The city has two speeds. In the centre I choose an apartment with uncapped fibre on Airbnb. I call my Uber and order a pizza in the car so it will arrive at the same time as me, but I’m there too quickly. Out on the periphery there’s waiting, for trains and houses, data bundles and social grants. The centre operates at infinite speed – the now-time of swipe right and customer service and body corporates while the time of the periphery is the some-time of service delivery and bodies and queues.
Zabalaza, a music video by Khayelitsha-based anarchist hip-hop collective Soundz of the South(SOS) echoes this duality of time in its slowed down pace. Anele Selekwa, a member of the collective, tells me about how, during the filming of the video, they immersed themselves in the series of waiting that defines township life – travelling to Site C taxi rank at 4am, standing for hours with groups of people seeking treatment at the local clinic, hoping to be picked up by trucks for piecework at farms and factories.
“It was important for us to show people in long queues and how at times they risk their lives to get to work,” says Selekwa. “Even the public transport infrastructure is in a state of waiting … you have workers hanging out the window of the train or getting on to the back of a bakkie with no windows or ventilation, but you have to go to work to feed your family.”
The song seeks to challenge the vastly divergent social realities of those who occupy the same space, in essence, giving way to two parallel cities: one defined by the harshness of poverty, which workers travel out of every morning; and one in which workers create wealth they do not benefit from, which they travel out of every evening.
It’s about the perpetuation of apartheid through the neoliberal economic policies peddled by the ANC and DA. “When the ANC says ‘we have a good story to tell’, we wanted to show that the ‘good story’ is really people standing from 3am for medical attention and returning home in the afternoon with none; endless queues of young people without work, practically excluded from the economy; tired old people who go to work and are exploited on a daily basis.”
“That cycle,” gestures Selekwa, “keeps going.”
Xenophobia as a catalyst
SOS came together in 2008, the original members finding each other through park jams and hip-hop gatherings in Gugulethu and Langa, on the outskirts of Cape Town. While there was a lot of creative dynamism at these events, they were relatively apolitical and didn’t provide a space to explore pressing issues. Anela Jahmena explains how the xenophobic attacks of that year provided the catalyst for the collective. “Hip-hop came to us in a time of need, when we needed to build something … we had comrades from outside the borders and we were like, ‘No, these people are human too and belong here!’”
Seeing art as an intervention in struggle that should always be on the side of the oppressed, SOS began shifting away from isolated one-off gatherings towards community politicisation and organisation, the themed events they hosted expanding to include poetry as well as spaces for self-reflection and open dialogue. “We challenged ourselves to grow politically,” says Jahmena.
“Whatever topic the space took, we’d challenge people on what they were saying … The outcomes were interesting … It’s hard for hip-hop artists to be placed in a critical environment. It’s all about being ‘dope’ and not about changing society. Some of us come from really destructive backgrounds and it had been so normalised for us … We realised we had the power to challenge all that.”
This entails being “conscious”. There’s no liquor or other intoxicants at SOS events, in recognition of how the collective views substance abuse as a symptom of the abjection wrought by capitalism. As they put it, there’s a clear systematic problem when beer is cheaper than bread. This stance, along with their commitment to a form of hip-hop that is politically charged, has resulted in clashes with fans and venue owners, as well as the municipality.
Jahmena recalls how there was originally a widespread discomfort with spaces where, instead of engaging in self-destructive behaviour, young people chose to remain sober and discuss issues such as economic inequality, homophobia and gender-based violence. “Lots of people would say: ‘Just hush it, go back to the music,’ but it made an impact on the young … the space shaped all of us here. We started picking up books, meeting up with the comrades, understanding where and how to organise.”
Influential as they are now, there’s an interesting lack of predictable influences in SOS’s work. When I ask Selekwa and Jahmena, as well as fellow collective members Matsidiso Mkhiwane and Kari Daweti, what inspired them to become involved in radical hip-hop, they mention how their comrade Khusta, who died tragically a few years ago as a result of lack of access to medical care, would enthusiastically share tapes with them by overseas artists such as Dead Prez, but it’s clear they’ve been more deeply influenced by their own experiences of the difficulties of township life and that this allows them to speak with a power and clarity they don’t need to dilute with euphemism or clever wordplay. This incisive, unwavering voice is best heard in the SOS songs that grapple with pivotal moments in our recent history: Andries Tatane, Marikana, #FeesMustFall. It is here that the radical nature of SOS’s politics becomes apparent.
As critical of the state as they are of capitalism, the collective have always been proudly anarchist. “We’re biased to the poor and working class,” says Selekwa. “People need to take their power and organise in ways that promote collectivism and non-hierarchical structures.” They are grounded in the well-worn anarchist idea that freedom and equality should be understood not in relation to tension with each other but as essential and mutually co-creative aspects of direct democracy. As such SOS’s values of anti-boss, anti-oppression and anti-exploitation are reflected in how the group itself is organised.
