The funeral of Prince Mofokeng, the Pantsula poet of Soweto.
There is a huge sky here, it touches everything. On the horizon, the sky wears a shimmering skirt of earth; under her skirt and mingling with a distant haze, is the city of Soweto. The bottom of the houses are stained with a waist-high brown band of hustle.
Most summer afternoons the sky collects all the oppressed energy of potential, realized in an explosion of lightning and thunder, clouds broiling and rolling like a pot of pap bubbling up into the heavens. After the rains there is a moment of cleansed calm on the streets, the sweet smell of fear settled. New hope, casting about like a vine tendril for something to cling onto. There is great drama in this sky — as above, so below.
Mada and Fileep stand side by side in the open veld. Their converse sneakers; one pair dirty and worn in the grunge fashion of the whiteys, one pair pristine and white, a pride of the isipantsula dancers of Soweto. A pride returned to it’s box at the end of every day. Filipa, who Prince and the pantsula’s call Fileep, is a petite and feisty South African/Portuguese girl, with a heart so big it must have a hole in it to release the pressure; and Mada the Zulu, born and raised on the streets of Soweto, a celebrated Pantsula choreographer and dancer — Don of his Moefi Street tavern.
Both humans are pointing with outstretched arms and earnest fingers at a small herd of cattle, who in turn shuffle uninspired and methodical amongst the thorny scrub. The dank smell of dung thickens the air while brown myopic eyes stare at us. Chewing — snorting — tails flicking unconsciously at flies.
Standing under that sky, Mada consults quietly with Fileep. There is a profound reverence to this conference between these two unlikely companions.
They are choosing a bull to honour our friend, Prince Mofokeng.
My first day with Prince found us smoking a joint together huddled in the coal pit of a back alley shisa-nyama behind the Shell garage in Mapetla, an original suburb in the heart of Soweto. We passed the sloppy newspaper zol of ‘Locaal’ back and forth in a cloud of companionship. Avoiding contact with the charcoal dust and general grime Prince squats comfortably with the ease and skill of someone that essentially lives outdoors while I wiggle around, my legs going dead on me as I try to find a perch.
The dagga smoke interwove with Prince’s iconic grin and my nervous shyness, I think we already knew we liked each other, our intention was to become friends. All that remains is to try and find the stories to let each other know that we see each other.
Inside a cloud of coughing he finishes one of his outbursts of a joke, an observation on the strangeness and beauty of life. It’s so funny to him that it ends in a howling maniacal cackle; and the next moment is the moment when you really meet Prince — he will bring his face up really close to yours, nose to nose deep in and smoke swirling, it’s only you and him in the world now, and he’ll look you right in the eyes… as if to see that you too took delight in the madness of it.
Rocking back on his heels, his grin slips away with the smoke as something new comes to him. He tells me a story about Mapetla.
Here in Mapetla, if you steal a handbag from someone who lives here then the community will beat you, for heinous crimes like rape or child molestation you can expect a death by sticks and bricks. But if you do a heist or hi-jack a car in the city, then the community will hide you. They will tell the police that you are not there.
I sit with this for a moment and take a deep hit of the spliff, I like this more honest zol, it’s more earthy, less radical than the indoor hydro chronic everyone raves about in the city. I contemplate the dynamics that must be at play to create a scenario which Prince has just sketched out for me. Something I was to get to know about Prince, and often Mada too, is that they very seldom tell you something without it being somehow revealing of something greater than the story itself. An allegorical way of expressing their thoughts that is seemingly simple but often rich in imagination and imagery. Simple, but in the hard way, where they have chosen the one perfect insight to share that will paint a picture or make a joke. The way Prince would mime putting on red lipstick would immediately transform him into a strutting woman with big breasts. Maybe its a kasi thing, this allegorical standup show about life, i don’t know. Truly, these two Pantsula’s, Prince and Mada, the Shakers & Movers, are natural born storytellers.
“What the hell do I say now…,” I thought to myself, a man whose stories come with quiet contemplation after the lightning has struck, after I have stood screaming silently into the storm. I started making this street dance film for the entirely selfish reason that I wanted to get to know my fellow South Africans. Our suburban walls, and the myths within them, keep us in as much as it does ‘them’ out. I wanted to meet the the ones on the other side of that wall, the ones who danced, the ones who shouted across streets, the ‘THEM’ and ‘THEY’ who I feared because I thought they hated me. God knows what they would think of me if they heard what I do around the braai. The thing is they have heard, they do know — it’s been folded into their psyches. Even though my first language was Zulu growing up, I lost that gift when my father and our family went to America to pursue his masters degree, I also lost any link I could have with the people of my home. And now here I was, with a fellow expressionist, squatting in a dirty hole in the deep dark Soweto of our parent’s worst nightmares.
Prince uncoils and starts to dance, slo-mo in the cloud formed by his rhythmic sucking on the joint. His own joints popping and locking as if a current of electricity flowed through him that was under his command; while this magic current control was happening, the rest of his body writhed like a smoke snake. Suddenly he swallows the still burning joint, it disappears into his mouth… with a grin and a dramatic pause, he unwinds it from deep in his throat, arms spread dramatically with the joint perched on the tip of his tongue. Closing his lips on it for a hands free drag — the cherrie burns as bright as his eyes.
How! Prince… I see you.
To meet Prince is to know that god exists; To see Prince dance is to see a glimpse of god.
