The train goes on coal

by Khulile Nxumalo

A friend of mine is fond of raising the point that today’s generation is Americanised beyond recognition. It always strikes me as intriguing that somehow such an observation is easier to vocalise these days. Perhaps because there is a louder clang of American culture in our popular media, perhaps because more and more malls are mushrooming each and every year, or perhaps because Oprah is a goddess to some.

But is it not true that even during the days of Sophiatown, style and dress were heavily influenced by what people saw from the American bioscope? The first film I saw was at the Moravian Hall in Diepkloof and it was The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and there Clint Eastwood’s name rolled off our tongues as if he was an uncle next door. I doubt most of us understood the English language, let alone its American intonation and twang. Terence Hill and Bud Spencer were cult heroes, and I am glad to say that even then, young as we were, we could appreciate the structure of a comedic twist in the narrative. If you watch Teddy Mattera’s new film, Max and Mona, you will know what I mean. This is not the comedy of the cued applause of Friends or such like. It is a comedy that is funny at each point the narrative balloons and becomes hyper-real.

I grew up in Diepkloof, Zone 2. In spite of the menacing steel grimness of the Hippos from the apartheid military, and in spite of the smell of teargas and wounds left behind by rubber bullets, quite a few other things went down. I learnt my intelligence, grasp of mathematics, physics and even cosmology from the games we played on the street, in the tall grass at the open fields where today there are houses, from the radio dramas on Radio Zulu. It seems to me like the children in Soweto today use the street less and less to expand their minds. But who is to say, because the terrain of the street comes with its own dangers. Besides things like stubbing your big toe or having the tar-road shave the skin off your knees.

You may find this hard to believe, but almost all the boys I grew up with in our street are dead. Later on in life, and that was when I was in High School, they formed a gang called AmaVabaza (VBZ for short), which loosely means “to thrash”. But the real derivation of the name is that they saw themselves as the next big thing after a legendary gang that had reigned in Soweto for quite a while. They were called AmaKabasa, KBS for short. Their trademark was the Box BMW 3 Series. One of their bosses, and most feared, drove a red one. Legend has it that he was so good with the wheel, give him a large open field and he would spin the car, making this great cloud of dust, and after all had settled down, the letters KBS would be left inscribed in the dusty ground. They inscribed themselves into history when the student movement rose up against their reign of terror when they had taken to taking schoolgirls by force. The guys I grew up with followed closely on the heels of the KBS legacy, with their own trademark antics. Sounds of gunfire, a rolling Uzi release, cars. Jackroll became a word on everybody’s lips. There were stories of girls being kept as sex slaves for days, and their terror even struck at the parts of the community where the children were going to school in the suburbs.

We were the first generation from Soweto to come to the city just to hang around. When the Group Areas Act was lifted, Ster Kinekor cinemas were open to all and the Carlton Centre became the centre of the world. I joined, or actually not really joined, but went along with, a gang called The VKs, who were in competition against the HRs and Loverboys, mainly on how many of the girls one shags or goes out with at the same time without them knowing. There were the superstars of the scene, like my friend Pat, who was a hit because he looked like George Michael of Wham! We all had permed hair. I was never lucky with the girls, but once or twice had the honour of helping Pat meet his busy girl schedule by keeping some girl occupied while he was busy with another. There was a lot of sex going around. I guess the most fun had to be had because the girls, who came from Sacred Heart, Woodmead, St Barnabas, were only out for the weekend and would have to go back to school.

America influenced this generation because we started to breakdance, BMX bikes were a fashion for those who could afford them, and I had a poster of Janet Jackson on my walls and she was in my dreams. A lot has happened since then, but America still rules the world.

I was just blooming into youthful intellectual curiosity and vigour when Tracy Chapman strung the fibres of the hearts of all the people who live for love at the Free Mandela Concert at the Wembley. A generation that has witnessed how a world can change, how the Berlin Wall can fall, how good triumphing over evil can actually take place and how much hope could be emblazoned across the skies in even the farthest corner of the world in the form of Nelson Mandela.

We are born in a time when the clock was pointed towards a new millennium. There were prophesies, doomsday visions, news of the impending world-wide collapse of computer systems. These news items, these rumours disguised as fact, were now beamed by satellites right into our living rooms and radio speakers. It was the dawn of an information age. The defining wedge between those who stood in the prime position and those that lagged behind was something termed with a digital code, “the information haves and have-nots”. Ironically, the same divide made the world an even smaller place, so much so that even revolutionary organising as we saw in the protests in Davos and Seattle took place from a virtual platform.

What is culture to a generation that is living through all of this?

Culture is lived experience and it is located within both metaphysical and physical, real space, and it is a terrain of constant contest. Living culture produces symbols, signs, codes in which to contain reality and give it some name or even a surname. It is something that you can see and even feel. I imagine there are millions in this generation who are hopeful that cultural presence and struggle can effect change. Who, like Walter Benjamin, know that “even the dead” must be claimed in the constant battle to re-imagine history, legacy and heritage. This is as simple as saying that the present cannot exist without the past, and it is this dialectic that generates the future. So even the dead must be claimed or else we are going to be erased from the epic historical narrative. What then of our children, and their children’s children?

I started writing poetry when I tried to fashion verse into rhyming couplets of the Petrarchan sonnet, as we were taught in high school. But my voice in writing was liberated, in the sense that Steve Biko encapsulated, when I discovered the long-poem format of Mongane Serote, or the mythical density aspired to in the words of Ayi Kwe Armah; and add to that the thumping bravery of the Mazisi Kunene epic form. I discovered that even poetry can be “loosened up”, that it can be conversational, that terseness or even verse structure is not the soul of the poetic inkblot. I found that poetry can scream, it can make love to angels and it can even create a mountain before my eyes that wasn’t there when I last looked. I took to calling myself a “poet of the page”, simply because it took only looking back to the turn of this century and slowly continuing on and on through the decades, to know that we are here to add on to what the older generations achieved in crafting style and form. We are writers who have an unending well to drink from. It has richness written all over it. It is upon us to weave in the particular colours of our time, it is upon us to put down our witness of the horror of the Middle East situation, our protest at the continuing malaise that dogs our continent, or own banners that tell of what eventually became of George Bush and his sojourn towards a full stop called war and destiny or whatever else happens in this crazy world of ours. I have chosen to go with blind faith that change can be effected.

There is a seminal question facing our generation’s locality in the long line of a complicated story about humans and the things that they do. What will be the fuel that fires how we inscribe our memory into history? Are we building our own contribution into the national heritage and the historical conjecture that produced what is now the new South Africa? Are we finding ways to notate its struggles? Or are we leaving all of it to world heroes of the likes of JM Coetzee and Zakes Mda?

Young as I was, I remember how the notion of art as living culture was so alive during the days of COSAW and Staffrider, and the fruits of the constant dialogue about art as a social animal after the Albie Sachs paper on culture. Do culture and memory really matter in a time where we are told the most prudent step the best minds of this generation can take is to go into business?

Posted By stacy

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