Valuable addition to local archives


In his cunning, punning, one-word title, Adam Haupt succeeds in summarising all the questions his book raises. Do South Africans really hear one another (or ourselves) across the interference of prejudice and stereotyping? Is there stuff around that could — and perhaps should — shock us? Have our notions of identity moved on at all in the past quarter-century?

Haupt, associate professor of media studies at the University of Cape Town, structures his book mainly around events in and products of recent South African cultural history, such as the Reitz residence video, the World Cup concert and various movies about township gangsterism that, for him, embody particularly noisy moments.

The first chapter steps outside this pattern, providing a structural analysis of power relationships in the music industry based predominantly on the experiences of Cape hip-hop artists. It is a milieu for which Haupt has a deep and nuanced understanding and the chapter effectively foregrounds one of the book's recurring themes: where power really lies.

The book's protagonists, musicians, have real agency in these early pages because we hear their voices. It is slightly disappointing that these voices, although still present, are less prominent in subsequent chapters.

Haupt is at his most effective when unpicking the ways in which racial identity is constructed, reworked and remarketed to suit changing times. What is already one of the most discussed chapters focuses on Die Antwoord and their appropriation of elements of "coloured" identity, which Haupt examines through the frame of "blackface".

It is one of the most engaging sections, not only for its rigorous critique, but also because in it we encounter the Haupt we enjoy: the one who writes for the Mail & Guardian, Chimurenga and youth culture website Elsewhere, the academic requirements of the HSRC Press often submerge the writer's voice under someone much drier and more formal.

There are some puzzling omissions. Haupt rightly dissects the tired thug stereotype used in Gavin Hood's award-winning 2005 film Tsotsi, but barely mentions that Hood simply transplanted an Athol Fugard character and tale created 25 years earlier: a perfect instance of assumptions about the "unchanging native".

He has apparently not talked to co-writer Lesego Rampholokeng about other dimensions of power relations behind the scenes of Hijack Stories.

He allows Shakira to get away with her World Cup rendition of a "reworked" (his term) Cameroonian song, although the case of Waka Waka's real originators, the Golden Voices, would have provided a striking riff on his analysis of power. As former leader Ze Bella lamented: "We are really powerless to travel to the United States."

And given Haupt's skill as a music writer, it would have been intriguing to read some analysis of how Hugh Masekela and Freshlyground were eventually used (in several senses) in the World Cup stadium show.

One huge story in Static is only partly told. Haupt is sharp and sensitive enough to note the gender implications of his analysis whenever they are relevant, although, in this context, an editor should have picked up one pesky error. Haupt characterises the term skwiza as denigrating an overweight woman. In fact, it's a fairly neutral term for a sister-in-law or similar female associate; the denigration came first and nastiest from DJ Oscar's album Sdudla (fatso), and it's that word that still carries the sting. But pulling those implications together into one chapter would have added far more: the constructions of gender and the role of masculinism in South Africa's power structure, particularly today, are too important merely to be noted.

Haupt's perspective draws strongly on Frantz Fanon: we live in, but are not prisoners of, a deeply raced context that overdetermines even apparent "liberations" such as flourishing black capitalists. This thread of argument emerges clearly.

However, his second strand, class and economic power, is woven too intermittently into the text to have the same effect.

This may be because, at only 240 pages, Static is far too short. Haupt's encyclopaedic music industry know­ledge crams it with tantalising anecdotes and comments each worth an exploratory essay in itself. Sometimes those distractions feed a certain disjointedness in the text.

Nevertheless, the book adds a rich update to South African cultural, and especially musical, history since the 1990s.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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