Isipantsula is a subculture that emerged as a form of resistance in the 50’s in what was then Sophia-Town, most of the details where shared with us by the Red for Danger crew during the filming of the African Cypher documentary. One day our little band of whiteys found ourselves outside their headquarters deep in the township of Mohtlakeng. It’s different to Mapetla here, there seems to be no system for the houses, an informal organic organism of a community born out of need and opportunity. Throughout Soweto, in between the suburbs of brick homes and paved streets there are islands of corrugated iron shacks.These clusters range in size from opportunistic homemakers under bridges to whole communities of people living in one room shacks under a spiderweb of power cables, most often illegally pirated connections done by fearless self-trained electricians. Many brick and mortar homes have backyard shacks for sons, relatives, or rented out for extra income, but to call Soweto in general a ‘township’ is misguided and counter to the empowerment of the people that live here. As Mbuso from the visionary Sowetan Afro-Tribal dance crew says, “Just because my house is a shack, doesn’t mean my mind is a shack.” He moved back from a trendy suburb in Jo’burg to train and mentor young dancers in White City, Soweto. “White people are so boring,” Filipa whispers in my ear one day in the midst of a particularly bizarre and beautiful moment with the dancers. I heard a black guy on the radio say that he gets angry because he knows all about white people and they know nothing about black people. For centuries his people have been made to feel inferior so that now he wants to be like white people. A Stockholm Syndrome of consciousness.
This girl I know says that she battles with it, some black people want to make her choose; either you are with the whites or you are with us. She just wants to make art with the most exciting people she can find to collaborate with. Whilst studying in Europe she brought a Swedish boyfriend home. It was a disaster, her family awkwardly worshipped him and her militant friends hated him.
A young woman in Lebogang Rasethaba’s film, People vs the Rainbow Nation, said so painfully, “You can’t be raped for 400 years through slavery, colonization and Apartheid and then when it stops… told you are OK.” Worse still, ‘Get over it’. As a straight white South African male, it’s my time to shut up and listen. Hard thing for a filmmaker to figure out, but us whiteys, we need to own our privilege and be humble and hope the tendrils of mutual curiosity and looking each other in the eye can heal the racial divide. I believe it can only happen one on one. So much has and hasn’t happened in our new South Africa, there is a revolution brewing though, one where young black people are empowering themselves to be themselves and to celebrate it. Before we started this project, Filipa tells me she wasn’t sure if she could or would ever really be friends with a black person. I guess the distance just felt too great. This is just an honest reflection. Whether we as whites ever belong here or not will always be the internal civil war that I suspect will come down to not so much a god given right but a way of being.
The Red for Danger headquarters is announced by an official government endorsed and erected sign, the brown style with a white border that signifies a place of interest and importance, a cultural institution such as a museum. The official sign was incongruous pointing as it did down a back alley between shacks that opened onto a small dust courtyard where woman wash clothes and prepare food on open fires while men sit on crates and drink beer. I celebrate the fact that the sign was there, for we were to discover that this was indeed a cultural institution. We where there to interview the Red for Danger crew about the origins of the isipantsula culture because we had heard on the streets that these elder statesmen of the culture had committed themselves to researching and preserving their history and documenting its evolution.
The occasion of our interview had the air of a state visit, these older Pantsula’s treated the subject matter with a reverence and a protective intensity that intimidated and humbled me. In this small courtyard, strung with clothes and woodsmoke, there is a certain gravitas in the air that we haven’t felt before. These older Pantsula’s had history etched in them, and our history leaves deep marks. These godfathers of isipantsula are politically and socially engaged, deeply insistent about their cultures contribution to history.
Ten of us squeezed ourselves into the small corrugated-iron home for the interview, with our two cameras and a microphone wedged in there somewhere and a single light source for our inquisitive lenses we spoke of the lore that is the origins of the isiPantsula culture.
Sophiatown in the fifties was a legendary melting pot of culture and expression, a vibrant cultural hub and a community of people from various tribes and backgrounds. Men would gather in nightclubs to watch American gangster films, often raucously reciting the dialogue to favourite scenes. The Italian mobster aesthetic, sense of style, and the suave swaggering power exuded by the gangsters and their anti-establishment ideology profoundly informed the sensibilities of early isiPantsula culture. In the era of American prohibition these mobsters defied the law, and for these young men drinking and socializing illegally under the oppressive apartheid regime the notion struck a cord. The Mobsters became hero’s. At first the Isipantsula subculture was fashion orientated, a certain way of dressing and acting ‘tycoon style’ that had elements of language, dance and music melted in, as a sort of lifestyle that was a reaction to the oppression imposed on them by apartheid. Their language ‘Tsotsi taal’, or ‘gangster language’, is a street slang mish-mash of tribal languages, township colloquialisms and a smattering of English and Afrikaans all mixed together into an incredibly rich and expressive communal language that both unites and binds the pantsula’s into a close knit sense of self.
Reminiscent of the anarchist anti-establishment punk movement in Britain, the pantsula’s where associated with violence, crime and thuggery. They were a lawless cult in a land whose laws oppressed them — outlaws and misfits whose very identity became that of isipantsula. Siselo, from Red for Danger, says with a clear certainty that the essence of isipantsula was a search for an identity of their own, outside of and as a reaction to the oppressive system. This was at the heart of their fire and self expression.
