SA’s political warriors have new battles to fight, and need their own war cries to rally the faithful.
With the 2014 elections throwing up a new wave of political parties and tactical considerations in electioneering, the struggle song is not sure how to rewrite its own rules of engagement.
Depending on the audience, and the size of the media contingent, Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) commander-in-chief Julius Malema can sing "kiss the boer" instead of "kill the boer", and no one will think it strange. But when the same party sings Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (along with verses from Die Stem) at a night vigil ahead of Malema’s court appearance for alleged corruption a few months later, it begs the question of what happened to the integrity of the struggle song and what the aesthetics of the music reveal about the party’s sensibilities.
EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi whipped up a stirring version of Azania, the party’s "national anthem", as he put it during its launch in Marikana on October 13.
Given that the song articulates the predilection of those parties on the left for renaming this "nameless country" Azania – a name of disputed etymological origin – one can understand the EFF’s fondness for the song: it speaks directly to its self-styled position as the new voice of the left.
If you are looking for hidden clues, perhaps about how the party styles itself as new life springing from the ANC carcass, look no further than vocalist Bigg Dogg, its willing mascot.
Dogg, whose real name is Colly Magoa, styles himself as the new Mzwakhe Mbuli, the so-called "people’s poet", with all of the fervour but none of the shimmery timbre.
His repertoire is powered by reedy keyboard rhythms in the style of traditional gospel songs, and airy Pan pipes, much like the Muzak that may confront you when you are put on hold by a switchboard.
There are throwaway, Mbuliesque intros delivered at breakneck speed in his routine: "A history of our lifetime, our lifetime history, economic freedom in our lifetime. This is our lifetime, our lifetime is now …"
Then in the song Asijiki (which means "no retreat"), Dogg wastes no time in going for the jugular: "Ja, they don’t care about the living of the people/ We all know that Indian Guptas family from India landed in our private national keypoint Waterkloof Air Force Base/ On their way to Sun City, North West for a wedding/ My big question is: Did Guptas family make application for their diplomatic before landing in our national keypoint/ The truth shall set us free. This is a very big insult to all South African people by Guptas family/ They abuse our governmental resources/ Who gave Guptas family authority to disrespect our country?"
The indignation persists for about a full minute before being rescued by a muted chorus of female voices singing: "Asijiki thina sihamba no Bigg Dogg [We’re not turning back, we’re going with Bigg Dogg] …"
Then, in a kwaito and gospel mash-up, the impending arrival of Malema is articulated in quasi-biblical pomp.
"Let the trumpet sound," sings Bigg Dogg. "Julius Malema is coming."
Countless artists have committed adapted struggle songs to record in the name of Malema. Most are in the traditional gospel idiom popularised by Blondie Makhene’s African Youth Band, with weaker production values. In many cases, as in the unrecorded adaptations sung at EFF rallies, the songs insult President Jacob Zuma before glorifying Malema.
Given the murky area of EFF funding, the sheer volume of the material being recorded suggests it is unsolicited outpourings of support from disaffected masses long waiting on a cause. As such, the songs are aesthetically inconsistent, a mirror of the party’s mythmaking stance as a spontaneous response to the ANC’s lack of delivery.
More curious, and more carefully constructed, are a clutch of songs being tested by Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang SA.
The communication team is led by former newspaper editor Thabo Leshilo, who says from the party’s Braamfontein office: "You can no longer come with old struggle songs."
"Lento yokushayana namabhunu [this thing of fighting with the boers] is outdated. We defeated apartheid in 1994. Now, we are carrying out the mandate for our own liberation."
Leshilo calls a trio of young men behind production and performance group Oddxperienc into the room.
Agang SA’s theme song, part of a carefully constructed branding exercise, deals with the theme of "restoring the promise of freedom".
On a MacBook Pro, producer Edwin Baloyi cues two songs geared towards two different age groups.
The first is in a style colloquially referred to as tribal house. The mid-tempo track is layered with an assortment of programmed beats, probably made with kettle drums and tom-toms.
The song sounds like a radio sketch in which vocalist Jabulani Mazibuko (Jabz) is speaking to a group of yawning, half-asleep friends. He tries to motivate them to get up and vote.
Jabz points out that the song does not specify which party to vote for.
There is some chanting in the background about restoring the promise of freedom. There is a harmonised chorus, borrowed from a struggle chant, about the coming Mamphela [uMamphela lo, abamazi yo, abakaze bambone]. It is a chant that has been appropriated at EFF gatherings, where Mamphela is substituted with Malema.
A vibraphone tinkles as the track marches on. As it peters out, there is Jabz’s zany voice again, still sounding disoriented, but this time he announces to his fellow sleepyheads that he has cast his ballot.
The second song Baloyi plays is a reprise of the first, this geared towards attracting older people. There is almost no beat behind it, with an isiZulu foreground chanting about the coming Mamphela.
This song is somewhere in the region of ambient trance and isicathamiya (vocal chant). But it morphs. The hand claps become more prominent and some toyi-toyi-style chanting swells up. I do not get to hear the entire track, but Leshilo fills in the blanks.
"You see, there are people in Agang SA with that struggle history, so they come with that influence, but even then the messaging has to be adapted to reflect the values of the party."
It is all brandingspeak, impressively executed on paper but, having never been to an Agang rally or heard the songs blasting out of bass-heavy speakers, I can’t quite measure their impact.
What is clear with Agang is that one should not expect self-styled mascots in every second township inspired to bequeath anthems to the benevolent Ramphele. It is not that kind of party.
For the Democratic Alliance, it is a mercurial game of who is campaigning and where they are.
Leader Helen Zille has been known to trot out the ghosts of Brenda Fassie for a rendition of Vul’indlela and Miriam Makeba’s Pata Pata, and national spokesperson Mmusi Maimane admits to having a thing for Mafikizolo’s recent hit Khona.
A DA insider said: "Vul’indlela and Koekie Loekie (a folk song popular with coloured people) were used very often and became most associated with the campaign in 2009.
"However, our main theme song for the national campaign was Over the Rainbow by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. In addition to this we had a number of other songs (in all of South Africa’s languages) we played at rallies and DA gatherings.
Koekie Loekie has been described as sexist. It goes : "Hey Koekie Loekie met jou stywe broekie [Hey, Koekie with your tight-fitting little pants]
ANC MPLs in the Western Cape legislature used to tease Zille about having it as her campaign theme.
There were also problems with Vul’indlela. Its producer, Sello "Chicco" Twala, asked that it not be used by the DA. – Additional reporting by Andisiwe Makinana