South Africa’s art landscape is not about the past and tradition – it’s about a utopian future. Meet Johannesburg’s pioneering new generation of creatives: the South African afrofuturists.
South Africa, the rainbow nation. A place of dazzling sun, incredible wildlife, rugged coasts, and tabletop mountains, with a people as diverse and creative as the landscape. The country’s art scene too is in rude health, one of the most forward thinking on the continent. But South Africa as a place of space, of technology, of the future? It’s not where your mind immediately goes.
Today, the country’s creatives are not remaining stuck in tradition. Take one look at South Africa’s best young artists, especially those in the vibrant city of Johannesburg, and you’ll notice a theme. They’re all following a code, an aesthetic, known as Afrofuturism. It’s an artistic concept which places people of the African diaspora in the future.
But why are South African musicians, writers, and artists looking forward not back? To space not the earth? How did apartheid cause utopian visions of the future? What links ancient African mythology with Black Panther? This week on Passport, we’re headed to Johannesburg to meet the South African afrofuturists to find out.
MORE TO EXPLORE
- What is Afrofuturism? Read Mark Derry’s Essay “Black to the Future” which coined the term, and watch Free Jazz pioneer Sun Ra’s iconic film “Space is the Place.”
- But Masande Ntshanga’s second book, Triangulum, and read his most recent short story in the MIT Technology Review.
- Buy Yugen Blakrok and Kanif the Jhatmaster’s incredible 2019 record, Anima Mysterium and listen to their label, Iapetus’ other releases.
- Want even more Afrofuturism? Check out these other South African afrofuturistic artists:
Mawande Ka Zenzile
5 pins to help you get a cultural taste of Joburg.
Starting things off with a music venue recommended by Yugen and Kanif. Baseline started life when new South Africa did in 1994, and since then it’s become a mainstay of Joburg’s nightlife scene. With jazz nights in one room and ragga jams in the next, if you want to see South Africa’s best established and up-and-coming artists, there’s nowhere better.
- THE MARKET THEATRE
This is truly a Joburg institution, renowned over its 44 year history as putting on South Africa’s ‘Theatre of the struggle’. While constantly challenging the apartheid regime in its inception, the market theare is now a hotbed of exhilirating new South African drama. Yugen and Kanif are big fans.
- THE FORGE
For more radical ideas from exciting new thinkers, Masande suggested we check out The Forge, a multi-use artistic space in Braamfontein which is constantly putting on talks, shows and exhibitions which celebrate the city’s most progressive thinkers.
- APARTHEID MUSEUM
If you’re going to Joburg, its worth taking the time to really get to grips with its troubling history. The apartheid museum doesn’t pull any punches, exploring the truth of apartheid in a number of interactive ways. Ditch those problematic township tours, and learn something real.
- AFRICAN FOOD MARKET
Finally, to Kanif and Yugen’s home area for some amazing food. The African Food Market in Yeoville has the best of South Africa’s traditional cuisine – but Joburg is an immigrant city, and this market and has flavours from the entire continent too. Deeelicious.
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This episode of Passport was written and edited by Harry Stott.
Big big thanks to Masande Ntshanga, Yugen Blakrok, Kanif the Jhatmaster, and Elena Laing for their help and insight into this awesome world.
The music on this episode was written by the wonderful Nick Turner, with loads of tunes from Yugen and Kanif – thanks guys! Plus extra songs from Auracle, Lt. Fitzgibons’ Men, Carlton Banksy, Musicbox, The Beards, Ye Olde Data Plan, Hot Acid Alien Lust Bomb, Tronic, Foxy Basey, Carlton Banksy and Thirst Follow.
The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski.
Eliza Engel is our production assistant.
Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari, and Avi Glijansky are the freshest MCs this side of the equator, and they also executive produce the show.
Which is hosted by Neil Innes, and a man who is a little more Swaziland than he is Lesotho, Andrés Bartos.
We’ll see you in the next place.
EPISODE 36 – TRANSCRIPT
NEIL: This is our Black Panther.
ANDRÉS: I think it would be a white panther in this case.
NEIL: A white panther. This is our extremely rare albino panther episode of Passport.
ANDRÉS: It’s going to die within a couple of months.
NEIL: It’s got pinkeye.
ANDRÉS: Got pinkeye.
NEIL: Have you seen the watering hole?
ANDRÉS: Exactly. Like reads The New Yorker.
[PASSPORT MAIN TITLE]
ANDRÉS: A destination isn’t always a place.
NEIL: Sometimes it’s a new way of seeing things.
I’m Neil Innes
ANDRÉS: And I’m Andrés Bartos.
NEIL: From Frequency Machine, this is Passport.
ANDRÉS: Your ticket to everywhere.
[END MAIN TITLE]
NEIL: Hear that? A gospel choir singing about the arrival of freedom. Perfect harmony and pure joy. And it can only be from one place.
ANDRÉS: It’s music which takes you to grassy plains and along rugged coasts, over tabletop mountains and through sparse, dry forests. To a place of electrifying beauty. To South Africa, a country where people seem to be born with music and art in their souls.