“Whatever else Sophiatown was, it was home…. We took the ugliness of life in a slum and wove a kind of beauty….” — Bloke Modisane
In February 1955, 2 000 armed Apartheid policemen marched into Sophiatown and forcibly removed all the residents. They did this under the guise of the Immorality Act, which proclaimed that people of mixed races could not live together. As the working-class white suburbs of Newlands and Westdene expanded, the white nationalists really just didn’t want to live next to what where rapidly becoming their new neighbours.
This thriving cultural hub of people — ‘who could not live together’ — where separated, Blacks to Soweto, Coloured to Eldorado park, Indians to Lenasia and the Chinese to the centre of the city. Sophiatown was destroyed and removed from the maps of Johannesburg, and in its place a new white zoned suburb was created; Triomf — Afrikaans for Triumph.
In contemporary Soweto street culture there is a socio-economic phenomenon occurring today that must surely also have it’s roots in a search for identity, these roots search the lightless swamp, intertwining and mated with identity’s dark cousin — Status.
They call them skhotsani, they gather in the streets and start the agitation with ‘talk shows’ where mostly teenage guys rap or talk shit at each other, face-to-face in a provocative and demeaning verbal onslaught, there is some skill and rhythm to the barrage but the whole show has a menacing darkness to it. The crowds gather as they would to a cock fight.
These ‘talk shows’ then escalate into rival crews burning their clothes in wild posturing displays in front of the baying and chanting crowds. Brand name clothes are most admired, with the price tag attached as proof of the items quality and expense, or the paper till-slip can be produced and slapped insultingly against the opponents forehead. Often shoes are first used to beat opponents about the head demeaningly before being burned. This beating with the shoe is not necessarily violent but rather as a symbolic act of dominance. A skhotsani will wear two different colour shoes on his feet to show off that he can afford both pairs. If money cannot be scavenged in the poor community for new clothes then trolley loads of special occasion foodstuffs such as boxes of vanilla custard are purchased and a violent food fight in the street substitutes for the burning of clothes. Till-slips are the measure of a boy’s status, trolley loads of food are wielded into position like tanks. Being charitable I assume that most of these kids are getting the money somehow from their parents, but in a community as poor as this it is more realistic that the loot is acquired through more nefarious means. The greater community is shocked and ashamed by the waste and wanton irreverence for hard earned income.
We once watched a brave mother come out into the street, and in the light of the burning clothes she confronted the gang leaders, berating them for what she considered incredibly inconsiderate and stupid behaviour. She wanted to know what their mothers thought they did with her hard earned money, money that could be used for food or a long list of necessary items that kept many parents awake in their beds. I’ll never forget her calm and earnest sincerity as she tried to reason with them, she was a beacon and it made me question my neutral fascination with the manifestation of these strange rituals. I wanted to understand the catalyst for this seemingly counter productive madness. Why if you are poor would you buy expensive clothes that you deeply desire just to burn them? It made no sense to me, or the brave mom, from my alien white privileged context it could superficially be seen as an act of anti-consumerism activism or protest, but it’s not, that’s a woefully misguided notion, the truth is the opposite. This is a cult of want. No doubt a large part of this behavior is the historical disenfranchisement of whole communities, you cannot have systemic oppression for generations without terrible things happening to a peoples sense of self. The skhotsani phenomenon is a symptom of this; predominantly as a substitute for real status, self confidence or social standing. We are all guilty of it, we judge and are judged by what we own, but I sometimes think that often when we are extremely poor or extremely rich the noose of desire can be pulled tighter and in the bulging eyes of the maligned we see the putrid beating tumour of it.
These skhotsani’s are not dancers though. Their act does involve a sort of posturing street dance; but compared to the intricate development over decades of isiPantsula they are flapping chickens — an inelegant rooster mating dance.
In early isiPantsula culture, dance itself was an element of a bigger scene; in the way hip-hop culture is made up of Graffiti writers, break dancers, MC’s/poets and DJ’s. Seeking their own identity, the Pantsula’s where anti establishment, lawless and wild. “Now, in this new era of democracy, we must change the perception of pantsula’s, we are not thugs and skollies, we are artists.” — Siselo insists, while showing us the sound recording studio installed in the shack next door, it’s an impressive if makeshift setup, it might be powered by an old PC desktop computer and low end home cinema speakers but it gives them an invaluable platform to create and distribute their poetry and music. In the doorway he freestyles a spoken word rap for us; we film it blindly, intrigued by this man who honestly looks like a thug but speaks like a professor, the performance later translated reveals an intricate wordsmith performing a darkly comedic but profoundly insightful and moving piece of poetry.
In contemporary South Africa, the isiPantsula culture has evolved into a performing art, the dance has taken centre stage, with language and fashion augmenting the dance culture. The dance consists of either highly choreographed group sequences, performed at high speed with ridiculously fast and intricate feet movement accompanied by whistles, shrieks and wild chants. The energy is as fluid and wild as the seeds in a shaker, sometimes flowing together in the perfectly synchronised swarm dynamics like a school of fish, other times coming to a symphonic halt — a crack in the air, the stamp of feet and a sharp “HA!” — outstretched fingers to the heavens — altogether as one.
I sometimes wonder if the sky dances with these pantsula’s, their feet as fast as lightning striking the earth, an insistent and inevitable bridging of positive and negative.
Performed in the streets by a skilled crew it is enough to stop traffic, when the Real Actions crew out of Orange Farm swarm the streets in numbers of up to fifty dancers, major intersections are blocked with hundreds of whistling and encouraging onlookers. The spectacle is overwhelming, an exhilarating life energy with a sense of freedom and joy that doesn’t exist often.