“Even within our own movements, no one, two or three people should dominate … We believe that everyone has something to contribute and we acknowledge that from everyone. We encourage people to try learn new things, we don’t believe in rigid structure, we also try be consciously horizontal as much as we can. Even in workshops and performance, we are critical of the thing of having a performer and an audience. At any given time, these two groups are performing and audiencing. When we write songs, we think about that approach – how we can write songs that can be sung by us on stage but also by people coming to the show and, beyond the show, how they can take the song into their own communities.”
Applying their anarchist ethos to gender, Jahmena and Mkhiwane are also part of the feminist Rebel Sister Cypha project, a space that challenges sexism and patriarchy, and invites women and others to come together to raise issues through music and discussion. They emphasise that this space is women-owned, not SOS-owned, and seeks to confront dominant narratives, even within some radical circles, about the distancing of women from the centre of struggle.
Rebel Sister Cypha focuses on issues women are experiencing and want to talk about. “During #FeesMustFall, for instance, there was a lot of talk about decolonising and unlearning and, you know, for ordinary people there isn’t an understanding of what that means and what we tried to do with the space was break down in simple form how these terms and all these decisions made politically would in turn affect women in communities,” says Jahmena.
Down with dogma
Both Rebel Sister Cypha and the broader SOS project reflect a strong ethos of open experimentation and a discomfort with dogma. Collective members are uniformly critical of the tendency on the left to view creativity as something tacked on to the beginning or end of the “real work” – some light entertainment at the end of a workshop or before a march.
Instead, SOS see art as political in and of itself, and as bearing more potential than those stale forms of resistance in which, as Selekwa says, “you fill in forms and you go for an interview and you’re led by officers and then sing songs on the way, but then there’s the long boring thing of the memorandum”. He continues: “This form of protest is done … it’s important to build a politics of direct action but this form of activism is monotonous and doesn’t bring change. It has become a tool of the bosses and is used against us. The movement needs to think about how it fights. Lucky #FeesMustFall happened – there was a lot of newness and freshness, lots of new ideas thrown out.”
This enthusiasm for fresh politics, as well as a commitment to reach beyond the echo chamber, is exemplified by the sheer range of activities SOS has been involved in through the years: everything from documentary film screenings, spontaneous speeches, performances on trains and setting up clandestine stages in public spaces to an ongoing collaboration with Philippi High School, solidarity projects with farmworkers and the Don’t Vote, Organise! campaign that engaged critically with electoral democracy, reminders of which are still tagged on walls throughout the city.
“Don’t Vote, Organise! tried to get people to think differently about political participation. This idea of voting once every five years is dangerous and limiting to political activity. You’re delegating your power away to other people,” says Selekwa, adding: “We’re engaging people on how to be political and active every day so as to regain power and start thinking practically about how they shape their own lives and communities.”
Conceived in response to the 20 Years of Democracy celebrations in 2014, Don’t Vote, Organise! was inspired by the 20th anniversary of the EZLN’s (popularly known as the “Zapatistas”) 1994 uprising. The campaign drew attention to the strong contrasts between the reformist, top-down politics of South Africa and the revolutionary grassroots direct action exemplified by the Zapatistas, posing the difficult question of what exactly it was that poor and working class people in South Africa were celebrating.
The weaving together of global influences is a core element of SOS’s internationalist politics and allows them to avoid the pitfalls of parochialism. As part of a global radical hip-hop community, SOS have been fortunate enough to travel widely, performing in many parts of Europe and sharing knowledge with activists from the global North.
One of the most inspiring aspects of their travels, according to Daweti, are the alternative political spaces they’ve encountered (the Cyklopen social centre in Stockholm, Sweden, and the Antifa-run squats in Greece are mentioned as prominent examples). Encounters in these spaces have broadened their political understanding and has given them access to a range of new tactics. Closer to home, SOS, along with members of Zimbabwe’s Uhuru Network, are also part of the Afrikan Hip-hop Caravan. The project is a political tour through Africa that combines performance with political education, forming vital bonds of solidarity between activists in places such as Tanzania, Senegal, Angola and Zimbabwe.
The sprawling network that has emerged from SOS’s travels, along with the ways in which their access to public spaces has been obstructed by people who disagree with their politics, has inspired an ambitious new project: the development of a radical social centre back home. As well as housing a recording studio, the Mkhululi Freedom Centre will be an activist-run cultural hub where young people can get together to explore various issues and develop grassroots responses to them. The centre will also become a physical exemplar of the change SOS seek, demonstrating concrete alternatives to hierarchical, capitalist ways of living.
As they talk, something more is communicated through their subtle gestures – a quick smile, a small wave of the hand. The bonds between them are strong and the care they’ve taken to ensure that their political work is grounded in real, deep friendship and collective nurture is a vital component of their longevity. Selekwa’s eight-month-old son, who has throughout looked perfectly content to be with these people, here, in Community House in Salt River, on this hot Saturday afternoon, lets out a gurgle to signal the end of the interview and we head outside for photographs.
The city has two speeds. There in the centre capital flows through the electrical infrastructure, ceaselessly recreating the present in the image of the past. Here on the periphery the slow time of struggle imagines and then builds the future.