Bobi Wine arrives at the Johannesburg City Hall at 10pm on a Sunday. He is five hours late. No one cares. The soft drinks ran out long ago, but the alcohol kept flowing and the air inside the grand but dilapidated building is thick with cannabis smoke. He enters the hall from the back and is mobbed by a tide of supporters in red berets who are ululating and screaming his name. His personal security have to push people away with some force to clear a path to the stage.
It is not clear what this event is. It could be a campaign rally, complete with merchandise stalls, banners (“Ugandan President 2021”) and seated lines of dignitaries on the stage. It could also be the hottest hip-hop concert in town, with a 1000-strong crowd ready to sing along to one of East Africa’s most famous musicians.
It is both of those things, of course; but the cognitive dissonance is not lost on Bobi Wine as he gets on stage and, briefly, takes his seat next to the besuited elders. He’s wearing jeans and a beige blazer — hardly rockstar attire —along with his signature red beret. He fidgets uncomfortably in his chair and then he can’t take it anymore. “I just want to jump on stage now and start the show,” he says quietly. And then, shouting: “START THE SHOW!”
And so he does.
He grabs a microphone and bounds to the centre of the stage. He raises a fist to the gilded ceiling. “People power!” he screams. “Our power!” the audience screams back. The band strikes up the intro to Mazzi Mawanvu, one of his old classics, and Bobi Wine launches into song. The audience knows every word.
Bobi Wine grew up in the slums of Kampala — the “ghetto president”, he calls himself — and made his name by blending Afrobeat, reggae and Jamaican dancehall into his own distinct sound.
It was only in 2017 that he officially began his political career, winning the parliamentary by-election for the Kyaddondo East constituency. He ran as an independent, but one who was opposed to the decades-long presidency of Yoweri Museveni.
Soon, other politicians endorsed by Robert Kagulanyi — that is Bobi Wine’s real name — started winning too, and so Museveni’s administration cracked down with force. Last year, Bobi Wine’s driver was shot dead, and Bobi Wine was detained and charged with treason. He was also beaten while in police custody.
That was not all. The government has done everything in its power to prevent Bobi Wine from performing his music in Uganda. His concerts have effectively been banned, although he keeps finding inventive ways to defy the authorities.
In May, at the Kampala Sheraton, he came on unannounced to play one song at a performance by fellow reggae artist Maddox Ssematimba. Rather brilliantly, Museveni was rumoured to have been in a conference hall at the same hotel at the same time — the president would have heard the bass line.
For a born entertainer, being prevented from taking the stage may be the biggest sacrifice of all. “Of course I missed it, I missed the stage as an artist,” he said as made his way to the front of the hall. “It feels amazing. It feels amazing to be able to perform.”
The crowd is almost exclusively Ugandans living in South Africa. They have driven here from all over Gauteng and some have flown up from Durban and Cape Town. They are overwhelmingly young, and overwhelmingly male. There is an almost religious fervour in their support for Bobi Wine, and they keep saying the same things.
“He’s a youth like me,” says Kelvin, 27. “I need change. Museveni is an old man who has been there for too long.”
“I came here to watch my new president,” says Beker, 35. “We are tired of being treated like animals. Bobi Wine will give us a say in our own country.”
Miti Jamil, the vice-chairperson of the Hammanskraal branch of Bobi Wine’s People Power movement, has a more personal connection. He is 37 now, exactly the same age as Bobi Wine.
All the way back in 2005, when Jamil was trying to raise funds to travel to South Africa, Bobi Wine played a benefit concert for him in his home village of Mbale. The singer had heard that Jamil was working on youth empowerment projects and wanted to help. Ten thousand people came to the concert, and Jamil kept all the gate receipts, which worked out to a profit of 2.5-million Ugandan shillings (about R15 000 at the time).
“Bobi Wine has changed my life. He’s my role model,” says Jamil.
Fortune, in his mid-20s, also knows Bobi Wine from Uganda. They grew up in the same slum. Fortune is a sound engineer and he learnt his trade in Bobi Wine’s studio in Kampala. He is sound engineering tonight’s performance — Bobi Wine did not travel with his band, so he has put together a collection of Ugandan musicians based in South Africa to help him.
“Let me tell you one thing about Bobi Wine. Bobi Wine likes to gather people around. Ever since I’ve been seeing him, he wants to gather people around,” says Fortune. “The chances for him to be president, it’s like, 95%. Uganda is full of youth and we are supporters.”
The oldest man in the venue is probably Christopher Kibuuka, a 65-year-old medical doctor based in Krugersdorp. Kibuuka has seen this all before. Decades ago, he was the Southern African representative for none other than Yoweri Museveni, who was then a rebel fighting for power. “We can’t afford to make the same mistake,” he said.
Disappointed by Museveni’s authoritarian bent, Kibuuka was a founding member of the Forum for Democratic Change in 2001, the largest opposition party in Uganda, along with its leader Kizza Besigye. Over the past couple of years, Bobi Wine has overshadowed Besigye, despite the latter’s long track record of resistance to the government.
But none of that matters, says Kibuuka. “I am not a member of Bobi Wine’s movement. But I strongly believe that all hands are needed on deck to bring down one of the most oppressive regimes Africa has ever seen.”
Up on stage, Bobi Wine is rolling out the hits. By Far. Freedom. Kyalenga. As a politician, he is still inexperienced and relatively untested. Critics say he’s light on policy and wonder what he’ll do if he ever actually gets power.
But as a musician, he’s at the top of his game. He works the crowd like the old pro that he is, and they hang on to his every word.
He blurs the boundaries between his two identities. In an interlude between tracks, with the band keeping up a gentle rhythm, he tells his adoring audience: “We have to work together to take down that old dictator.” They roar their approval.
Bobi Wine is back on stage, and he hasn’t missed a beat.