Another element of the Pantsula dance is ‘the Solo’, performed alone as an individual dancers signature style or ‘character’, one of the Real Actions crew watches Disney cartoons and mimics the movement of caterpillars and other animated creatures in his solo’s. To see him be the caterpillar, slinking around the pavement at a bemused policeman’s feet is a blessing. These Solo’s are a celebration of each dancers unique individuality and manifests in some of the most progressive and expressive performances.
Prince and Mada, as the Shakers & Movers, are somehow different — they tell stories.
They have taken the idea of the ultra expressive solo and using two choreographed dancers they tell stories from their lives and from the community that is their world.
Prince and Mada met at the train station. Prince was performing Solo’s in the hope of freeing some spare change from passersby. Recently out of prison and fleeing his toxic home life in Orlando East he had taken his elderly mom and moved to Mapetla.
He had nothing but dance and the desire to be more with his life than a Tsotsi.
His poverty was very real; but also for brief miraculous moments inconsequential for when Prince dances he dances with all that he is, not what he has. From within the crowd, Mada was watching his unique flair with an admiring eye. They spoke of dance and life and became partners.
Mada was to become a rock for Prince, his ambition, responsibility and discipline a stronghold for the wild surging water that is Prince. Not to say that Mada doesn’t have his own wildness about him. His comes unexpected, like burning manganese, once ignited his wild side burns white hot, the only course is to burn itself out for no water or beer will quench it. I have a few friends like this, and their sudden flights of exploration to the edge are for me more frightening and astonishing than those who have a consistent questing about them. The best of us like to swim in the madness, the exultation of life, but without a rock to climb back onto there is nothing else — They say that the shaman swims in the water that the mad man drowns.
When Prince was in prison he started to choreograph and teach the other prisoners to dance, through this he found himself and his purpose.
“When we dance, we find purpose with our bodies” — Tom London , Soweto’s Finest.
His new life wasn’t to be easy for Prince, when I met him he was sharing a shack with his mom behind a relatives house. They shared not only the tiny space but the bed itself. I’ll never forget the first time I encountered that bed, I stared at it for a long while, perched chest high on bricks with its simple woollen blanket and plastic bed-wetting sheet, this bed rocked my privileged world with the reality behind the romance of these dancers. I couldn’t stop imagining a tiny frail old woman and a twenty seven year old man sharing this single humble bed.
To survive Prince would do all sorts of odd jobs around Mapetla, prowling the neighbourhood with a pair of lawn clippers and an offer to cut peoples small patches of grass and working night shifts packing shelves at a faraway Pick ’n Pay megastore. A truck would come in the night to pick them up and drive for a long time, I asked Prince where the truck went to but he didn’t seem to think it relevant, packing shelves in an empty mall in the dark is not about being anywhere, you are one of the invisible people.
Opportunities where not to be missed through laziness, Prince and Mada are constantly on the hustle, busking in the streets and making excursions into the city at the end of the month when pay-day fills the pockets of the drunken reveller in the downtown Jozi clubs. Downtown jo’burg is gnarly at night, apocalyptic even, this is not the trendy grit of Maboneng or Braamfontein. Prince and Mada would cruise from club to club on foot, dancing for ten hours right through the night. If they were lucky, the club owners paid them a small fee to get the dance floor jiving, but mostly they relied on the appreciation of the crowd. A crowd who where blasting off from their month in the trenches — in these clubs; dancing, booze and sex are the gods of escape and Prince and Mada the prophets.
It is 3 o’clock in the morning and Prince is feeling alive, “Looking in a mirror,” Prince says in that both intimate and theatrical way of his, “You want to know how I got my name?.. Looking in a mirror!” wide eyed and synchronised nostrils, “For a long time I looked at myself, looking into my eyes. I put a candle, then another candle — a day — and a night… and another candle… then… I see what I am. Born a legend… I must struggle everyday to become what I am — A Prince is someone waiting to become a King.”
I am old, and I know where I am coming from,
I am new, and I know where I am going.
The future fought with the past, in the middle was...
A stage play being created by Shakers & Movers that was never to be.
“I need to greet the sunrise,” Prince tells me while wiggling his finger in front of his crotch like a fisherman’s worm on a hook. What he means is he needs to pee. “Every morning I go out and greet the sunrise”, Prince tells me, “I take out my dick and start the day with the greatest feeling, pissing on the street with the warm morning sun on my face.” He cackles, “It’s the best feeling don’t you think?
In some of my fondest memories of Prince, he is rocking it in his underpants. Those classic old school Y-fronts, normally a faded nondescript colour that probably didn’t see daylight in winter when he would wear two pairs of pants to combat the biting cold of living in a tin shack in the high-veld. I remember taking Prince for his first swim in the ocean when he came down to Cape Town to visit and perform. Sliding out on his bum over the rocks and kelp and into the bracing Indian ocean with a yelp and a laugh. Those underpants and his enthusiasm when stripped down to them always made him seem like a little boy.
Like a movie montage I have seen those underpants through the tears, both sad and joyous; swimming on a hotel rooftop in Johannesburg, swimming on a forest in our documentary, in the doorway of a Congolese hotel at 2am while a prostitute waits; a look tells me, he knows — but is alone.
