PLAYLIST | Maskandi Mix by Sihle Mthembu

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For Sihle Mthembu, Maskandi, for all its joy, also occupies a place of tension and politics. (Photo: Supplied)
For Sihle Mthembu, Maskandi, for all its joy, also occupies a place of tension and politics. (Photo: Supplied)

I knew these people. My grandmother used to tell me about them all the time. The ones with red doeks who had been sent to finish us off after the struggle. They emerged from the hostels like Ninja turtles out of their sewer. Banging knobkerries on their shields and singing about their thirst for blood. They had gotten to my father one month before I was born and stabbed him to death on his way home from work. Everyone says I have his face. It’s hard to look like a stranger. 

Back when my grandmother was a factory worker, she had labored side by side with them. Sewing and doing quality checks on fabric at Mooi River Textiles. She used to eat besides them but never take their food. Whenever I asked my grandmother about how she had lived with those people she would always shrug and never quite respond. It is what It is. Back then I imagine the world felt like it does now. Always threatening to tilt off its axis. The end was always on the horizon. 

When she embraced her calling as a sangoma they were her sworn enemies. She cooked intelezi for the boys in the township who needed protection and ran guns for them too. My grandmother is a superhero who knows how to assemble bombs and talk to the dead. In those days my home was no home at all, it was a halfway house. For both my uncle and his friends. They would cook large pots of food and have meetings in hushed tones. 

There was a door in my house which I was never allowed into. Shakela room, was written in small green letters on a door that had neither been painted or treated with varnish. These days the door is brown but if you squint hard enough you can see those words engraved on that wood, like cave paintings, artifacts of a time we now talk about like we were never there.  

Once the people from the hostels had found my grandmother and I in the middle of nowhere as she was digging for herbs and they chatted to her before moving away. Sangomas too feared for their power were off limits. This she tells me, is the last time she ever felt scared of dying. I was a baby back then and she didn’t want to leave me behind.  

I lived long enough to make it to the summer of 2003 and I changed schools and began studying 17km away in a farm school called Nottingham Road Combined. It was dusty but they had a computer and science lab and back then we believed that education was the key to success so it was important to take every advantage you could get. This is where I met Malume. I had seen him before, heard of him and how he had been one of the leaders from the hostel. 

He was now a taxi driver for the Hlongwane family who had gotten their wealth when the life policy of the family matriarch paid out after his death. They bought taxis, one of which was all white with a green trim and driven by Malume. In those days in my house we used to play Busi Mhlongo, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, Ricky Martin, backstreet boyz and a lot of kwaito. Maskandi not so much, it was the music of our enemies. 

It was Malume who changed all that. When I first started riding his taxi to school, he would pick me up around 6:30 on the street. He had a big bump on his head, which lasted a few years and then miraculously disappeared, the scar on the side of his face, not so much. I had been warned to not take any food from him because even though the guns had been put down, he still was who he was. War puts one’s soul on ice in ways that even time cannot thaw. Malume is a full name and in his eyes I saw a melancholia that I had only previously seen in my own uncle Tata’s eyes. Tight-lipped but dying of thirst. 

The only thing that brought him joy was listening to songs, his songs. Tapping on the steering wheel, as he sang along to Bhekumuzi Luthuli or cracking up laughing to the monotone humour of Ikhansela noJBC. It was on those morning and afternoon trips that I began to understand that these people were no different from people in my own life. They too were worried about feeling lonely in the absence of their husbands as Imithente pointed out in Isidikiselo and had been driven to an existential crisis by capitalism like Bonakele on Ngahlupeka. It was Malume who introduced me to Amaponi before I saw Vusiwe Ngcobo on YoTV and had a crush on her that would last for years. Malume is still around, driving, but much older now. So, this is a mixtape from him via me, to you. 

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