While watching Kanye West and Jay-Z’s video the other day, a friend exclaimed: “Wow, these guys are the ultimate s’kothanes!” She couldn’t have been more accurate. The reason her statement had immediate resonance is because in the video titled Otis, these rap giants ride around in a new custom-made Maybach flaunting their outrageous success. Predictably, video girls, in this case runway models, prance about, acting as the ultimate accessory and confirmation of the “luxury rap” lifestyle. In terms of chronology, it appears the pinnacle of the video is the car being spun around with the waif-like specimens hanging out as though they were re-enacting a scene from a 1990s kwaito video depicting amagents in gusheshes. But that’s not it. While the song celebrates their wealth, it also emphasises the added significance of their achievements given their very humble beginnings. Thus in a slightly unexpected twist, the rappers who revel in their ability to indulge in the best brands, deliberately wreck their Maybach, the very expression of their arrival.
Herein lies the ultimate statement they’re making, a display of the duality that is both desire and disdain for the things they’ve wanted all their lives. What my friend’s wisdom was elucidating was that what we were watching on MTV, admittedly with a tinge of awe and admiration, was in some crucial ways identical to the exposé on izikhothane that we had recently watched with shock and horror on 3rd Degree. Izikhothane, as we have come to understand, are groups of high school pupils who meet at regular intervals to destroy their equivalents of Kanye’s Luis Vuitton sneakers: Nike T-shirts and Carvella loafers, among others. While a direct causal relationship cannot be drawn between the Otis video and the emergence of this disturbing subculture, watching these luxury rappers through the izikhothane lens certainly resolved a lingering question about our kids.
One finally understands the people and culture they are emulating in their obscure reality. And what a shame that children of the same age as those who brought apartheid to its knees in 1976 should be reduced to rituals that deepen their subjugation under the wrathful culture of ego and materialism. From freedom fighters to izikhothane – this, it appears, is how the cookie has crumbled.
And yet such assertions cannot be made without a disclaimer. We must also acknowledge the many inspiring young people who are constantly working hard to become relevant South Africans. They exist, but as with most everyday heroes, possess none of the scandalous frills that seem to attract media attention. Thus, while the izikhothane warrant deeper reflection, it is worth highlighting the importance of positive news in reshaping who we think we are. That said, there is no denying that our current generation of youngsters, my generation, does not appear to possess the same revolutionary politics as the class of ’76. Indeed, we no longer live under a uniformly oppressive regime and therefore, we seem to have become resigned to the lazy conclusion that we have nothing to struggle for. In the absence of a struggle, then, we, the kids born into the utopia that is a free SA, are entitled to exclusively maximise self-interest? Not so.
First of all, the myth of freedom must be debunked. Free societies don’t rape toddlers, harbour racism and mass-produce illiterate matriculants. Free societies don’t violently repress mass action, don’t build unenclosed toilets, and don’t perpetuate extreme inequality. Freedom is a process and we’re still very much in the throes of becoming free.
Second, it is time we redefined the meaning of struggle. Through centuries of experience, dialogue and theorising, a refined and seemingly simple interpretation of our struggle emerged and perhaps there is no better expression of that conceptual maturation than the Freedom Charter.
Thus, the later manifestation of the liberation struggle could clearly identify the villain, the workings of their evil and the necessary remedial course of action. Ironically. then, the popular conception of struggle is incorrectly associated with the refined message and modes of what actually came at the latter end of aeons of agitating for change.
To thus limit the notion of struggle to that magical moment when masses unite around a single cause is to reflect a failure to understand how truly challenging a task it is.
In other words, a struggle does not hail like manna from above, complete with five-point manifestos. The struggle is born out of engaging with reality, understanding its flaws and working to change it. The ability to make sense of the past, recognise its impact on the present and make value judgements about outcomes is what motivates us to seek transformation. This logic is what philosopher Paulo Freire argues differentiates man from animals. Thus, by being engaged in the struggle for transformation, we reflect and experience ourselves as truly human.
What we seem to have lost is our ability to understand history and therefore see our conditions for what they are. If this were the case, all of us, young and old, would be united in the continuing struggles for our freedom. The youth in particular, given our energy and penchant for dreaming, would be playing a leading role in imagining alternatives for the future.
But alas, we seem to have narrowed our understanding of the place and virtues of dreaming, sooner identifying self-obsessive, designer-clad airheads as the epitome of a dream achieved. My wish, for my peers, is that we rediscover our collective struggles by learning to do that thing that is integral to our being, dreaming fully.
n Mthembi is an entrepreneur in the renewable energy sector. She writes in her personal capacity.