A dream of a memory; Underwater Pantsula in that same Congolese hotel pool, under a sweltering sky we dove below. For a man who was an enthusiastic swimmer but not a very good one, his underwater dancing was profoundly beautiful. I wished for gills, as did he, so we could spin around each other like a skydiving team forever, me filming with my gopro and him dancing in the silence, above us the roof of water a shimmering portal between dimensions.
But even when flying — the ground is a solid promise and a matter of time. We where fished out by an elderly Congolese man in a crisp white shirt and a gold name badge — we must behave and dress more appropriately he informed us, looking disdainfully at Prince’s underpants while the beautiful white French girl hosting us for the festival sprawled herself in the sun wearing almost nothing and no one seemed to mind.
Those faded and holy underpants where nothing but innocence, but in the eyes of that gold badged man there was nothing but scorn, I was grateful to see a flicker of his humanity; a moment of uncertainty and embarrassment, but who knows if I would have seen it if I wasn’t there. I was boiling inside, Prince had moved on already, his life was filled with these things.
It reminded me of the time we went up Table Mountain in the cable car, Prince and Mada, Filipa, the Ubuntu B-boys, Duane and Jed, Simon Kohler the sound composer and I ; we where having a relaxed day off together and wanted to show the guys from Soweto the view from on top of the mountain. In the cable car slowly rotating through the view, a boet (Afrikaner Jock) gave Prince the evil eye and muttered to his girl in Afrikaans, “Passop vir jou tas” — ‘watch your bag’; in shock I said nothing but I watched Prince, not even a flicker, even though he speaks five languages and Afrikaans fluently. He grinned and pointed to something far out on the horizon that had summoned his curiosity. He would tell me later, “The greatest gift of all is knowing the gift you have.” And he would dance a jive in the sunset that celebrated the miracle of this day, while hundreds gathered to watch him play.
Prince is sick.
He is in the dreaded Baragwanath hospital with a giant tumour on his face. We felt as if the world had frozen. As if time stood still. In the shrieking silence we drove North, it took two days to get from our world to him,
“The things I did in the dark are following me,” — he says in my nightmare.
Prince had been discharged from hospital which gave us hope. This was before, when hope was a bright light feeling, a wan smile of encouragement to each other when drowning in a pool of confusion. Mbuso tried to warn us with his haunted expression, but nothing could prepare us for what waited in that sweltering shack, the heat and dense humidity of rot and decay was incredible. Fil and I embraced our friend, but the tumour was now between us. In the murky darkness we saw it protruding from his upper lip and engulfing his face and nose, he no longer had nostrils, brain-like black tumours pushed their way out of there too. It was devastating. and then Prince was there, he said, “Look into my eyes Bryan. It’s OK, I am still here.” and eventually I could, and he was.
Here he was in this hell, the fan stirring the fetid air but doing nothing to alleviate the horror of it. An empty fridge with nothing in it but chemotherapy bombs - a fistful he would eat everyday, alone.
I ran to the ocean. A thousand blurred kilometers due east to the closest moving water.
I dove in under the first wave and lay there, willing the ocean to wash me clean of it all, opening my eyes I saw a small shark resting in the shallow dip in the sandbank. We watched each other for a long moment, prehistory and hysteria meeting in the fluidity of time.
Dragged home by an urge to do something and Fil’s need for me, and I her, but I had no plan for moving back into my body, no plan of how I could help. I fought with myself knowing it couldn’t be about me. On my way back home down the coast, I stood on the beach at Jeffrey’s Bay; a pilgrimage if you are a surfer, but just another blank view when your world is upside down inside you. I stared out into the horizon, past the carefree surfers who where once me, and felt I must make a promise to myself that I must be there, live through this thing with Prince and not watch it from a distance, to somehow confront the reality of it. My ultimate tragedy was waiting for me — that I wasn’t there.
We met with a friend, Conn Bertish, who would later go on to found the visionary Cancer Dojo and the cancer work agency Harder to Kill. We pulled him out of his work down into a coffeeshop and into our hell, we were drowning. He has survived brain cancer and knew better the challenges of the route to take. In his usual positive and inspired manner he guided us and we came up with an idea, an idea filled with love and hope.
People from all over the world sent videos of themselves Dancing for Prince, a wild white girl dancing in a river in America, families in the snow in Norway, whole festival audiences moving aside seats to dance and to express their love for this man they had only just met on the screen but whose heart shone so bright that the dark night surely could not come. These films of people dancing for him we would show Prince, for he was loved, and we wanted him to know. It’s all that we could do.
When we were forced to be in Cape Town, I would lie next to Filipa in our bed as she talked quietly to Prince for hours everyday; listening but frozen I could not speak to Prince on the phone, I hated phones, still do, but mostly I was a coward. I would lie there and imagine Prince’s expression as he talked, I would wonder if he could sense the tears streaming down our faces. We must always be strong, for him, we are told — but he was always stronger than us.
Filipa was a whirlwind of tireless energy and did everything in her power to help motivate and make him more comfortable, organising a doctor friend to get him the best supplements and alternative cancer care to augment the chemo and radiation, she organised transport to and from his chemo sessions, making sure he had fresh vegetables and healthy food and admonishing him for drinking sugary drinks, made it possible financially through fundraising events for Mada’s girlfriend to look after and cook for him, she made sugar free chocolates to encourage his appetite because there are no taste buds left after your face has been blasted with radiation on a weekly basis. For the year when time stood still she was a martyr for his healing.