NEIL: South Africa is a place known for a million different things: sun, safari, surf, the rainbow nation and art. Colorful, life affirming, art.
You probably think you know what to expect from the country’s creatives: tradition, the past, the sounds of the cradle of humanity.
ANDRÉS: But today, we’re heading to Africa’s southernmost tip for something which is a little less gospel.
ANDRÉS: And a little more electric.
NEIL: South Africa’s art landscape in the 21st century is not djembes, marimbas and choirs. The most exciting artists are looking in all directions at once, one foot in the past, the other, firmly striving towards the future.
ANDRÉS: South African art is filled with talk of space and planets, new worlds and utopias. It’s following a creed, an aesthetic, which has become famous worldwide in recent years, known as afrofuturism.
It’s a scifi concept which explores the place of people of the African diaspora in the future.
[Archival: The mood is different here. Not like Earth.]
NEIL: From Marvel’s Black Panther to Janelle Monae, afrofuturism is now in the mainstream worldwide.
Today on Passport we’re not off to Wakanda or hopping on George Clinton’s Mothership. Producer Harry Stott is headed to Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city and melting pot of sound and color.
ANDRÉS: We’re off to meet the South African afrofuturists to find the link between ancient tribal storytelling and Black Panther to see why so much of South Africa’s art is not looking to the past, but the future.
ANDRÉS: Hello there.
HARRY: Hello, hello.
ANDRÉS: I mean, this is a continent that I’ve never been to. Have any of us been to Africa?
HARRY: Yes, on a rugby tour, would you believe it.
ANDRÉS: As a player?
HARRY: As a player.
ANDRÉS: You sound surprised.
NEIL: I don’t believe that.
HARRY: And you’re almost right not to.
ANDRÉS: What do you remember?
HARRY: I remember Cape Town and going on safari as well.
And not seeing a lot, not seeing as much as I would have liked to. I saw of a lion’s tail.
HARRY: I saw a lion’s tail, and that was it. I mean, South Africa is always on the top of, the top of every list of place to go, most beautiful country in the world, you know.
ANDRÉS: It’s one of those.
NEIL: Cape Town’s like, it’s always in the top 10 of like places to live as well.
ANDRÉS: What about Johannesburg?
NEIL: The feel of things that they have, even when it’s presented in cinema, it’s very gritty, favelay, harsh.
HARRY: A harsh place, huge place as well.
HARRY: I mean, in size it’s bigger than greater London, so it’s huge.
ANDRÉS: So a township, is that like what I would think of as a favela?
HARRY: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, I mean the, the, yeah, the townships were, yeah, deliberately made segregated areas during apartheid where the black population were forced into, forced into.
NEIL: And what does it look like now?
HARRY: Like a favela, really, corrugated iron houses, those kinds of images of poverty in South Africa that you would picture are the townships. There’s that real kind of juxtaposition of there is a lot of wealth in Johannesburg.
Right next door you’ve got these enormous, enormous townships, it’s just abject poverty and stuff. So, so the thing with Africa, there’s this, there’s real beauty to it, but there’s a lot of inequality.
ANDRÉS: It feels like from what I know of South Africa, it’s multiple realities at play. So you have multiple languages, you know, like a quilt of, uh, identity happening in one place. And it’s a place that was like colonized multiple times, right? It’s like the Dutch then the British. I looked it up because of my, uh, thirsting for Prince Charles and The Crown this season.
ANDRÉS: There’s a moment where the queen is doing like a speech in Cape Town and I was like, wait, the British were there?
NEIL: I didn’t know you were an ears guy.
ANDRÉS: I wasn’t, I wasn’t. I really wasn’t. All right. But here was a question for you, Harry. You’re a man after music. Did you already have a sense of music in South Africa before you started this episode?
HARRY: I think the main sort of stuff that I knew from South Africa was African jazz. Yeah, Hugh Masekela who is a wonderful trumpeter and big anti-apartheid activist was exiled, I think for a long time during apartheid.
A pianist called Abdula Abraham, as well is brilliant and Miriam Makeba I think is the most famous of, of those who was huge throughout the world, kind of a South African Aretha Franklin, kind of…
NEIL: Yeah. She’s on Graceland.
HARRY: Yes. Well, and that’s the, the, the, the other musical thing is, uh, Paul Simon’s Graceland.
NEIL: Potentially my favorite record of all time.
NEIL: Yeah. The whole thing is built on a rebellious act. He shouldn’t have been there, him taking black music and bringing it to the world as a white guy. And it’s just got some of the most magnificent terms and phrase.
And there’s so much imagery in it, which is kind of afrofuturistic in a weird way.
ANDRÉS: Do you have any off the top of your head?
NEIL: Lasers in the jungle?
HARRY: Lasers in the jungle, yeah.
ANDRÉS: Like, I’m just excited to jump in. But is there anything we need to know you think before we go?
HARRY: Yeah. So, uh, uh, one concept and aesthetic that comes up a lot is afrofuturism.
And it’s a pretty ambiguous, difficult thing to decipher. But fundamentally, I think afrofuturism is an artistic concept with a lot of links to sci-fi, which places people of the African diaspora and places them in the future and gives them this kind of agency with technology and with science fiction concepts.
