Is kwaito an old thing yet?

Whenever I get the odd interview on Born to Kwaito: Reflections on the Kwaito Generation, interviewers ask me, “Is kwaito dead?” — a question I know is often posed to kwaito artists as well. The question never interests me. If anything, it just irks me. A more interesting investigation would be into the kind of infrastructure that makes it difficult for many genres and subgenres to thrive sustainably in South African popular culture.

Between my and my co-author Sihle Mthembu’s work, and the people who ask us if a genre we have recently published a book on is dead, somebody has failed. As long as kwaito remains fixed in people’s minds as a song and a clothing style, there is going to be a constant struggle to make sense of its life and cultural significance. It should be clear by now that kwaito lives on as a kind of heritage — not only as a popular mainstream sound — and the investment should be in preserving this crucial part of history and black identity. But what does it mean to think of kwaito as heritage? 

An undergraduate qualification in anthropology later and the meaning and idea of “heritage” seems more elusive to me than it did when I was a first-year student who routinely wore umbhaco to campus, feeling identifiable as a proud Xhosa girl.

The ability to connect to paper the idea that kwaito is heritage is evading me. A site I stumble on after  googling, “What is heritage?” says, among other things, “Heritage is, or should be, the subject of active public reflection, debate, and discussion.” It also throws up the questions: “What is worth saving?” and “What can we, or should we, forget?” 

That seems like a great point of entry. It makes heritage a space that is not fixed: one that can be debated and, therefore, constantly created and recreated. In essence, heritage is the culture, the traditions, the monuments inherited from the past and preserved for future generations. 


The site I stumbled upon makes mention of “old things” and then I struggle. Is Kwaito an old thing yet? Or is it rendered old by the fickle nature of the South African dance landscape? Kwaito is almost only as old as our democracy, which is still so contested, subject to active public reflection, debate and discussion. 

What is worth saving? The statue of Brenda Fassie at the Bassline comes to mind as it enters the world of Nelson Mandela statues and materialises the argument I have tried to make. The sometime kwaito star is memorialised in one of South Africa’s longest enduring cultural hubs, acknowledging her place in heritage-making as an artist. In a country that typically creates monuments to colonialists and freedom fighters, Angus Taylor’s sculpture comes to embody the idea that our popular cultures also form part of our heritage.

Perhaps the strongest argument I can make for this inheritance, this tradition, is that, more often than not, we do not have too many monuments that we have inherited as black South Africans. We have had to battle with Cecil John Rhodes statues, Voortrekker Monuments and apartheid flags and, because of our material dispossession, in most cases we have to rely more heavily on heritage as culture and tradition — not buildings and objects. 

In that world, we have a beloved music that is known for its footwork, its lazy, localised approach to rap, its ability to reflect our history (and the present) and its undeniable, unforgettable beginnings as the soundtrack to one of the most crucial points of South African history. New question: Is kwaito worth saving?

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Esinako Ndabeni
Esinako Ndabeni is a writer, an undergraduate student of International Relations and Anthropology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. She is interested in the ways in which popular culture encourages and normalises certain raced, classed and gendered ideas and behaviours. Therefore, with Born to Kwaito, she interrogates how women are imagined in popular culture, the impact that these imaginings have on real lives and how women in kwaito fought back against various forms of discrimination.

Related stories

Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza: Liberating Africa from land of liberté

The cultural and political activist is on a quest to bring looted treasures back home

The Portfolio: George Tatakis

The Greek photographer is on a quest to document traditional costumes around the country

Black futures in the age of apocalypse

Curating the End of the World deploys Afrofuturism to respond to Covid-19, anti-black violence and capitalism

Africa needs businesses that build and strengthen the continent

Africans should know by now that they can’t depend on leaders and should rather learn to do it themselves

Children left speechless, denied identity

Parents think it benefits children to lose their African language, but it leaves them lost instead

Extract from ‘Born to Kwaito’: How we choose to fashion ourselves

How we choose to dress is an instrument to communicate personal, race, class, gender and identity politics, as discussed in this extract from ‘Born to Kwaito’
Advertising

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Mboweni plans to freeze public sector wage increases for the...

The mid-term budget policy statement delivered by the finance minister proposes cutting all non-interest spending by R300-billion.

SAA to receive R10.5-billion government bailout after all

Several struggling state-owned entities received extra funds after the medium term budget policy speech

BMW X3 thrives in the M stable

The compact SUV is so at home with its new badge that’s it’s surprising it didn’t happen sooner

Malawi court judges win global prize

Members of the small African country’s judiciary took a stand for democracy to international approval
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday