigration of communities in Jamaica and their turn to Rastafari—and similar trends can be detected in Cape Town.

William Ellis, of the University of the Western Cape’s department of anthropology and sociology, says “while there is no real evidence that the so-called ‘coloured community’ in Cape Town has been consciously neglected more than other races, there is a strong perception within the community that it has been marginalised”.

This, suggests Ellis and various Rastas, could explain the recent upsurge in Rastafari—and, more latterly, one that also has elements of Khoisan identity politics constructed into it.

Ellis, whose research fields include Khoisan identity, cultural politics and land ownership, says: “The whole notion of Khoisanness is one key identity that is available to so-called ‘coloured’ people.”

Ras Azania, Judah Bush and others agree that there is a new Rastafari identity conflating with notions of “colouredness” and Khoisan ethnicity.

This—it has been suggested by Capetonians both within and outside the Rasta community—burgeoned, especially after the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in 2007, which recognised the Khoisan as the aboriginal people of South Africa.

Statutory recognition
The South African government is also aiming for increased statutory recognition of Khoisan communities and leadership structures in bodies such as the House of Traditional Leaders, with the national Traditional Affairs Bill already passing through various consultative phases in September.

Korana, who is from Hangberg, says: “The Boesman invented the drum so the Boesman was a Niyabingi [see The three main sects below] — We are the original people of this country, and to free ourselves, we need to reclaim what was stolen from us: our identity and our land.”

Ellis says when Khoisanness is interpreted as an “authentic identity” and linked to “perceptions among ‘coloured’ people that they are being marginalised” in the democratic South Africa it has the potential to “be erroneously read”, leading to the development of a “brown nationalism’”—anathema to an Africanist understanding of Rastafari.

“Lots of Rastas are going with the Khoisan movement and, while it is good to embrace your roots, it shouldn’t be placed before Rastafari, because then you are creating a new kind of tribalism,” says Ebden.

This, according to many Rastas, feeds some of the divisions already apparent in the community. Although, broadly, there is a sense of racial harmony among Cape Town’s Rastas, the community is also extremely fractious.

Renecia Scheepers (33), Judah Bush’s wife, who gives natural food and health tips on Bush Radio—such as how to drain and use aloe juice to grow dreadlocks—says she has experienced segregation on the dance floor occasionally: “Personally, there has been the odd occasion [on the dance floor] when the black sisters are separate from the coloured sisters who are separate from the white sisters, but it could also be put down to the language barrier.”

Judah Bush says: “Cape Town Rastas are definitely the most fundamentalist and divided in the world. When Rastas from other countries come here they are surprised at our lack of flexibility, especially over really stupid things like the mix-and-clean divide.”

The mix-and-clean divide exists across Cape Town and sees Rastas who smoke marijuana without tobacco disassociating themselves from those who mix it with tobacco. It is, apparently, a big deal.

For Ebden, it is “each to his own when it comes to smoking ganja, but I prefer smoking clean. When I smoke clean it takes me to a higher level of meditation, I see the stuff I am meditating about and it takes me to a higher cause. I used to smoke mix, but it made me feel dof, tired and dirty sometimes,” he says.

“Clean smokers” like Ebden say it is preferred for health reasons.

But divisions between sects like the Bobo Ashanti, the Twelve Tribes and the Niyabingi also exist.

In this environment racial tension—despite some protestations—does exist and Ellis is wary that an “emergent brown nationalism” could lead to even deeper divisions, that mimic apartheid, between “coloureds” and blacks.

There is also an apparent tension between radical and conservative traditions inherent in Cape Town’s “uprising”.

The most obvious include Rastas invading open land in Tafelsig earlier this year and last year’s Battle of Hangberg that saw residents living in the informal settlement above Hout Bay mobilising to resist eviction by the local municipality.

Residents, many of whom are Rasta and claim to have Khoisan roots, faced down police rubber bullets and tear gas with their own bodies.

Junaid Said, also known as Naftali, was on the frontline of that struggle and says: “Where I live, this piece of land, it is my destiny.”

Naftali says Sentinel Hill, or Horryquagga Mountain, has “spiritual symbolism for the Khoisan and needs to be defended, otherwise it will be stolen by the DA [municipality] and the rich white people who want to develop this ground and live here”.

Police bullets during resistance is one of many daily experiences of violence, intimidation and harassment Rastas face in Cape Town. Many speak of constantly being stopped and searched for drugs by police. Schoolchildren talk of being persecuted by teachers at their schools because of their dreadlocks—the Western Cape education department has faced several legal cases in response to Rasta children being expelled from local schools or being forced to cut off their locks.

Last month five Rastafari warders, who were fired from Pollsmoor Prison in 2007 for wearing dreads, won a Labour Appeal Court case for unfair dismissal.

“The general impression is that we are lazy, dirty people,” says Judah Bush, “which we, as progressive Rastas, want to change—we need to show society that we can also be filmmakers, accountants and teachers.”

Orderson says persecution and intolerance has led to bloodshed. His short film, David v Goliath, dealt with the murder of Ras Champion, a Rasta elder who was allegedly defending a crèche in the Marcus Garvey informal settlement in Philippi when he was “shot at close range by police who were on a drug raid”.

In the face of such adversity the dubs rise like glorious Rastafari roses in the muck and grime of shack settlements.

Banging early into the morning almost every day of the week and with music ranging from roots reggae to dub-step, they provide both refuge and catharsis not merely for the Rasta experience, but for the marginalised too.

The three main sects
There are several “mansions” or sects of Rastafari, including the Bobo Shanti, the Nyabinghi and the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

The Bobo Shanti was founded by Emmanuel Charles Edwards in Jamaica in 1958, with Edwards considered the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Followers believe in black supremacy and the repatriation of all black people to Africa. Their dress codes include long flowing robes and turbans.

The Twelve Tribes of Israel was formed by the prophet Gad and followers believe Haile Selassie was the direct descendent of kings David and Solomon. Based on the 12 sons of Jacob, a member of the tribe assumes the name of Jacob’s son that correlates with the month in which they were born.

The Nyabinghi Order emerged from a possession cult in modern-day Uganda and Rwanda in the 18th century. Nyabingi means “black victory” and its music (especially the use of drums) exists as spiritual Rasta music outside of reggae.

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi


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