Post-Apartheid Pop

Sweating an old, new sound on the streets of Soweto

| July-August 2008

Artsy types in Johannesburg will tell you straight out: Kwaito is dead. Next they’ll start listing their favorite kwaito songs.

South Africa’s only indigenous electronic music, kwaito was born in the country’s black townships just before the apartheid regime fell apart in the early ’90s. It has a hypnotic mid-tempo pulse somewhere between reggaeton and a Chicago stepper’s beat, fleshed out with an urgent mix of Africanized English and native languages called “vernac.”

When democracy came, kwaito captured the new energy of independence and flourished in the “gray areas,” neighborhoods like Yeoville and Hillbrow that were among the first to be racially integrated. By the turn of the millennium, venues like Rockafellas and Tandoor on Rockey Street in Yeoville featured kwaito shows every week, if not every night.

Now, drive around Soweto on a Saturday night looking for spots playing kwaito, and you might start to believe the reports of its death. House music rules the sets, with European imports mixing more or less seamlessly with South African productions by DJ Fresh or Bantu Soul. House music is a natural counterpart to the freaknik atmosphere that pervades Johannesburg right now. Everywhere you go in “Jozi”—from trendy Melville to the townships—the moneyed, the poor, and the hustlers in between are all posing off, scoping one another out, snapping pics, and jumping into conversation with strangers. Years after the end of apartheid and the commencement of real democracy, South Africa’s coming-out party is just getting into full swing.

Johannesburg is bubbling: with optimism, with preparations for the 2010 World Cup, with talk of South Africa joining the United Nations Security Council. Now Soweto—not a traditional name but a shortening of South West Township—is no longer a ghetto but a sprawling city unto itself. Light years from the images of schoolkids and white soldiers clashing amid tin shacks in 1980s news clips, 2008 Soweto houses shiny monuments to democracy like the Mandela Museum, as well as some 20 millionaires and as much diversity—from posh suburbs to shantytowns—as the rest of the country.

Like the generation that spawned it, kwaito has not so much disappeared as moved uptown.

6/23/2010 11:15:43 AM

This is very interesting, the powerful use of song and dance can really bring out the history of a country. Culture can be shown in many ways.