The soundtrack to South Africa’s elections

‘I live in the ghetto, you just come to visit me ’round election time,’ sings Stevie Wonder, who has advocated against apartheid and for the poor in song and action.

As election campaigns move into full swing in South Africa, echoes of Stevie Wonder’s song Big Brother emerge. He sings: “I live in the ghetto, you just come to visit me ’round election time.”

Big Brother is a wispy ballad with a groovy tune from Wonder’s Talking Book album. It belongs in the league of the best protest songs of all time. Through genius lyricism, Wonder sings about the urban poor whose lives only matter momentarily during election time – a universal narrative that transcends the borders between us.

The critique of opportunistic American politicians and inequality is not only particular to the United States. The song is relevant to the South African experience of democracy in a context claimed to be post-apartheid.

While Wonder is thinking and singing about the ghetto as experienced by African Americans, the lived experiences of black people in the US (though materially different) resonate with the majority of black South Africans.

Wonder’s connection to SA

Born in 1950 as Stevland Hardaway Judkins, Wonder rose to fame at the tender age of 11. With more than 25 Grammy Awards, the Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours hitmaker is considered one of the greatest creatives of the 20th century.

Belonging to a generation of artists and intellectuals that includes Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Miriam Makeba and more, Wonder understood the power of popular music and its effect on how we make sense of the world. He used it to advance the interests of those on the margins of oppressive societies.

In 1985, the then apartheid-controlled national broadcaster – the SABC – banned Wonder’s music. This ban occurred in the wake of Wonder dedicating his 1984 Oscar to the first democratically elected leader of the ANC, former president Nelson Mandela, who was serving a lifetime sentence in prison for his anti-apartheid activism.

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Wonder won the Academy Award for a song in the movie The Woman in Red, his No. 1 hit I Just Called to Say I Love You. Responding to the apartheid ban, he said: “If my being banned means people will be free, ban me mega-times.”

Wonder was arrested that same year outside the South African embassy in Washington DC for participating in an anti-apartheid protest. His commitment to the South African liberation struggle is brilliantly articulated in his song It’s Wrong, in which he sings:

You know apartheid's wrong, wrong
Like slavery was wrong, wrong
Like the holocaust was wrong, wrong
Apartheid is wrong, wrong, wrong
It's wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong

As South Africa’s first democratically elected government came into power, the gesture of solidarity was returned with Wonder being awarded the Nelson Mandela Courage Award in 1995.

Low tolerance

Twenty-five years into democracy, the words directed at American politicians in Big Brother could easily be ascribed to South African politicians today.

You say that you're tired of me protesting
Children dying everyday
My name is nobody

Though the right to protest is constitutionally protected, the South African government has little tolerance for protests and often responds to them with violence – at times deadly violence, as seen in Marikana.

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Wonder sings:

My name is secluded, we live in a house the size of a matchbox
Roaches live with us wall to wall

These lines will resonate with South African shack dwellers. They are, as Frantz Fanon suggests, “the damned of the earth”.

What Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth is true of many townships in South Africa. “The town belonging to the colonised people, or at least the native town, the negro village, the madina, the reservation, is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where and how they die there … It is a world without spaciousness; [humans] live there on top of each other, and their huts are built one on top of the other.”

Place and space

The living conditions in Alexandra – a township on the doorstep of Sandton, one of the most opulent spaces in Africa – are appalling. Fires in Alex are a common recurrence, as they are in most townships and shack settlements. Roads are absent or not properly marked, making it difficult for ambulances and fire engines to access these areas in times of emergencies. Big rats the size of cats are well documented in stories about Alex and many other shack settlements.

The colonial nature of our towns is still deeply entrenched in how place and space is configured in South Africa.

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The incompleteness of our revolution is best articulated by activist, novelist and essayist Arundhati Roy in her book Capitalism: A Ghost Story.

She writes: “Socialism disappeared from the ANC’s agenda. South Africa’s great ‘peaceful transition’, so praised and lauded, meant no land reforms, no demand for reparations, no nationalisation of South Africa’s mines. Today in South Africa, a clutch of Mercedes-driving former radicals and trade unionists rule the country. But that is more than enough to perpetuate the myth of black liberation.”

Dream deferred

Former trade unionist-turned multimillionaire-turned President Cyril Ramaphosa, together with ANC elites, have started the famous door-to-door election campaign in shack settlements, townships and villages.

As usual, they are making big promises about decent housing, access to water and electricity, and more. People in what Fanon calls “shanty towns” are being told that decent housing will be rolled out, as if we have not forgotten that the government pronounced in 2004 that it would eradicate shack settlements by 2014.

Shack settlements have grown since then. We know the 2004 pronouncement was nothing but a dream conveniently deferred. The politicians – the ones in power, certainly – have forgotten about the policy positions of 2004. They are making similar pronouncements when they canvas and briefly “visit the ghetto” for votes.

Grandstanding and politicking are characteristic of election campaigns. However, seeking some level of accountability over empty political rhetoric from those who ascend to power is critical. Because democracy is not just about casting votes, it is participatory, robust, long and inclusive.

Wonder understands this principle, in that he reminds us of the living conditions of the poor and of faceless people. The disregard of poor people’s humanity and the failure of the ANC to create an inclusive democratic society is good enough reason to play Big Brother on repeat, to sing songs of protest at full volume, to ask for the full experience of change.

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