Warriors declare war on the floor

It’s Friday just after six and it’s already dark. Music is blasting from a small red tavern, its doors and windows wide open. Inside the joint bodies move, responding to the sounds, as patrons are entertained by the snooker lovers, sipping their drinks after a long week. The mood is relaxed and everyone seems to be minding their own business.

I watch from my car, waiting in the small parking area next to the entrance to the Madala Hostel in Alexandra, north of Johannesburg, which is also packed with people, their numbers growing as the minutes pass.

Zion church followers dressed in blue and white wait patiently at the gate, kids on their laps and their luggage next to them. After a while two minibuses arrive and they disappear into the night.

Next to me an energetic old man, neatly dressed in blue overalls, dishes out well-cooked cow intestines and hearts sliced into cubes, best-served to clients with a bit of peri-peri and pap. His humble business is out in the open, with one wooden table and a couple of chairs for the comfort of his customers. I try to resist the aroma of the meat coming from his big silver pot. A phone call comes to my rescue.

Traditional moves aren’t the only attraction at the dance competition. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

“Are you already there at the gate, my brother?” asks Philani Makhaza, leader of the Ukhahlamba Zulu Dancers. Seconds later he appears, taking me inside the hostel where the dancers are rehearsing.

I first met Makhaza in 2010 before the Fifa World Cup. I was working on a story on the life of hostel dwellers. It was a Sunday afternoon and his group was scheduled to perform at the taxi rank near the hostel. I was mesmerised by their singing and dancing, and I was taken aback by the admiration they got from their audience.

Makhaza was born in 1974 to a bricklayer father who worked all his life in Johannesburg. His father had three wives and 13 kids and Makhaza was raised by his grandparents in Bergville, near Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal.

In 1994, after matriculating, he moved to Johannesburg, living in the Madala hostel, sharing a room with his brother. He worked in the family business as a taxi driver and eventually managed to save enough money to marry his sweetheart back home with whom he had children.

It didn’t take long for Makhaza to realise that the only activities at the hostel were football and isicathamiya (Ladysmith Black Mambazo-style music) so he and a friend, Dumisani Hlongwani, organised a meeting with the elders to discuss how they could keep young people off the streets and away from alcohol.

A group of isicathamiya and oswenka — guys wearing expensive suits and jewellery — also entertains the audience. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Makhaza had been exposed to dance since childhood, when his father was an igosa, or group dance leader. So it was dance rather than soccer that was his first love.

In 1997 the elders bought a drum with the proceeds of a group contribution. It was the official start of the Ukhahlamba Zulu Dancers, which now has 18 members drawn from the hostel, ranging in age from 18 to 30.

Back then, Makhaza threw himself into the group, introducing different styles of dance and singing, and was later given the position of igosa, like his father.

Part choreographer, part manager, he makes sure that the dancers follow their moves correctly and arrive on time for rehearsals, encouraging and advising them to be in top form. He is also a shoulder to lean on in times of heartache at home or at work. The group has performed and competed in many parts of the country and has won numerous competitions and awards.

It has been invited to Dubai in December to participate in the Dubai Festival. Besides competing, the group also performs at weddings, parties and concerts for a fee of R5 000 or more.

Back at the rehearsal room the dancers have assembled in a huge open space, with gas stoves blazing and a fire that lights up the room. Most of the tenants seem oblivious to what is happening inside, they just want to cook their food and go to their respective humble rooms. But the beat of the drum does not stop and already the topless, muscular dancers are sweating as though they are running a marathon.

Fans whistle, ululate and throw money to show their appreciation of the Ukhahlamba Zulu Dancers. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Makhaza and the other leaders observe the moves of the dancers. Those not following the routine properly are dealt with immediately. “They have to do the moves correctly. The judges at the competition won’t feel sorry for them,” says one of the leaders.

The dancers repeat the moves, with Makhaza leading them, explaining how important it is that they do it right. Then the group begins dancing as one, bodies moving to the beat of the drum, eyes wide open, as if possessed by spirits. That’s when I realise how dear ingoma (dance) is to these performers.

Gugu Hlongwane (19) is the only female dancer in the group but she says she does not feel intimidated by the men.

“As long as I can remember I always wanted to dance with the group. I joined them in 2006,” she says. “I don’t feel weak in front of the guys. When I dance, there is no male or female. We are just dancers.”

The dance they performed that night is called “Mzansi”. It originated in Makhaza’s hometown of Bergville. The elders say it was first performed in the 1820s, during the era of Shaka Zulu, and was designed to prepare warriors who were about to go into battle.

The dance is extremely physical and tactical: the beating of the drum evokes the dancers’ feelings and makes them aggressive. There is a lot of pushing and coordination. The beat of the drum and the landing of the foot is important. The dancers must know how to communicate and be able to entertain and capture the audience. Passed on from generation to generation, the Mzansi dance is a powerful reminder of Shaka Zulu’s reign.

The day of the competition arrives: a Saturday in April, after two weeks of intense rehearsal.

The dancers rehearse the extremely physical ‘Mzansi’ in the hostel under the perfectionist eye of leader Philani Makhaza. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

The event is organised by Izinduku Entertainment, a company that promotes many dance festivals like this. It is held at Kwamangolongolo hall, at the corner of Jules and Tucker streets in Malvern, Johannesburg, on a lovely sunny day.

The mood is upbeat, but tense. As early as 7am groups have begun arriving from as far as Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and all around Gauteng. Fourteen different dance groups are participating.

The winning group will take home R7 000 and a recording and promotion contract, with smaller prizes for second and third places. Entrance costs R25. In addition to the Zulu dancers, the audience is entertained by isicathamiya and oswenka — guys wearing expensive suits and jewellery, showing off on stage how stylish and glamorous they are.

Almost as soon as the doors open in the afternoon the hall is packed. The lack of space means the dancers have to change into traditional gear inside their minibuses, which are parked outside the venue. Each group is given 10 minutes to showcase its skills onstage.

Outside, the Ukhahlamba Zulu Dancers are busy practising their dance moves, with the elders behind them. They are the last to perform but there is no time to waste.

When the moment comes for them to showcase their skills, the audience goes ballistic. Guys whistle and women ululate until they run out of breath. Some audience members throw R5 coins or R20 notes onto the floor next to the stage in a show of appreciation.

One of the dancers gets ready to perform. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

The 10 minutes passes quickly. I am caught up in a moment of pure exhilaration and amazement and, all of a sudden, they are done. I follow them outside.

Exhaustion on their faces — and praise from their fans — is testimony to the fact that they gave their best. They can’t even talk or congratulate one another on a job well done. After they gather their strength they go back inside the hall to get the results.

The judges are in a difficult position — the competition was tough. Eventually three judges — one black man and two white women (strategically chosen by the event’s organisers to judge without influence or prejudice) — come out of their small private room. By then, it is dark outside and the crowd is impatient.

As the winner is announced, some dancers jump up and down in excitement while others are clearly upset. The faces of the Ukhahlamba Zulu Dancers fall. They took second prize. Even the crowd seems surprised by the decision.

Makhaza turns to me. “Kuzolunga,” he says. “These things happen.”

They lost this one and I am disappointed. But I know they will dance another day.

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Oupa Nkosi
Oupa Nkosi

Oupa Nkosi began taking photos in 1998 with a pawnshop camera, before enrolling at the Market Photography Workshop. He began freelancing after graduating and has since run community projects, won a Bonani Africa award, had his work selected for exhibitions in Zimbabwe and Japan, and been invited to international workshops. He began at the M&G as an intern and is now chief photographer. He also writes features for the paper and lectures at his alma mater.

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