Mandoza performs at Moletsane Sports Complex in Soweto in 2012. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko
Mandoza performs at Moletsane Sports Complex in Soweto in 2012. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Mandoza and kwaito music will live on forever

By Khaya Koko Time of article published Sep 19, 2020

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In an article published on the TimesLive website in September 2016, writer Andrew Donaldson launched into a diatribe about the late kwaito singer Mduduzi “Mandoza” Tshabalala – and the genre itself.

This was a mere two days after Mandoza had died.

Donaldson kicked off his vitriol by slamming Mandoza’s choice to perform at the Thank You SABC concert, calling his performance “prosaic” (or dead) and – in a tone which smacked of a superiority complex – declaring that Mandoza “should never have been” at the concert.

The concert, which happened a week before Mandoza lost his life, was part of South African musicians’ gesture of gratitude to Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the former SABC head honcho, for declaring that the public broadcaster would play 90% local music on its platforms.

Now, anyone who has seen footage of the late musician’s performance at the concert will probably agree that Mandoza was in no shape to perform, let alone leave his home.

But he wanted to be there and wanted the public to see him at his most vulnerable, which was a bold enactment of what Mandoza had often spoke about in some of his songs: nothing can get me down.

Lol’ikhalizakho ushon’empini / ‘khusele bonk’abakini /yekel’umbhed’oknakile / bayeke bonk’abanyabile.

A summarised, loose translation of these lines was Mandoza imploring listeners to prepare themselves to defend their families, and pay no attention to people who are full of nonsense with nothing of value to add.

These lyrics are in the song Indoda (A Man), where Mandoza speaks about how a man can fall on hard times today, but rise up to be stronger tomorrow. Mandoza’s appearance at the SABC concert was a visual representation of what he spoke about in Indoda.

The part about paying no attention to people who are full of nonsense with nothing of value to add is aimed at the likes of Donaldson who, for some inexplicable reason, felt the need to pass judgement on an artist and genre he knew nothing about.

Concluding his incoherent tirade, Donaldson snootily postulated that Mandoza attended the SABC concert because, like many “has been” musicians, he saw the broadcaster’s 90% local content policy as a “lucrative new and perhaps last-gasp revenue stream”.

“After all, kwaito’s best days were behind it. Perhaps it had only ever been that one-hit genre,” wrote Donaldson, referring to Mandoza’s iconic song Nkalakatha.

Really? Kwaito was a one-hit genre?

Speaking at Mandoza’s memorial service in September 2016, Kwaito legend Kabelo “Bouga Luv” Mabalane elucidated why his generation of musicians chose kwaito instead of any other genre in the mid-1990s.

Mabalane said: “We chose kwaito because staying true to our context was a conviction we were willing to defend against whatever odds. We were from (Soweto areas) Diepkloof, Phiri, Mapetla, Zola (and) Mndeni.”

Mabalane underwent a major transformation from his early musical days with the kwaito group TKZee, where he got involved in a well-documented life of drug and alcohol abuse.

A perusal of Mabalane's music catalogue as a solo artist reveals his journey from substance abuse to sobriety.

For example, in the 2002-released song Balele (They are sleeping), Mabalane mentioned that he would “smoke zol (dagga) and get high” for as long as he lived.

A few months later, after checking himself into rehab and beginning his road to recovery, Mabalane released his award-winning album And the Beat Goes On, which featured the smash hit Zonke (Everything) – a track where he outlined how badly he wanted to achieve success and gain everything which came with it.

Sukela k’dala umuntu afis’ukuthi angaphumelela / ngaphandle kweyidagamizo, ngaziyela.

Loosely translated, Mabalane was saying: “I have wanted to be successful for a long time now, and without abusing drugs, I’m on the road to success."

Subsequent albums released by Bouga Luv after the And the Beat Goes On are laden with powerful messages for listeners not to be subsumed by societal ills.

And Mandoza did likewise.

Ngangen’ejele ngaphuma, ngaphinde ngasavaiva / ngabhem’ama-drugs ngaphuma, ngaphinde ngasavaiva (loosely translated to “I was in and out of jail, and I still survived / I abused drugs and stopped, and I still survived").

These are the lyrics to Mandoza’s song Respect Life, where he graphically outlined some of the mistakes he made in his life.

This song was also a powerful message to listeners, and young people in particular, that they should respect life and their elders in order to enjoy blessings and success in the future.

This is the beauty of kwaito music; being able to fuse noteworthy messages with a unique sound which is, mainly, slow in tempo, infused with percussion instruments and heavily influenced by the 1920s marabi sound, the kwela sound of the 1950s and the bubblegum music of the 1980s, which was popularised by the late Brenda Fassie.

You dance and gain enlightenment at the same time.

As an excerpt from the website South African History Online reads: “Kwaito is about the township, knowing about the township, understanding the township, walking the walk, talking the talk, being proud of these things.

“The township is being celebrated in kwaito music (which) is interesting when one considers that the township was created to keep a steady supply of cheap labour under control by the apartheid government.”

And that is the essence of kwaito of which Donaldson is ignorant.

Kwaito music chronicles – in an audiovisual manner – the life of millions of black South Africans who grew up or live in working-class townships, which were designated by a repressive regime as reservoirs of cheap labour and mental enslavement.

The pride in township life which is prevalent in kwaito songs is not Stockholm syndrome-esque in nature.

Instead, kwaito artists wanted to promote a message that, despite the challenges faced in townships, these challenges can be overcome only if they are faced up to – drawing inspiration from the anti-apartheid movement which was cultivated in the township.

Listening to kwaito music as a primary school boy from the township of Katlehong in Ekurhuleni, I began to understand that artists wanted to wean black people away from inferiority complexes that were (or are) held as a result of centuries of mental slavery perpetrated by oppressive political systems.

So, labelling this genre a “one-hit genre” is an insult to many fans, such as myself, who imbibed the salient messages contained in the songs that spoke to us as boys and girls growing up in socially engineered areas; trying to make sense of a brutal legacy we had been bestowed with, and striving to face up to it.

Today, kwaito has undergone a metamorphosis into many sounds such as motswako, skhanda rap, New Age kwaito and so on.

These are all evolutions of the pioneering sound Mandoza and his generation introduced in the 1990s.

South African musicians who perform the evolved sound of kwaito are selling out arenas, winning multiple international awards and being interviewed by world-renowned music personalities, such as Sway Calloway from the US.

Kwaito’s best days are not behind it. Rather, they lie ahead in the fresh new sounds which branched out from the genre, where the new generation of artists are continuing to explain urban South Africa’s story.

It has been four years since we lost a legend, but his music will live on forever.

And no amount of acerbic writing from Donaldson or others of his ilk will diminish Mandoza’s and kwaito’s impact on democratic South Africa’s ongoing cultural development.


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