Afrofuturism is having this moment in the world right now, and more recently in Black Panther, obviously.
ANDRÉS: I’ve heard of that small art film.
HARRY: Yeah. That film brought this concept into the mainstream.
NEIL: You’ve got this immense, record-breaking, it’s still the most lucrative film ever made by a black director.
ANDRÉS: Right. With an all, basically all black cast
NEIL: With an all black cast. Yeah. And it just, obviously it blew something open. And the soundtrack, the sound, it’s like…
ANDRÉS: The soundtrack’s so good. Kendrick Lamar.
NEIL: Yeah, but that’s what stands apart from all of the other Marvel films.
ANDRÉS: I mean, yeah, if you get Kendrick Lamar as your soundtrack… come on. Again, I’d like to insist that we’re three very white people having this conversation.
NEIL: All wearing Kendrick Lamar t-shirts.
HARRY: Afrofuturism – you’ve probably got an idea in your head of what it is. The cosmic free jazz of Sun Ra, George Clinton’s Mothership Connection, Amiri Baraka’s cool blue spacemen, Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, Janelle Monae’s Cindi Mayweather. It’s a concept that has been around for a long while, but now it’s big business.
Because afrofuturism today is inescapably one thing: Black Panther. Marvel’s 2018 mega blockbuster dragged the concept into the mainstream. You all know what I’m talking about when I say Wakanda forever.
HARRY: Black Panther ticks all the boxes for afrofuturist art, but one of the most interesting things the film did was to truly engage with Africa itself and the continent’s many cultures. There’s the Oscar winning design, the Oscar winning score, the global cast, the subplots that challenge the legacies of colonialism.
The whole movie was created by a team who traveled the length and breadth of the continent to create the look, the feel and the sound. And the last of those, the music, gets extra points. Kendrick Lamar’s seminal album inspired by the movie is one of the best parts of the whole thing. It features a cast of rappers and singers from across the world, but one who features and stands out was South African MC, Yugen Blakrok.
YUGEN: It was great, dude.
HARRY: Yugen is proudly part of South Africa’s underground scene, but her global reach is definitely growing. Her feature on Kendrick’s Black Panther soundtrack is in no small part why. On the track Opps, she spits with her usual venom, talking of cyborgs, myths of subaquatic cities and hi-res lasers.
I wanted to know how much it meant to be part of this mega afrofuturist project and the impact it had in South Africa. So I called up Yugen and her longtime producer, Kanif the Jhatmaster.
YUGEN: The music and the movie kind of both going into that afrofuturistic aesthetic. It was a lot, a lot of the styling there was inspired by I think South Africa more than any other country in Africa.
KANIF: I think it was a great moment of inspiration when they decided to approach Yugen because it’s just something that was, that was naturally inherent in her style.
HARRY: For South Africans like Yugen and Kanif, seeing their culture on the world’s biggest platform was unbelievably exciting.
KANIF: The celebration of the, of the, of the movie reminded me of South Africa. It became a celebration of…
YUGEN: Yeah, it just became a celebration. Like you saw that, like oh wow, damn.
HARRY: The movie, like all Marvel films, had a massive impact worldwide. But Black Panther did so much more in South Africa. It was a historic event.
YUGEN: It was hectic and they spoke IsiXhosa, dude. Can you imagine? All the isiXhosa folks I know. My mom was like yes!
HARRY: IsiXhosa, an indigenous South African language, is used throughout Black Panther too.
YUGEN: And then I went to go see it with a group of kids caught up completely in the magic, you know, it was so great. And then the teacher’s like, oh, she was in the movie. It was over, it was all over. You know, when that touches in kid, they’re like screaming, I was screaming too. I was like, wow.
Yeah, it is, yeah, it is amazing.
HARRY: Black Panther’s impact in South Africa was beyond huge. Why? Probably because it was so positive.
YUGEN: It came at the right time too because, uh, I mean all around the world, we were being made aware, everybody, of how intense, uh, these racial conflicts were getting. That came in nicely as a, as an injection of, you know, that, that celebrative feeling that being represented in a, in a dope way.
HARRY: As well as giving South African actors and South African culture a platform, Black Panther gave Yugen one too. Her voice was now out in the world, shared alongside one of the biggest artists, Kendrick Lamar.
YUGEN: It was great, uh, for me, because as a completely independent artist, it was a boost for everybody that was rooting for the independent and the underdog and the underground.
It was a big boost.
HARRY: It’s time to leave Wakanda, that fictional African land of spaceships and superheroes and head somewhere much more real. To a place whose creative scene fosters artists of all kinds, but especially those who are looking to space, to the planets and to the future. To Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city, defacto capital, and artistic hub.
[SFX – streets]
HARRY: The main thing that you’ll hear about Joburg as everyone in SA calls it, is that it’s fast. Oh yeah, South Africa is always shortened to SA as well, keep up.
Joburg is really a non-stop place, a bustling chaotic city that moves to a different beat than South Africa’s other major hub, the serene beach side Cape Town.
Yugen and Kanif are both currently based in Marseille in the South of France, but they really grew up and found their artistic feet in Joburg.