He did dance again. Along with hundreds of people in Soweto and worldwide that had become his support network we arranged a screening of The African Cypher and an art auction in the trendy gentrified neighbourhood of Maboneng. A mistake in hindsight, it should have been in Soweto, but at this point it was the cold reality of money we needed, not healing but against the doctors and our wishes — Prince danced, and brought healing for us all.
We thought he might be getting better, the tumour was shrinking, something resembling normal life began to creep back into the frozen time. I continued to write my feature film that was to star Prince, I had abandoned it when he became sick, but now I locked myself away for months to finish it in the hope that it too might in some small way provide some inspiration for his recovery. Something to look forward to, we would spend long slow days when I visited talking about how he wants to be a director one day. Armed with a technical understanding, gained through acting for this world has failed him, I knew he could make remarkable films. If Clint Eastwood could do it, why not Prince? Why indeed.
As hope changed from a life raft to a function of dreaming about the future…
Suddenly he couldn’t walk. Paralysed from the waist down, a Pantsula dancer with no legs.
For some reason that no-one could fathom he had moved in with his sister from his estranged family that he had run away from after prison. The family that misguided him into the life of crime. Mada was agitated, unable to contact him, knowing deep down something was terribly wrong. He eventually managed to see him and called us desperately one evening from his bedside, Prince was unresponsive, seemingly abandoned for a number of days and severely de-hydrated. Mada the rock was in a panic and we felt the shaking of his world through the phone line. Calling an ambulance we booked tickets and flew to Jo’burg but he passed on before we could get there.
Prince was dead.
I sat in a big black clunky massage chair at a friends house in joburg staring out the window, this is just what I remember doing when it was sinking in. The humming and mechanical grinding going round in circles like my thoughts and emotions. I hoped that the chair would never stop because I was in a closed loop of despair and if the chair stopped… eventually I would have to get up.
I had a very powerful and traumatic dream last night that returned to me as I was walking down Moefi street to the memorial with Filipa and Mada. In the dream Prince and I where holding each other in etc dark, bound together so tightly that I had the strong sensation that we where buried together underground. It was dark and damp and our faces where sweating from the heat of our proximity; our faces pressed together in our mutual slime that is the secretion of human orifices and the decay of cells. it was sticky and filled with life juices as if in a womb, there was no need to breathe or at least i felt so, I had this strong sensation of being held there, I assumed by the ground or whatever was enveloping us, but perhaps more likely I was being held by Prince himself, as if to calm a wild fear. He whispered to me with a quiet urgency. I don’t remember what he was saying but it was both urgent and soothing.
There are many things that are not understood and I will never forget that dream.
Later, looking for Prince’s bull, we are driving on a bridge over nothing it seems, a bridge over a dip, a donga, staring out the window I see a man walking along the edge of the road, his clothing with that particular sheen that only extreme dirt and continuous wear can give clothing, this is a man who sleeps rough and opportunistically. He is wailing and hollering at the sky; for a moment in time he matches our speed, raving not at someone but something. “He has been cursed,” Mada says, sitting next to me in the car we had hired as transport, “someone got jealous of him”.
A passage from Paul John Myburgh’s, The Bushmen Winter has Come;
It is not for nothing that humans throughout the ages have performed rituals that pay homage to the departing of Spirit. We have lived, always, with a deep certainty of the super-sensible, with our various idea’s of god, of nature spirits, and of angels and demons… Somehow always serving our faith in the world of Spirit. Even today, while shaping our lives around the views of a materialistic science, which in vain denies the existence of much that is invisible… even today we humans would still believe.
Still in the frozen time, the bull was delivered to Prince’s sisters house in Mapetla that afternoon. As soon as the money left the hand the knife went in. Deep and true into the back of the bull’s neck just behind the ears. In a heave of terror, the bull twisted, slamming into the iron bars and struck the truck floor with the solid reverberation that only a massive hunk of live muscle can achieve. The kind of sound that ripples through us, and we are humbled. It’s no small thing this killing of the bull. The bulls head was now contorted awkwardly under its body, his legs kicking wildly from the twitching terror and twisting knife, firmly held ropes pinned the animals face against the metal rail, I was horrified by the consciousness and fear I could see in his massive eye, I remember the delicate black eyelashes that surround this brown emerald pool of misery.
I know what it means now — to look the beast in the eye. It’s a shiny thing, with a light inside, that then isn’t. The dead beast flopped out the truck and onto the street, an expert operation.
Anyone would ask why more blood must be spilled to honour the death of a man. I don’t know the answer to that, all I know is the moment I heard, I knew it had to be done. It was my very first conscious reaction, I wasn’t even sure it was not more than a romantic notion, buried deep from my childhood as a zulu boy or probably it was in a Wilbur Smith book, our romantic white interpreter of an enigmatic continent. It may also have been me hiding from the trauma of real life in fable. However it came, it was, and I felt it was right. To my self conscious relief, Mada, Mbuso and the Afro-tribal guys considered it solemnly when I proposed it the day after Prince’s death. I was really nervous, and conscious that I might be making a misguided and pointlessly grandiose gesture that may have no significance to them. I had to look into Mbuso’s eyes for the answer, I saw what it meant there, and so it must be done.
