There was a time when almost all township teenage boys were rocking their red, blue or orange Dickies gear with a panama hat and all-stars to match. Ladies dressed in their dungarees, with long z-curl hairstyles. Those were the glory days of kwaito. It was more than just music, it was a movement, a lifestyle lived in every township in the country. The legendary Hugh Masekela once referred to it as “the core of the township feeling”.
It is believed that the word kwaito comes from the name of a group of gangsters called Amakwaito from Sophiatown, which were popular in the 1950s. The literal meaning of the Afrikaans term kwaai is angry or vicious but in true South African style, and like many other words the meaning of the word was changed into township slang to mean cool. The kwaito sound was a mixture of many other genres, from house, mbaqanga and reggae and even South African disco music or bubble gum. The influence of older artists such as Chicco twala, Brenda Fassie (who later changed her music style to more kwaito) and many others played a huge role in the emergence of kwaito. Their style of music was largely based on the life of the regular township dweller, the hardship, joys and the struggle of apartheid for black South Africans. Kwaito came at a time where South Africans were celebrating their new found political freedom. They were in the process of redefining themselves as a nation, as a people and connecting with one another.
It evolved and took over as the sound of the township. In the beginning, it kept a bit of the political narrative as one of the first few popular songs, by the self proclaimed king of kwaito Arthur Mafokate was titled Kaffir (nee baas, don’t call me a kaffir). The word kaffir was a derogatory term used by white South Africans to call blacks. Arthur’s song, even though it sounded a bit comical echoed what many black South Africans felt.
In the 90s kwaito was the driver of South African youth culture; its purpose was to promote the South African identity, what it meant to be black, the language they used, dress sense and the attitude of black youth. The use of indigenous languages mixed with English and iscamto or tsositaal (township slang) is what made the people connect better with the sound. It did not only talk about what they were going through, but did so in a manner they understood and identified with. The way the artists themselves dressed, spoke and behaved was a reflection of what was happening in townships all over the country. The township lifestyle was clearly represented in their music videos, with the likes of Trompies dressed in their colourful attire, Bongo maffin’s Thandiswa Mazwai mixing urban and rural style by wearing beads in her hair, with her face painted with calamine while wearing the latest fashion gear.
At a time where South Africans wanted something of their own, kwaito was there. In many cases it has been compared to what hip-hop was for Americans. The way it was influencing street or youth culture across the country was in the same way hip-hop did in America. It came to a point where a lot of people saw kwaito as the South African equivalent of hip-hop. The comparison was not unfounded as both genres have similar historic background. The history of oppression amongst black comminities was similar. All this is recorded or rather documented in the music, the way it changed from being highly charged with racial issues to social struggles and joys of life in townships (ghetto/hood as they call it in America). Mandla Mofokeng of Trompies once said “Kwaito started because we wanted to start something fresh for the youth; after Mandela came out in 1991 we wanted to make happy music, before those songs were about suffering and the struggle”.
Kwaito played a part in reminding people of the freedom they had at a time when they needed it the most, the freedom to express themselves, to grow and be where they want to be and not to be afraid and get up from the corner and do something for themselves. Many kwaito anthems had a message of self empowerment, like the group mashamplani’s song “uzoythola kanjan’uhlel ekoneni” which translates to “how will u get it while sitting in the corner”, basically telling the youth to get up and make things happen for themselves. Mandoza saying “indod’ ingawa namhlanje ksas’iphind ivuke” meaning “a man can fall today but he can get up again tomorrow”. There were also songs just purely for enjoyment or narratives of their lives, and many other themes.
It is not as dominant as it was in the 90s and early 2000s now but kwaito had a huge impact in the attitude and the way of life of South African youth.