YUGEN: Joburg will kind of be the central point, you know, the melting pot of the country. Really, there’s that city of gold image attached to it.
HARRY: While Wakanda is a city built on the fictional mineral vibranium, Johannesburg is a city literally built on gold.
The link between the two is in no way a coincidence. You’ll find the world’s two deepest gold mines in the city, Mponeng and TauTona. But if it’s the stuff above ground you’re looking for, Joburg’s got that in spades too.
The colorful and recently regenerated areas of Maboneng and Bramfontein are the spots to go to for hip bars and clubs, while the equally artistic Yeoville, where Yugen and Kanif lived, also boasts the delicious aromas of the African Food Market.
And Joburg’s not the entirely urban and gritty place you might be assuming either. It actually claims to be the world’s largest urban forest. And in among the trees and parks are thriving centers of food, culture, and art.
YUGEN: And the vibe is really the strongest, most endearing thing about Joburg. Somehow very colorful, the different mixes of people, the different smells, whether you’re walking past somebody who’s got like an open brazier outside and they’re barbecuing chicken feet.
There’s the spirituality aspect of it. There’s the bling aspect of it. There’s the hopes of reality stardom, the record companies.
KANIF: City of contrasts. It’s really a city of inequalities. There’s these huge mansions that you can’t believe belong to one person and there’s eight families that live in shacks, but there’s a big mixture of magic next to normality, you know, the seen and the unseen together.
HARRY: Joburg feels like a microcosm of all South Africa, if not most developing African nations. The color, the noise, the smells, but also the serious inequality. Townships, remnants from apartheid era segregation, still make up big sections of the city.
The sprawling Soweto is the most famous. But even there among the hardship, you’ll find a real sense of optimism.
YUGEN: There’s that survival spirit and there’s that also there’s that pride. Wherever I’m at, I’m willing to make it dope. Making this a really shoddy place into a place I can be proud of. Johannesburg is, it’s full of hope, you know, it’s full of hope and all these contrasts that make it a beautiful experience in itself.
That city of gold, I’m going to strike it. You know, my, my little spot here, there, there is that, it’s tangible, it’s in the air, you know?
HARRY: That sense of hope, of driving things into the future and not waiting around to be told what to do, also seeps into the city’s creative side. It’s both super DIY and super varied.
From Soweto’s Skate Punk scene to traditional choirs and incredible modern jazz. But Joburg so far doesn’t really sound like a place of the future, does it?
Nineties star skate punks, goldmines, sprawling townships, mansions next to corrugated iron shacks… they remind you more of a troubled past of apartheid than a utopian future.
So, afrofuturism, where can we find this concept in the city? Is it as tangible as the smells, the sounds, or the optimism?
YUGEN: Especially with the afrofuturism, like 10, 15 years ago, it wasn’t mainstream, you know, like on the net you get stupid comments like, oh, but you cats, why are you guys always talking about space and this and that, but like as time has uh, progressed and afrofuturism has kind of spread worldwide, you’re finding that like some of the most popular hits now in South Africa, you watch their videos. Folks out, you know, trying to get to the moon or Mars, you know, rediscovering what the names of the planets are in isiZulu or in isiXhosa and, you know, revisiting their childhood stories and our own fairytales.
Afrofuturism, it’s always been there. They, they’ve always imagined Africa or Africans in the future and where our history would place us in the future, you know.
HARRY: Turns out afrofuturism in South African art is potent, it’s present and you really can’t miss it.
The cosmic murals in Braamfontein’s vibrant street art, the otherworldly architecture of the Zeitz museum in Cape Town, the art and design of Mawande Ka Zenzile and Atang Tshikare.
And in music, even more so. Artists like Spoek Mathambo, Moonchild Sanelly, Simphiwe Dana. Yugen and Kanif also shouted out the label Subterranean Wavelength as some of the best doing it these days.
There’s a real community of artists in Joburg and beyond coalescing around these futuristic visions.
KANIF: All of us grew up together, man.
YUGEN: Yeah, these are homies, really. Kind of circles that kind of meet at a tangent and it really enriches the movement, you know. I think even Iapetus as a collective, it is a bunch of like-minds.
HARRY: Iapetus is Yugen and Kanif’s label and collective, based in Yeoville. You want afrofuturist? This is where to go.
KANIF: We have a really big telescope, it’s still back there in SA, in the old Iapetus headquarters. You know, we would just spend nights staring at planets. I think that’s what day to day life influences your art.
We were definitely rubbing off each other. And, you know, I guess that’s what might give the whole thing a flavor where you might say, you know, South African hip hop and urban youth music has quite a flavor of science fiction.
HARRY: The science fiction vibe in both Kanif and Yugen’s music is unmistakable. Check out this track, Picture Box, the stand out from their 2019 record, Anima Mysterium, a name which already conjures up images of myths and far off worlds/
HARRY: Yugen raps of stars circling the planet, cosmic, sagas, and ancient Egyptian deities. Kanif’s doom laden beats giving it a menacing texture. And the album cover sees an African figure looking out over grasslands at Zodiac signs and faded planets painted onto the sky.
