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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: January 2012

4 - Praise, politics, performance: from Zulu izibongo to the Zionists



As South Africa hurtled towards its third national democratic election in 2009 an old anti-apartheid struggle song jostled with poetry and songs from the long oral tradition to bolster the public images of politicians. At rallies the leader of the largest political party led supporters in singing ‘Umshini wami’ (‘My machine [gun]’), a song with a long career in the underground camps of the liberation struggle. The song was imbued with new meanings and sung with relish by those seeking to voice popular dissatisfaction with the perceived failures of the state and of political leadership (Gunner, ‘Jacob Zuma’, pp. 28, 30). The same song had in the preceding months been transformed into countless cellular telephone ringtones by entrepreneurs seeing a popular cultural phenomenon out of which to score sales. Sound and video clips of singing crowds were also heard and seen on radio and television. At the same time debate raged under trees, in offices, on numerous blogs, news websites, and on radio and television talk shows about the public uses of a song with an illustrious history of galvanising fighters for justice by a politician whose post-liberation character was allegedly dubious. To add to the maelstrom of reinvented cultural idioms and symbols, some of the politicians were being lauded in praise poetry, izibongo, and songs in the maskanda genre performed at live concerts. The poetry and music were recorded and disseminated through fast-selling compact discs.