We slaughtered the bull in the driveway, right there on the street, this would definitely not go down in the cloistered Rondebosch suburbs of my teenage years. The blood poured itself under the sunset. There was so much of it that it was being carried away by the trough full. There where slashing knives and strong arms to pull open rib cages, It takes twelve skilled men about an hour to separate the meat from a bull. When blood is spilled or mingled there is a camaraderie, in a tragedy I was once told to look for the helpers; the human spirit surmounts by coming together, we hacked and held and manhandled, grunted and passed each other blood soaked knives. There is a strong smell of flesh. You can’t ignore what you are doing, and yet everyone working on deconstructing this animal is almost rhythmic about it, not inconsiderate or vulgar but quietly insistent on getting it done. I guess I was looking for the ritual in it, I was up to my armpits in the blood of this sacrificial bull, working hard but with a lightness, side by side with my brothers in mourning, and I still wanted more ritual. Us whiteys with our solemn and composed births and deaths, we want to bow our heads or we don’t feel humbled by the moment. Mbuso arrived, I hadn’t seen him since we decided that the bull would be a fitting tribute. He was dressed in blue worker overalls and a glittering VERSACE cap. A crazy getup and one Prince would have loved. He shoved his pristine sneakers straight into the gore and proceeded to tear the ribs free of the back bone and with his intensity brought a quiet and urgent sense of ritual and ceremony to the efforts of all the men. Mbuso is a man who with his body and presence can summon a transcendence of spirit. Even in silence he has the measure of the moment. If Prince was a poet, Mbuso is a sangoma or shaman. There was a sincere contemplation of the act as bone was torn from socket, skin tugged by straining fingers and peeled back off the muscle, a knife flashes, separating the white sinewy layer cleanly, a man with precise aggression stabs finger holes in the hide so that we can pull the skin away from the flesh. The organs carted away past the bucket of home brewed Umqombothi beer. A bloody hand bearing an enamel cup dips deep and arrives at the lips with a purposeful gulping before wading back into the task.
With darkness surrounding us, the work was done, and we must face up to a part of the ritual that was being whispered towards us. We must see the body.
Hat in bloodstained hand, I stand in the doorway inside the small home. Prince’s sister lounges on a mattress that takes up most of the room, she must lie vigil in the house, in mourning presumably but it doesn’t show on her. Just inside the door along the wall some old gogo’s sit on plastic chairs, I don’t know them and they stare at Fil, Simon and I without shame, I feel that ATM feeling. I don’t like this family of Princes whom I’d never met and who he had run away from, they’d arrived like vultures to scrap on the feast of death.
Mada looks and leaves, a stoic silence is with him that forces the air away from him as he walks, protecting him from intrusion.
Mbuso is next, he leaves, the tears barely waiting for the darkness outside.
In the small dim room, under the unblinking scrutiny of the fat bird on the mattress, heart pounding I part the flimsy lace curtain and look down into the coffin… This was no more Prince than that dismembered hunk of flesh in the driveway was that bull. His face was waxy and pale, paler than I imagined possible for a black man, I barely recognised him… there was nothing of Prince in that face. For there was no life, and Prince was life.
Looking back on it now, I do know that it gave me a form of closure,
every time I think that it cannot be, I see that waxy lifeless face — and I know it is so.
The next morning we gathered just after dawn outside Mada’s home and tavern.
We didn’t know what to expect, probably expecting silence and sorrow, but Mada was in a defiant mood, perhaps because of his dealings with the vultures the night before who had already stolen half the meat, he was well drunk already and in a wild mood, the type of wildness I spoke about earlier, for Mada’s wildness is normally buried deep but when it erupts forth it is a frightening, exhilarating defiance. An unbridled anger for the unjust woven through with a full throated scream for the joy. Mada was going to do this funeral in full Pantsula fashion. He and some friends piled onto the back of a bakkie and we followed in our car as we made our way to where the ceremony was to take place, the home of the same relative where Prince and the bull lay. Watching Mada on the back of the bakkie, sucking on a quart of beer, I could sense the tone of the day winding up.
Outside the relatives house, the Pantsula’s where gathering in the street, new arrivals by foot or piling out of cars blasting house music to be stifled by an unknown whisper of suppression. The estranged family sat in rows on plastic chairs in the front yard, the rigidity of service, waiting for it to be done.
On the other side of the fence the an awkward silence resumed.
A silence that would last until the next carload bundled out with swaggers and music.
The Pantsula’s stood in groups in the street, waiting, watching, drinking as the hymns drifted over from the front yard. This ebb and flow continued sporadically, the energy of a fresh crew arriving like a great spurt from an underground geyser before subsiding. It seemed as if every Pantsula in Soweto was showing up and there was a distinct feeling of a great force boiling beneath the surface of those gathered.
Suddenly Topolo, from the Soweto Junction crew, burst forward from the crowd with an exuberant prancing, the spronking of a springbok on the veld reminiscent of Prince’s dance style. With a magnetic energy the ocean in the street parted and the celebration of our Prince was underway. The crowd started chanting, wild shouts, the signature whistling and Dankie Topolo! (thank you Topolo!). The coffin was fetched and carried upon high through the crowd of Pantsula’s taking over as they must. The crowd clambered onto a big Golden Arrow bus that Mada had organised, so many that hundreds jammed themselves body upon body inside, three layers deep whilst a further twenty or so hung out the door, most having to hold onto a friend who in turn held a friend with only a few making contact with the actual doorway. One of the wildest things I have ever seen.
