Political commentary and modern-day DJs have pushed Phuzekhemisi into musical exile
It has been 27 years since maskandi duo Phuzekhemisi no Khethani released its unforgettable hit song Imbizo, off an album of the same name. The song was, at face value, a stinging lament against the frequent izimbizo and attendant taxes. But as the songwriter says, it was also a protest against the general, sinister political machinations of the time.
Phuzekhemisi has gone on to build a stellar solo career follow- ing the death of his brother Khethani in 1993, but Imbizo is still a firm favourite on stage. People identify it as soon as he plucks the signature guitar intro, even before going into the opening lines of “Lomhlab’ uyathengwa ungaboni sihlel’ kuwona [You might see us living here, but our stay is not free].”
Phuzekhemisi, whose given name is Zibokwakhe Mnyandu, is still reluctant to talk about the effect his music has had on his family life, finding more comfort in explaining the context of his lyrics. The conversation takes place at his house, near the small KwaZulu-Natal South Coast town of Illovo. Phuzekhemisi, enjoying a Sunday lunch of chicken stew after a high-energy set at Durban’s Playhouse the night before, takes the conversation back to the late 1980s.
“In 1989 and 1990, leaders of liberation movements were returning from exile and others were being persecuted internally,” he says. “Certain meetings that were being called by [cultural group turned political party] Inkatha led to increased strategic political violence.
“The chiefs would collect money from Zulu people in all provinces to attack some of these liberation leaders. That was the context of Imbizo. Each month, we’d have no less than three or four izimbizo where we’d pay in R5 for the purpose of killing those speaking of freedom. That song intervened in a very volatile situation.”
Mike Sutcliffe, a former eThekwini municipal manager, says in all probability it was a small percentage of money collected from Inkatha’s constituency that was funnelled directly into violent acts, given that most third-force activity was orchestrated through the state.
Phuzekhemisi says it’s only political neophytes who would doubt the veracity of his story. Over the years, his music put him on a collision course with the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, former KwaZulu-Natal premier Lionel Mtshali and even ANC-affiliated ministers such as S’bu Ndebele, who employed the singer to perform on road safety drives during his tenure as KwaZulu-Natal transport MEC.
While there are other politically sensitive episodes the affable raconteur that is Phuzekhemisi would rather ignore, there is one in particular, involving the song Amakhansela, that he renders in detail.
“In that song, I was saying that local government doesn’t really work for us, so we won’t ever vote again. Mtshali, however, interpreted that as a call for a boycott against the KwaZulu-Natal government,” says Phuzekhemisi, to muted episodes of Nollywood dramas in his lounge.
“At the time, there was a Zulu language publication called Ubhaqa. He initially made the banning call there. He later reiterated it to [Gagasi FM jock] Alex Mthiyane, who was working for Ukhozi at the time. He said I was speaking ill of the government and its councillors. He didn’t even give Alex a chance to ask the question in detail. He then insulted me, calling me uneducated, among other things.
“I think he hung up and I eventually said my piece on air but, I mean, him saying that I was uneducated, not knowing the reasons that I was denied an education, was hurtful. It was especially hurtful because I loved school but I could no longer go because of my father’s early death.”
Leon Mbangwa, a former electoral operations director at the Independent Electoral Commission, who met Phuzekhemisi in the late 1990s in Mpumalanga, says the maskandi artist was not necessarily partisan but he was a nationalist.
“When I met him, it was no longer easy for him to work publicly in KwaZulu-Natal, so he needed a steady income. The outcry over the song uDlayodwa, I suspect, had something to do with that.”
Mbangwa, now a senior communications manager in the office of the speaker in the KwaZulu-Natal legislature says: “We wanted to use him in our voter education drives because the second general elections in 1999 had a provincial component, whereas the first ones were more nationalised. We wanted him especially because of the song Hambani Niyovota, which I think he had written addressing the situation leading up to the 1994 elections. He was a crowd-puller.
“He came across as controversial but I think his motivation was his belief in freedom of speech. His songs were about our fledgling democracy.
“When there is a climate of political violence, people tend to take things personally, but the song Amakhansela — you look anywhere and tell me if he was wrong about service delivery.”
When he’d spark the ire of the powers that be, it often took a song to douse the fire again. In what is probably one of the only biographies of the singer online, found on music.org.za, music promoter Neil Comfort writes: “Another song entitled uDlayodwa, the name of Phuzekhemisi’s dog, questions why people have to pay taxes for their dogs, since dogs did not receive pensions ... After people stopped paying dog taxes to their chiefs, Phuzekhemisi had to compose another song, Asithelele Izinja [Let’s pay dog taxes], to save his skin.”
It is a strategy he continues to employ today. Recently, and perhaps as the Zulu king’s political allegiances are perceived to have shifted, so too has the tenor of the guitarist’s songs. More recent songs such as Bayede affirm his belief in the king’s sovereignty over all Zulu-speaking people, while a similarly themed song off his recent album is ironic in the sense that is sounds like a warning to his younger self.
In the style of the warnings he and Khethani would issue to their competition, a weary (and wary) Phuzekhemisi sings “Ubani lona ongathinta ibhubesi, wokhuluma ubale amagama nsizwa [Who dares to touch the lion, watch your words young man].”
There are other equally curious songs on the 2013 album, Kungakho Nilwa Nodwa, that suggest the ANC hegemony over KwaZulu-Natal politics has shifted Phuzekhemisi’s direction towards socioeconomic rather than sociopolitical issues.
The song eThekwini is touristy in its imagining of Durban, strange for a province that has become a symbol of the ANC’s politics of patronage, as the assassinations suggest.
Instead, all we get from the maestro is: “Awubheke eThekwini sihleli kahle ... ulwandle lirhubha amagagasi [Look how splendid it is in Durban, look at the waves breaking on the shore].”
Mbangwa laughs when this change in tenor is pointed out to him and says that the artist, at least in the instance of the king, is trying to mend bridges that may have been severed by years of interparty political turmoil.
But there are other immediate concerns for Phuzekhemisi, concerns suggested by his changing tone. The “crowd-puller”, his “weathered membership card” notwithstanding, is no longer the go-to guy for ANC campaigns. In his lounge, as the trays of chicken stew are removed, he has some choice words for “DJs whose pants hang halfway down their arses” — the ANC’s current favourite party starters.
Phuzekhemisi says that with regard to shows these days, “sometimes it goes quiet for the whole year. I have to knock on municipality doors and beg for work myself. We have basically become the new exiles. DJs have taken over, the government now dances to their tune.”