by Charlie Mathews (@CharlesLeeZA) It’s hard to reimagine the optimism that was Design Indaba 2020. That was February; this is lockdown. Seven weeks ago, the ‘Think Tank: Do Tank’ super-conference had flown in ‘super creatives who [had been] changing the world’ to rub shoulders with the local press. Today, everyone’s talking about the death of the conference industry and I’m wondering how Design Indaba (DI) will survive.
“Chi! Chi! Chi! Chi!
DI was opened by a tone-deaf spokesperson for Brand South Africa, that government agency tasked with improving this Mzansi’s reputation based on the delusion that marketing fixes countries. It doesn’t. Participative government that has a compelling vision of the future, matched with excellent ethics that propel transparence, accountability and efficacy, does. As does global contribution, great diplomacy and the protection of all the planet’s stakeholders.
Let’s put this simply: “I am dumbstruck by the naiveté of governments who think that people are going to change their minds about a country they are totally indifferent to just because of some crap advertisement,” Simon Anholt, founder of Good Country, made clear over a decade ago.
The fiction of Brand SA
But that sheltered-employment project is convinced of its fiction. Take a look at the tale Brand SA spins about its formation:
“Brand South Africa was established in August 2002 to help create a positive and compelling brand image for South Africa. At that time, the world was unsure about what to think of South Africa, with many different messages being sent out by various sources. This did very little to build the country’s brand and it was evident that to attract tourism and investment there was a need to co-ordinate marketing initiatives to make them more effective.”
Yet all you really need to know is that Ajay Gupta sat on Brand SA’s board from 2006 until 2016. #grimdark. Remember the “wasted Zuma years”?
“Chi! Chi! Chi! Chi!
Let’s get back to DI and the Brand SA mouthpiece who tells the audience how desperate our situation is. As if we don’t already know. Clang! The speaker persists on instructing the incredulous, shuffling crowd that saving our country is a citizenry job. But no one’s listening. Everyone’s waiting for the unicorn to appear. All anyone wants is Sho Madjozi.
One million views!!!!!! ? ??? Thanks for watching #ColorsxShoMadjozi ?????????? shoutout to @dwpacademy !!! Shoutout to @colorsxstudios for allowing us to do our thing ??? Which crew are youuuu???? #JohnCena pic.twitter.com/wECYHMI6kK
— #SenaAla (@ShoMadjozi) August 21, 2019
Maya Christinah Xichavo Wegerif, aka Sho Madjozi, is who Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School professor, calls “disruptive innovation”. Transformation is, after all, not born of big iron and hybrid clouds; humans are the real agents of digital transformation.
While technology accelerates the pace of progress and enables disruptive innovation, the hard work of transformation happens in our psyches. In business, this translates to the CEOs who have to reinvent themselves, their hierarchies and legacy structures in a covid-19 instant. Transformation is the hard work of reinventing unimaginative structures and strategies that limit innovation, and using our imaginations to invent new, better, more-benevolent ecosystems that do.
Just as leaders enable transformative movements in enterprises, in society, intellectuals and cultural actors do the work of transformation by revealing to us the hidden truths that illuminate the margins of society, so that we collectively and individually integrate what’s been lost to the self. This is for the betterment of everyone and everything.
Agents of change
One only needs to look to Fela Kuti, who called his music “a weapon” to realise how impactful artists are as agents of change. As Kuti said to Hank Bordowitz in an interview for the latter’s book, Noise of the World: Non-Western Artists in Their Own Words: “Music is supposed to have an effect. If you’re playing music and people don’t feel something, you’re not doing shit. That’s what African music is about. When you hear something, you must move. I want to move people to dance, but also to think. Music wants to dictate a better life, against a bad life. When you’re listening to something that depicts having a better life, and you’re not having a better life, it must have an effect on you.”