ANDRÉS: Even in the way that these two talk, there’s already this like loose, like it feels cool and calm and collected.
NEIL: It feels dope.
NEIL: It feels dope.
ANDRÉS: It does.
NEIL: It does, man.
HARRY: Yeah. I love the bit, um, Kanif says about day-to-day life influencing their art. That thing is genuinely, they have a telescope in Johannesburg at the Iapetus headquarters, at their studio.
And they just spend nights, man, you know, like hanging out, checking, looking at the stars and it speaks to everything that you just saying, you know, it’s just, there’s just endless possibility of space and it’s just super cool.
ANDRÉS: Wow. It’s that, and the other thing that they talk about really well is that, that mess of contradiction and different social classes all bundled into one. But also the sense of like there’s magic in that.
NEIL: There’s a beautiful, like mix, in their music as well. It’s like super smooth and defined and precise and confident. But it’s also like, it’s kind of angry. Like if you strip down all of those doom laden beats, you know, as you kind of described them as, like it’s so melodic and it’s like hopeful as well.
ANDRÉS: Yeah, it doesn’t let go of the dark. Like it doesn’t pretend like that didn’t happen. It’s part of the story.
NEIL: Yeah. Which is all of the best like hip hop music did. They seem to have managed to jigsaw puzzle it all together so well. So well. It feels like there.
ANDRÉS: It feels solid.
NEIL: We’ll be back after the break with Masande Ntshanga and the history of South Africa and how it plays in to afrofuturism. We’ll see you in a sec.
HARRY: Afrofuturism is no longer just a niche in South African arts, a fringe thing going on behind closed doors in Yeoville or Soweto. It’s an aesthetic, which seems to be imbued in the country’s cultural psyche. But how and why did a whole generation of young South Africans start becoming obsessed with the future? With space, with technology? With afrofuturism?
I needed to speak to someone else in the South African artistic scene. Someone who could take me inside this world to work it all out.
HARRY: Hello? How’s it going, man? You’re well?
MASANDE: I’m well, how are you doing? It’s, it’s rainy today, like I…
HARRY: I got in touch with Masande Ntshanga, a South African author now based in Cape Town, but he’s spent enough time in Joburg to count that as his home too.
I’ve been a fan of his writing for a long while. As well as being lucid, evocative and utterly readable, Masande consistently delves into the deepest recesses of South African science-fiction.
His second book, Triangulum, is the case in point.
MASANDE: Triangulum is a book about South Africa’s recent past as far as the apartheid and the homelands. And it’s also about the promise that comes after liberation, but then begins to fade again.
HARRY: Reading Triangulum is to be flung back and forth between a shuddering portrait of apartheid era South Africa and a strange manuscript that predicts impending armageddon.
The machines, the mystery, the menacing, omnipresent triangles make the book really sci-fi and that it all takes place in South Africa with the protagonists exploring the implications of all this on their racial identity gives it an afrofuturist slant too.
MASANDE: If the world was a piece of, uh, hardware, then science fiction for me is the genre that kind of like opens it up and tinkers with it, you know, and tries to understand how it works and then projects or what it might do in an alternative reality or in the future. Or it can simply be about, you know, just daring to place something within the future and resting that, um, that dare, that leap, on one’s understanding of, um, the present.
And because in SA we’re constantly trying to make sense of our present, uh, science-fiction here particularly it’s, it’s more than fitting.
HARRY: One of afrofuturism’s most important tenets is the way in which it looks to the past. It’s a concept as much tied up in grappling with history as it is looking to an imagined future.
MASANDE: So there’s also an imagining of the future. And in order to do that for this book, I actually looked to the past, you know. And now being South African, I actually didn’t need to make a hypothesis because it’s kind of like an apocalypse that had already happened that we lived through and that was, you know, apartheid.
And it had all of those features, you know, it had experiments conducted and human beings, mass death, but yeah, like really costly things that were done to human beings, you know, all of which culminated in, into it being a crime against humanity.
HARRY: When you look at South Africa’s 20th century history, one word is unavoidable. A word which makes you shudder with its advocations of cruelty, injustice and racism.
Apartheid. A system of oppression and racial segregation, which saw the white minority in South Africa wield power over the black indigenous majority for half a century. And before, of course, even if segregation under British rule was just given another name.
Apartheid manifested itself in a litany of horrifying ways, ways which completely went against what South Africa was before. Because before apartheid, there were places in Johannesburg and Cape Town which were able to flourish artistically.
MASANDE: District Six and Sophiatown for me, just kind of like are such stark reminders of how foreign an idea like apartheid was.
And what you had with these, with these places was, um, insane and like really unique and interesting transference of like culture.
HARRY: Sophiatown was a racially mixed pre apartheid area of Joburg renowned for its jazz, for its art. It was basically like Harlem in New York and went through a similar Renaissance in the 1950s.
[Archival sound about Sophiatown]
HARRY: And District Six in Cape Town was exactly the same.
But when apartheid came in, the white majority forced entire removals of both of these areas, destroying what were once thriving places.