We hit the highway, a small green car screamed past us, overtaking the bus on the left shoulder of the road only to come screeching and sliding to a halt in the middle of a four-way intersection. Out piled the Skeleton Crew, the guys famous for ‘the magic floating hat’ and contortion moves, the mission they were on was suddenly clear. They were stopping traffic so that the convoy could all drive through without heeding the traffic lights so that no-one would be separated and lost. A sort of wild west informal blue light brigade. After each intersection they would pile back into their little green car whose four doors had been left open, then they’d race ahead again, past the convoy in a reckless display of driving to perform the stunt again at the next traffic light. Filipa showed me a picture she had taken on her phone, it was of the coffin as the Pantsula’s placed on top Prince’s ‘scotch’ dancing outfit and spoti hat. In the photo two figures stood in the fore from the huddled crowd; Mbuso was screaming to the heavens and Mada was pure grief staring at the camera with haunted eyes. Looking down into my hand at the phone as we raced along the highway the image broke the wall for me, with great heaves the grief shook me — tears pouring forth as hands reached from all over the car gently placing themselves on me. As I eventually calmed, I had a fleeting thought brought on by our malignant history, I wondered to myself — do my tears make me belong?
In the meantime, inevitably, the Skeleton Crew had been in an accident, thankfully no damage to them but one of the doors of their little green golf was torn off. Around the grave now, in a vast dry field of gravestones and dust, each stone not an arms width from the next, stretching to horizon as far as the eye could see.
The priest stood next to the hole in the ground surrounded and wedged in by hundreds of Pantsula’s. The coffin lowered with a few words from the pastor. As soon as it hit the bottom of the pit a portable speaker was wheeled and shoved through and under the crowd to the graves edge, raw and rhythmic township house blasted forth as one of the Skeleton Crew jumped into the grave and proceeded to dance on the coffin. A rain of chanting, whistling and ‘spoti’ pantsula hats flew down with him into the hole in the earth where the body of Prince lay. Mada leapt in to join and danced a celebration of his life on his partners chest. He would later tell me that in the heat of it the coffin lid had come off and he could see Prince looking back up at him. A gunshot rang out, then another and another, alongside me a tall thin Pantsula was firing his gun into the air. In the chaos and sheer madness of the moment the gunfire was not alarming, it felt fitting — a one gun salute.
The preacher had it going off right in his ear but didn’t even flinch, just held his bible in his two hands and reverently looked down into the grave where the friends of Prince danced.
He would later take me aside and tell me not to be frightened, sometimes this is way things need be done. I looked over his shoulder at the solemn mourning of the funeral next to ours and couldn’t help but wonder if Prince was laughing his head off.
The dancing wouldn’t stop until well into the night. The crowd moved back to Mada’s tavern in Soweto and the streets where filled with dancers and friends. A circle in the crowd formed almost immediately in the street and dancers paid tribute to their fallen comrade by dancing and dancing until they could no more and the next took over, eventually a second circle formed, then a third and a fourth as Moefi street was effectively shut down. The dancers from young and old would imitate Prince’s iconic style, and it became clear what a massive influence this troubadour poet had had in this community of dancers from all over Soweto. Many would make testimony to the fact that he had never been too busy to teach and share his skill along with a solid dose of the joy of life.
Prince had the pain of a man who lived a hundred hard years, he also had the joy of a child who had seen no suffering.
The day climaxed for me when Mada was shot three times in the chest by Tebza.
Tebza would later become Mada’s new partner in Shakers & Movers, but on this day the two of them took to the circle, the cypher, and in front of all those gathered to pay tribute they performed the most beautiful and poignant act that I have ever seen. They performed the dance routine that Prince and Mada were famous for, Tebza embodying the spirit of Prince with every quiver of his body and being, in slo-mo his eyes bulged and his mouth leered from beyond this world. The routine is a homage to Prince’s life, as a thug turned dancer, it culminates in Prince shooting Mada BANG-BANG-BANG.
This time it was Tebza firing the shots at his partner, Mada went down at my feet on the edge of the circle, he lay there for what seemed an eternity, breathing deep ragged breathes, tears streamed across his face mingling with the sweat and dirt. As he lay there I looked down in horror, the act had in that moment the force of real life, and I thought he might never get up from this. But come up he did, quivering, holding the moment, a consummate professional and a true artist who felt that moment with every sinew of his being.
Are we not all playing out our roles, while trying desperately or perhaps apathetically to move toward our true selves? I don’t think it will be something worn on the outside, it will be a warmth and a quiet knowledge from within. Prince had this rare warmth within, it beamed out of his eyes and lit up his smile, this knowledge of self.
“The Greatest gift of all, is knowing the gift you have” — Prince Mofokeng
Prince is dead. His role in this world at this time is done, but the ripples of his being spread through all who knew him and his legacy seems to grow and grow, seven years after I met him and inside I still spend more time with him than most.
I’m sitting on a wall quietly sipping on a quart while feeling the setting sun, as Prince used to greet the sunrise with joy and love — I was saying goodbye.
Looking out over the hundreds of dancing bodies; I saw the tall, thin Tsotsi from the funeral wandering away into the distance. Perhaps saturated and sated, a lone figure moving away down that iconic Moefi street in the sunset. The same street that the mad pantsula poet used to swagger down, gliding on feet that told stories.
Without looking back the Pantsula raised his long arm and fired three shots into the heavens.
Man-made Power comes in through a suspended web of cables under which the people live, man-power migrates everyday to the city of gold and back, an ebb and flow, tidal across time under the influence of a past, malignant moon.
Power is not the Big Men who are eating now; real power resonates up from the earth itself where ancestors are buried. It comes from the heavens, from prince, who has become a King.
*All Photographs by Filipa Domingues unless otherwise credited