The destructive complexity of Kuti and bright optimism of Madjozi may seem at odds, but both traverse the transpersonal and, in so doing, make their respective cultures more alive than ever before. In a piece for Paper, Amira Rasool describes Madjozi’s vitality as born of imagination: “Unlike many mainstream African pop acts, Madjozi raps in several different native African languages over tracks that are usually reserved for English lyrics, and on gqom beats that typically don’t require much lyrical content at al.” He adds, “This unique ability means she has a wide appeal, reaching audiences across the continent and beyond by speaking directly to them.”
A lifetime ago, Madjozi exploded onto the DI stage in a riot of colour to rapturous applause. A story on legs, this artist entices her audience into her narrative through fashion, film, dance, music and comedy. This is a genre-mashing, convention-smashing performance that simultaneously reinvents and champions what it means to be Vatsonga.
Madjozi the magician is a pied piper, and we, her children, sing, clap, dance and laugh our way through a metamorphosis of a historical narrative wrapped up in the reinvention of the xibelani. The handle for a traditional Vatsonga dance, xibelani is also the name of the skirt used to perform it.
Xibelani is uber-cool these days. Social channels such as YouTube feature xibelani challenges, while influencers on Instagram wear the Tsonga-wraparound made of tell-tale Asian cloth to swoons of: “How much is the shibhelani skirt”?
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It was great bumping into our biggest supporter @thebeikalafeng at the Africa Business Forum 2018 ???? be a part of the movement, don't miss out ! #SheDesigns2018 #BusinessForAfrica #BusinessForAfricaForum2018 #ProudlySouthAfrican #XiTsongaInspiredFashion #Xibelane #AfricanPrints #AfricanDesigners #AfricanFashion #StyleOutOfAfrica #ContemporaryAfricanFashion #Ledikana #LedikanaFashion
When culture collides with commerce and finds a sustainable home, this is a clear sign of mainstreaming. But, in the case of the xibelani, this particular Vatsonga icon had to be wrestled out of a museum of shame.
“It’s not an African idea to cover up the body, but the xilemba says: ‘I have the right to dress colourfully and lightly, without losing my tradition.” — Sho Madjozi
In the #grimdark that was apartheid, with so much of identity and culture murdered or dispossessed, it was unsurprising to learn the cruel story of how traditional Tsonga skirts fell out of fashion. The book, Embroiled: Swiss Churches, South Africa and Apartheid, explores how Christian colonists, like the Swiss Mission, arrived ideology-primed, became land barons and started re-engineering the beliefs, culture and experiences of the Vatsonga. Wits’ Historical Papers lays bare the chilling intent of these initiatives with a note from apartheid beauraucrat, DF Malan, that talks about the Swiss Mission “civilising the heathen”.
At DI, Madjozi premiered the trailer for a forthcoming documentary she’s making, “The History of the Xibelani”, that reveals this facism through stories and interactions that includes snatches such as:
- “In the old days you weren’t allowed to wear a xibelani without a cloth.”
- “Men were even forbidden from touching it, or seeing it.”
- “If your mother walked past you wearing a xibelani, you wouldn’t feel good about it. You’d even ask your mother not to wear it.”
A revealing interview with an unidentified elderly Vatsonga woman wearing a xibelani sees this dancer confess, “When you wore a xibelani, you were called a ‘heathen’.” The Tsonga dancer sits on the floor in front of her home, proudly wearing her tinguvu and a bright yellow top.
Leading us along the transmedia experience, Madjozi reveals, “The first xibelani I saw, I think, was the woolly ones,” and explains how her mother introduced her to the dance, and attire, and importantly, how it became a point of identity, and a living manifesto for Madjozi’s own invention.
Madjozi was already famous in Africa off the back of her 2018 hit single, Huku, when the “Captain of the Limpopo League ‘‘ turned Wakanda Forever into a closed-fisted, arms across the chest, viral wave of empowerment.
She amplified this global popularity in August 2019 with her global breakthrough hit, John Cena produced by boy Daflame on COLORS, the YouTube platform with a zen-like square aesthetic.