When you hear District Six, I know your mind immediately goes to the 2009 South African movie, District 9. And you’re right to – Neill Blomkamp’s tale of aliens landing over Johannesburg and then being removed from the township they create, is a quite brilliant sci-fi allegory for the District Six and Sophiatown removals.
[Archival sound from District 9]
HARRY: Dystopia and science fiction are pretty easy to ally with the horrors of South African history.
MASANDE: It was social engineering, you know, it was trying to force on something that was unnatural.
What’s interesting specifically about that is how that culture stood in opposition to what apartheid was telling those people in terms of what they were and who they were, you know.
It stood up against like being classified as subhuman, as menaces. You know, um, and it responded with like, with life and with art and with music and family, and um, all sorts of interesting intercultural interactions.
HARRY: Forced removals and the direct spatial planning of cities based on ethnicity. Segregation is one of the most viral hallmarks of apartheid South Africa and Sophiatown and District Six are not the only examples of it.
Whole parts of South Africa were designated as nominally independent black homelands known in SA as bantustans.
Black South Africans were stripped of their citizenship and forced out of cities into a deliberately poorly designed patchwork of homelands in 13% of South Africa’s worst farmland. It was created so that they were reliant on the vastly more prosperous areas of white ruled South Africa.
MASANDE: They were also kind of used as labor reserves, uh, in the, in the, in the sense that people would work in the cities, and then once they became superfluous, uh, in the city, they were out of work, then they got deported back to these homelands. For a long time, this is how the country was functioning.
HARRY: This is South Africa’s history.
The country’s link with science fiction is that its past is as bleak as many writers imagine an apocalyptic future.
HARRY: I was really struck by the lingering presence of apartheid in so many of my conversations about South Africa. And that’s probably because it’s still very much in living memory. This all only ended in 1994. And up to then, he was actually brought up in one of these bantustans, the Ciskei homeland.
MASANDE: This is what’s interesting for me because at some point I’m also born into this equation a couple of years before the end of apartheid.
It’s kind of informed my own relationship, you know, with my identity and where I belong.
HARRY: Masande’s upbringing in the Ciskei homeland directly influenced the work he’s making today.
MASANDE: Moments that stuck out for me that I think influenced the sci-fi elements, at least in my second book was once watching, um, a late, very late night run of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and kind of being half-asleep as I was watching it.
And I had no idea that it was a Steven Spielberg movie. But for some reason, it just seemed a lot more well made than the fare that I was used to and a lot more considered and creepy to me and quite haunting actually. And I think the thing that haunted me the most about watching the movie which I couldn’t articulate as a child was the character’s profound sense of alienation on earth, even from his family.
Uh, so alienated in fact that, you know, like at the end, he leaves with the aliens and that’s like a better fate for him. It really like freaked me out because for some reason it was something that I could understand without necessarily being able to put my finger on it. That became associated with science fiction with alien life.
HARRY: For Masande, this combination sparked his interest in the genre as much to a sense of curiosity and a yearning to explore as the fact that he saw himself in these stories.
MASANDE: Yes, I’ve come to realize that yes, as a South African, I used to think that it was just because of me and just how I was. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized how much that was influenced by the society I grew up under. Because South African society, larger South African society did feel like it was an alien landscape.
And again, this, this reaching, uh, for the unknown, I think for me was also trying to, you know, reach for a place beyond, uh, designations in South African society, which at the time was, was of course as second class citizens.
HARRY: South Africa’s past has all the hallmarks of a science fiction dystopia. It’s a past that was stolen away and ripped out. It’s this emptiness, which undoubtedly has pushed young artists coming up now to create their own futures, their own narratives through their art.
ANDRÉS: That’s so good
NEIL: So good. But the, the bit that killed, the bit that killed me, cause it’s one of my favorite moments in film that I didn’t understand when I was a kid, but watching Richard Dreyfuss get on the spaceship at the end of Close Encounters.
When I was little, I was like, fuck yeah, goodbye Earth! Or even like a, you know a narcissistic,teenager, I was like, fuck yeah. Or even when I was in my twenties, narcissistic twenties, I’m like, fuck yeah, get on the spaceship.
ANDRÉS: But now you have a kid.
NEIL: Now I have a kid, I can’t watch the end of the film because I just hate him. I hate him so much. When Masande said to that bit of watching that film, it was like, oh my god. Think about watching that in a situation that you can not ever escape from.
ANDRÉS: Its horrors in the past, but it says a lot because it’s like, yes, you know, the horrors of apartheid have moved on into, into other territories, but it’s like, it’s not all just like wonderful and smooth sailing, but there’s all this other stuff that’s happening at the same time.
NEIL: Just from listening to him, he has the same kind of thing that I would have described, that I described the music as. He has like a weight to him, but he’s incredibly optimistic and it seems really chipper and like…
ANDRÉS: Yeah, realistic,
NEIL: …straight and happy and like
HARRY: Apartheid, however, is not the only root of the fantastical elements, the sci-fi found in modern South African art. There’s something even more innate to South African, and indeed many other African cultures, which speaks to this magical, futuristic side.
Traditional African spirituality and mythology.
