“I am writing to you, Sir, because I have a growing, nightmarish fear that unless something drastic is done very soon, then bloodshed and violence in South Africa are going to happen almost inevitably. A people can only take so much and no more… we may soon reach a point of no return.” – Extract from Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s letter to Prime Minister John Vorster dated May 6 1976.
Sunday. A wintry wind howls past Rosebank Fire Station, knocking autumn leaves off trees and whistling past street poles. Earlier in the week, residents from Lwandle (Cape Town) and Alexandra (Johannesburg) were inhumanely evicted from their homes and left to brave a nationwide cold front. As corny as it may sound, it’s a reminder that this winter stretches far beyond the weather – it’s also a chilly time in South Africa’s political sphere. And with this year being our 20th as a democracy, now would be as good time as any for introspection. Have we made any significant progress since ’94? And more pertinently, this being youth month, how far has the youth come since the historic Soweto Uprising in ’76?
“In my opinion, being young in South Africa means endless opportunities. I know that not everyone has the same means but back in the day with everything getting banned, people couldn’t really express themselves. It’s not like that anymore,” begins 19 year old Johannesburg-based alternative rapper Sam Turpin. I’m at his studio in Rosebank where I find him hard at work, crafting the follow up to his four-track debut EP “Eternal Sentiment”. Featured on Okayafrica and online UK pop culture magazine Dieke, the record is a kaleidoscopic mix of old school boom-bap and modern day experimental production. The subject matter is equally as eclectic: Turpin speaks of everything from cranes, his grandmother and even offers an obscure critique of sexism.
Born in ’95, Turpin (who’s also pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree at Wits) is part of the “born-free” generation who supposedly do not suffer from the effects of apartheid by virtue of the fact that they were born after the first general election. So what does he make of South Africa’s current political climate?
“Things definitely aren’t perfect yet,” he says, clattering his keyboard and laying a melody over a drum pattern. “In fact, If I could change anything in South Africa it would be the economic divide between the rich and poor. Look at a place like Alexandra – it’s right next to Sandton. The two are so close geographically but in an economic sense they’re worlds apart.”
Broadly speaking, Youth Day is largely considered a “black” holiday. After all, the Uprising took place in Soweto and it was black students who were dodging bullets and rabid police dogs. In light of this, does Youth Day mean anything to young white South Africans?
“Well, Youth Day will always be special to me. But then again I think I’m very privileged because I had parents who taught me about our country’s history from an early age. My mother’s photography was also very socially aware. She documented a lot of domestic situations during apartheid, so I always had the idea that people were separated based on their skin colour”. His mother is none other than acclaimed photographer Gisele Wulfsohn – who was predominantly known for documenting various HIV/AIDS campaigns and the anti-apartheid struggle. In fact, in 1994 Sam’s mother was commissioned by the IEC to document South Africa’s first general election.
“People – especially white people – need to interact with others more. Plus it would help if more white people learnt at least one African language. There’s a culture attached to language so if you speak to someone in their language, it’s easier to connect with them,” says Sam, who speaks fluent Zulu (a fact he likes to keep to himself).
As the afternoon sky outside his studio slowly turns to evening, Sam files through one of the many vinyl records scattered across his studio table and pulls one out of it’s sleeve. It’s the soundtrack to Jamie Uys’ “Dingaka” – a South African film that “tells the story of a tribesman who avenges the murder of his daughter under tribal law… which leads him to be tried under government laws, where justice for black people doesn’t exist”. It’s a small reminder that Sam, and young South Africans like him, are more in touch with the past then the older generation cares to admit. They care a whole lot.
It’s June 16, 1976. Mbuyisa Makhubho is running frantically across Orlando West; pain and desperation etched into his features. In his arms is the bloodied body of Hector Pietorson – shot in cold blood by the Apartheid police during the day’s uprising. As we’ve now come to know, Pietorson will be declared dead on his arrival at a local clinic. He is only 12 years old. As the day goes on – the sky darkening with acrid smoke and the smell of teargas ripping through Soweto – the bodies start to pile up. This day will see 23 deaths – some white, most black and all of them wholly unnecessary. It’s a dark time.