The musician’s inventive, genre-defying style saw her disrupt the cultural flows in the globe’s digitally connected commercial ecospheres. Madjozi says the song — a mash of Xitsonga, Kiswahili and English — is about how, “growing up, we only got to watch two TV shows: one was WWE and the other was Generations.”
Tools of cultural connection
Facebook, Spotify, Netflix and other social platforms are tools of cultural connection born of the US, and empower creativity but arrive with an overbearing overlay of cultural dominance. American media floods and saturates social networks, and this does little to empower local economies. If you’re on a budget and it is a choice between Drake or Kwesta, you bet that Drake’s remarketing power and reach will win through. Or, as Madjozi has said on Cape Talk, “As an independent artist, there isn’t a big machinery pushing me onto these platforms. It’s all been genuine and organic love from people — that’s amazing to me!”
This is why her breakthrough is so important. She doesn’t only represent South Africa. Rather, she presents a pan-African identity at a time when xenophobia has fractured this country’s relationship with the rest of the continent. Beyond the recovery of the xibelani, Madjozi is a fierce icon for a new kind of identity that speaks to a post-nationalist, postmodern identity at a time when our world is in crisis.
This song’s power is that it’s a story about a message that’s accessible to everyone. “This song has a powerful ‘feel good’ vibe to it and you can see how Madjozi enjoys singing it. Even if some humans don’t know what the singer means, they’ll get the John Cena reference as this is now part of popular culture because it has become a meme,” says Edre Bosch, a Pretoria-based music producer who specialises in the contemporary Afrikaans genre, and who’s worked with Karlien van Jaarsveld, Lianie May and Fatman.
Anthem for reinvention
The founder of Rock Beats Paper adds, “The beat is constant, with the snare drum driving the entire song. Her melodies and phrasing are very modern pop but I also hear the obvious elements that speak to Madjozi’s family history, tradition and place in our world. The background whistle and the ‘chi chi chi’ are very distinctively a fusion of traditional and non-traditional elements.” Bosch says that the song is enlivening and makes anyone get up and dance. In this way, it’s become more than itself — it’s become an anthem for reinvention at a time when we most need it.
But let’s get back to Brand SA. If the government’s smart, it’ll use the novel coronavirus as an opportunity to pare back on that wasteful expenditure. Established in 2002, Brand SA has had 18 years to exercise its fiction. Now that we’ve finally arrived at junk status and the dark night of the soul, the full #grimdark, we should let it go. Or integrate it into a more-useful department like diplomacy.
As for Madjozi? She’s telling everyone to stay safe, and stay at home during this pandemic. And we’re listening. Because we respect her. She’s a force of nature and we know she knows how to reach the promised land — and realise a vision of a new world.
That’s where SA needs to go now, toward #hopepunk and the land of reinvention. We need to separate ourselves from the #grimdark that was the past. We must put the corruption and wasteful expenditure behind us, and use all our imagination, power and resources to build a better life for all. But we need a clear vision of the hard work we really need to do. Now is the time for our leaders to arise, so that we might become more economically, politically and socially inclusive, diverse, collaborative, transparent, responsible, accountable and open.
Let the #hopepunk revolution, covid-19-cocooned metamorphosis become a heady, vibrant vein that propels our collective transformation and future. #WakandaForever
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As an entrepreneur, Charlie Mathews (@CharlesLeeZA) has worked in growth teams with Naspers, Microsoft, and Tutuka.com (the global prepaid card company). Mathews has also successfully founded and exited two marketing companies. Published in Rolling Stone magazine, Guardian UK, and SA’s Greatest Entrepreneurs, edited by Moky Makura, Mathews wrote for Daily Maverick during the title’s legendary startup era. Today, Mathews is the founder and CEO of HumanInsight, a research, insights and learning company that helps brands better understand, and serve — humans.