South Africa is home to many tribal and ethnic cultures – Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, Swazi and Sotho among them. One thing which runs through many of these stories is profoundly futuristic imagery. And one person who captured it all was a man called Credo Mutwa.
MASANDE: Credo Mutwas was a Sangoma.
HARRY: A Sangoma is a traditional healer.
MASANDE: He was a reservoir for a ton, a ton of, um, knowledge in regards to our folklore and also our, um, methodology.
So you can describe him as Zulu scholar and shaman.
HARRY: Mutwa is highly revered in South Africa. Even after his death earlier this year, his teachings are as enigmatic as they are esoteric.
[Archival sound of Mutwa: Our people believe that every human being, male or female, has got two minds. The mother mind and the warrior mind.]
MASANDE: So he exists as an entity in our culture that interacted a lot with science fiction. In his work he speaks about alien life, but also, um, African mythology.
So he’s kind of like an embodiment of these things that we try to render through art.
HARRY: Credo Mutwa was an afrofuturist long before the word was even a thing.
[Archival sound of Mutwa]
HARRY: He wasn’t without his controversial elements, by the way – he was also a proponent of conspiracy theories, including the one which claims the world is being run by reptilian overlords.
HARRY: Kanif and Yugen are equally passionate about his work. It feels like all South African artists dealing in the future are.
KANIF: If you’ve been looking into Credo Mutwa, who really is one of my favorite writers. Indaba My Children… I gotta read it at least once a year.
The story is so beautifully told, the ideas are so universal, you know? So sci-fi, so ancient at the same time.
HARRY: Indaba My Children is a 700 page tome littered with poetry and the stories of African tribal histories. There’s creation myths, beautifully crafted symbols on every other page, talk of drums made human, ancient Bantu Kings, and the power of Ubuntu philosophy.
And beyond these stunningly told stories, Indaba My Children functions as an excavation of how knowledge is passed down in African tribal cultures.
KANIF: For most cultures, South African cultures, the history of, of their people is transmitted orally through generations. So from a young age, a young child offered with a birthmark or something, some kind of, of, of sign, you know, um, will be chosen and he will go, they will go and stay with, with the previous custodian of the, of the, of this history and, and learn the stories of the people and learn the names of the planets within that culture and so forth.
HARRY: This is how knowledge is retained and passed on in South Africa. Not through Bibles or turgid histories, through people speaking to one another. Through human stories.
The sci-fi feel in so many of Credo Mutwa’s tales is remarkable. And it’s influenced people beyond his homeland and culture.
KANIF: I think these stories in their essence are very science sci-fi.
You know, the Zulu itself means, you know, it means not only sky, but almost sky traveler, which, you know, roughly translated, you could mean skywalker.
You know, and, and in, in Star Wars, the, they they speak Batshi which is actually Zulu.
YUGEN: You hear the little guys saying ‘insimbi’, like metal, you know. Like before any of this was like pop culture for us, you know.
KANIF: The way South Africans tell stories is I think inherently sci-fi in its nature, you know.
HARRY: That’s why afrofuturism has found such fertile ground. It’s in the country’s DNA. And it’s why Star Wars and so many other films have looked to African culture when they want to create their own worlds.
Black Panther obviously does it quite explicitly, but South Africa is found elsewhere in the Marvel universe too. The evil race of aliens called the Chitauri is another South African term, used widely by Mutwa himself.
African cultures have long dealt in ideas of the future, even if they seem rooted in the past. This prediliction towards talking about the future, combined with wanting to escape the horrors of apartheid, goes some way to explaining why afrofuturism is such a big thing for South African artists today.
YUGEN: I think there’s a very thin line between magic and chemistry anyway, and until something has the scientific proven, scientific explanation, your mind immediately just goes to the magic realm. You know, things that we don’t understand, we often just assume are magic.
HARRY: The end of apartheid in 1994 saw South Africa reborn. A new rainbow nation. Mandela and his long walk to freedom, Desmond Tutu, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo – these and many, many others ended a century of struggle to bring about free elections and universal suffrage. A spate of Nobel Peace Prizes were handed out left, right and centre.
The immediate post-apartheid period was characterized by healing thanks to Mandela’s truly astonishing ability to advocate reconciliation rather than retribute. South Africans were now looking to a brighter, liberated future.
Kanif and Yugen remember it well.
YUGEN: I think post 94, when, you know, right after apartheid and Mandela had come in and right after him Thabo Mbeki. His concept of an African Renaissance, it inspired folks.
One of his goals for the country itself and I think for Africa as a continent to kind of pick itself up, you know, rediscover itself. It was amazing to, to, to hear that pride in Africa as well.
HARRY: Thabo Mbeki was the successor to Mandela as president in 1999. And his idea of an African Renaissance further pushed young Africans to take pride in their own culture.
Here’s Masande again.
MASANDE: We also are people who are part of, um, a moment in human history where, um, technology is doing something very particular. So to speak about the future in a way is to speak about, you know, our lives in the present.
HARRY: The African Renaissance and technology hitting in this post-apartheid world let South Africans tell their own stories about the future.
The new globally connected world did wonders for South African artists and musicians. Art was truly beginning to merge with reality.