It’s a cold Tuesday afternoon in Braamfontein. The sun is arched over the sky, but as a mockery more than anything else. It lays dormant, giving off the promise of warmth… someday, just not today. It’s symbolic of South Africa’s current social condition. With the advent of democracy came the hope that, just maybe, black South Africans would finally catch a break and move out of the raw deal dispensed to them by more than 300 years of colonialism and Apartheid. This hasn’t entirely been the case – especially for the youth. As things stand, more than 3.5 million young South Africans are unemployed and a recent report found that South Africa has the worst maths and science education in the world. And since it’s general wisdom that the present always has a profound effect on the future then, ladies and gentlemen, prepare for more rough times. It’s no wonder then that some people have taken matters into their own hands.
“This isn’t going to work bro,” exhales Mpumelelo Mfula. “This thing is too close to the ground. People are going to chap their knees when they ride it,” he continues. Mfula – the founder of online store RHTC (Returning Home to Create) – is installing a swing in one of Braamfontein’s parks to promote his website’s relaunch. It’s part of a broader marketing campaign which has seen him mounting Vintage Casio watch-shaped posters, shooting online videos and conducting installations all over Braamfontein. Just a few decades ago, black South Africans weren’t even allowed in Braamfontein without documentation. Today, guys like Mfula are literally reinventing it.
“RHTC was born out of disgruntlement,” he starts. “In South Africa, looking for a job is a job in itself so I decided to start my own business in the form of an online store. I figured it’s feasible because it doesn’t need much start-up capital and my target market can easily access the internet,” he adds.
RHTC consists of three core labels: Babatunde (Gary Cowden’s popular Afrocentric street brand), Kreative Beings and Uniconz (also known as Unique Iconz). Their business model is pretty simple: make the most amazing clothes you can think of in as relatively little quantity as possible. That way you get the added bonus of exclusivity along with your clothing. It’s a model that’s worked wonders for high end fashion labels like Gucci and Louis Vuitton and it’s paying dividends for these guys as well. They’ve had Motswako rap sensation Khuli Chana wear their clothing and they had a profile written about them in the The Guardian UK. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
As far as inspiration goes, RHTC’s primary concern is staying unique and formulating their own patterns. “We look at what’s happening internationally and stay as far away as we can from it. That keeps what we do unique and it shows we’re independent thinkers,” says Sanza of Kreative Beings.
Given that RHTC has all this creative freedom at their disposal – a freedom also provided by the class of ’76 – what do they make of today’s society? Are we free? And what does freedom mean to them?
“Freedom is relative. There’s no such thing as absolute freedom,” Mfula says pensively. “You could have freedom of movement but that could be limited by your financial status. Freedom is always limited. But to answer your question, freedom means getting up in the morning and doing what we love”. Siya, of Kreative Beings chips in, adding that their biggest struggle is being taken seriously. “People think we’re doing this for fun and games. So our biggest struggle is being taken seriously by corporations and factories.”
Speaking of struggle, South Africa’s political climate during Apartheid was one that largely shaped a singular struggle for the class of ’76. Apartheid – and the government that enforced it – was the enemy. Today’s youth seems to be embroiled in a series of struggles, so which one do they primarily identify with?
“For me, June 16 comes with a lot of pressure,” says Shiz Niz presenter and RHTC affiliate Mpho Sebeng. “I feel like the class of ’76 knew what exactly what their struggle was. We don’t know what our struggle is. That’s our struggle”. Mfula disagrees. “I hold a different view that we have identified our struggle. We don’t need to read textbooks or be told what our struggle is. We live it. If you don’t have enough money to catch a taxi then that’s a struggle,” he retorts.
As the sun sets and the crew wrap up their construction of the swing, the mood turns pensive. As “thank-you’s” are passed around and the interview draws to an exit, Frypan offers a striking conclusion to the earlier question of youth struggle “I’m paraphrasing here, but Frantz Fanon once said something to the effect of ‘every generation has the responsibility to identify their struggle and either abandon it or act upon it. Each person has their own struggle to deal with,” he concludes.
As we draw closer to the end of youth month, maybe this is the mindset we should be adopting. Each one of us have different lived experiences that determine our struggle. It may be the struggle for economic freedom, self-determination or the pursuit of creativity. But if the class of ’76 taught us anything, it’s that no giant is too big to be brought down to its knees. Youth apathy? Guys like RHTC and Sam Turpin dispel that notion everyday. It may be winter now but if the class of 2014 is anything like these guys, the dawn of summer may very well be on its way.
Photography by @RofhiwaManeta
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