MASANDE: Wanting to retain our own sense of, uh, our own aesthetics, wanting to reclaim, um, our own colors and our own patterns, and our own sense of flare.
So I think as an aesthetic there’s, um, we’re driven to it because of that, we think there’s something there that affirms, you know, our identity, uh, there’s something that keeps us captivated and there’s something there that’s, um, subversive, you know, and liberating.
HARRY: Afrofuturism is, after everything, incredibly positive.
It’s not about dystopia. It’s not about getting caught up in the issues of the past. South Africa has done that enough. It’s using these things to posit fantastic new futures. That’s why it’s so very powerful.
MASANDE: It’s beautiful. It’s an act of defiance. It’s an act of asserting one’s humanity. And that in and off itself is irreconcilably, you know, positive.
It’s an inspiring act. It’s courageous and constitutive. Afrofuturism gives ground to people who haven’t had a voice before. That element in it is enlivening in a way that comes across as essentially positive because it is.
ANDRÉS: I was thinking about my country and when the first science fiction movie came out and it was like a watermark for when a place can think about their own future.
ANDRÉS: And it’s giving me the goosebumps.
NEIL: Because up until that point, you’re just like living with shit, like dealing and dealing and dealing.
ANDRÉS: Yeah, exactly. You’re just dealing with that like street level mess.
HARRY: Which during apartheid South Africa, your future is okay, when’s liberation going to arrive. That arrives… endless, the possibilities are endless. And then you have the sci-fi come in. Yeah, that’s it man.
ANDRÉS: But there’s always that connection to like the now, the world we’re living in and kind of projecting that out in this incredible way.
It’s like a question of confidence. Like you can only go to those bizarre places when you have this own like a sense of self in place.
NEIL: Yeah. I don’t know when you see this ancient, like need for escapism and not being able to have that is so hard to take on as a person who’s grown up in a free, free world.
ANDRÉS: Yeah. It’s like reaching into the depths of humanity and offering something else to the world.
HARRY: At the end of the day, that’s what, you know, afrofuturism is an artistic concept. And if this can push people to go and check out, check out Masande, Yugen, Kanif and all the millions of wonderful stuff that’s going on in the U.S. and across the world that has this afrofuturist label.
ANDRÉS: This was highly enjoyable.
NEIL: It was lovely. It really was good.
ANDRÉS: It was a good trip to South Africa.
NEIL: This week’s saved pins are here to give you a cultural taste of Joburg and covering the best spots to see live music, theater, and art, as told by the artists who know the city best.
ANDRÉS: Number one is Baseline.
Starting things off with a music venue from Yugen and Kanif. Baseline started life when new South Africa did in 1994, and since then it’s become a mainstay of Joburg’s artistic landscape. With jazz nights in one room and ragga jams in the next, if you want to see South Africa’s best established and up-and-coming artists, there’s nowhere better.
NEIL: Number two, The Market Theatre.
This is truly a Joburg institution. Renowned over its 44 year history as putting on South Africa’s ‘Theatre of the struggle’. While constantly challenging the apartheid regime in its inception, The Market Theare is now a hotbed of exhilirating new South African drama. Yugen and Kanif are big fans.
ANDRÉS: Number three is The Forge.
For more radical ideas from exciting new thinkers, Masande suggested we check out The Forge, a multi-use artistic space in Braamfontein which is constantly putting on talk shows and exhibitions which celebrate the city’s most progressive thinkers.
NEIL: Number four, the Apartheid Museum.
If you’re going to Joburg, it’s worth taking the time to really get to grips with its troubling history. The Apartheid Museum doesn’t pull any punches, exploring the truth of apartheid in a number of interactive ways. Ditch those problematic township tours and learn something real.
ANDRÉS: Number five is the African Food Market in Yeoville.
Finally, to Kanif and Yugen’s home area for some amazing food. The African Food Market in Yeoville has the best of South Africa’s traditional cuisine – but Joburg is an immigrant city, and this market and has flavours from the entire continent too.
All right, that’s it for this week folks. Next week, we’re going to Australia for aboriginal astronomy, magic in the sky and killer asteroids.
NEIL: Until then, keep up with us @passportpodcast on social media and at frequencymachine.com.
This episode of Passport was written and edited by Harry Stott.
Big thanks to Masande Ntshanga, Yugen Blakrok, Kanif the Jhatmaster and Elena Laing for their help and insight into this awesome world. Definitely take the time to check out their music and writing. We’ve got all their info in the show notes.
The theme tune on this episode was written by the wonderful Nick Turner, with loads of tunes from Yugen and Kanif – thanks guys! Plus extra songs from Auracle, Lt. Fitzgibons’ Men, Carlton Banksy, Musicbox, The Beards, Ye Olde Data Plan, Hot Acid Alien Lust Bomb, Tronic, Foxy Basey, Banana Clipz, and Thirst Follow.
The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski.
Eliza Engel is our production assistant.
Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari and Avi Glijansky are the freshest MCs this side of the equator, and they also executive produce the show.
Which is hosted by Neil, and a man who is a little more Swaziland than Lesotho, Andrés Bartos.
We’ll see you in the next place.
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