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Sci-Fi, Hip-Hop and Other South African Fantasies

The pandemonium of COVID-19 was not predicted by political analysts or economists, but by world-builders.

This essay is the first in OkayAfrica's SA Reframed series, featuring personal writing from some of South Africa's best young writers edited by Verashni Pillay.

Years before the Covid-19 pandemic, Mohale Mashigo imagined a South African outbreak that turned people into phantoms in her short story Ghost Strain N: "By the time national newspapers, radio stations and TV stations were covering the 'outbreak' it was too late for many. It happened so fast; in less than two weeks whole neighbourhoods were emptied."

Urban fantasy author Lauren Beukes' new book Afterworld, written prior to the pandemic, imagines a killer affliction that wipes out 99 percent of men. These novels were more than prescient. They were warnings.


Two art-forms have helped me escape from the impatient isolation of COVID-19: fantasy novels and rap songs. At first, they seem radically disconnected: one is literary, the other musical; one long-form, the other short; one is the epitome of cool and the other is, well, not great for one's street cred.

My unlikely and unexpected flight to the worlds of rhyme and fantasy unfolded by accident. One minute, I was re-reading Harry Potter (spoiler: Mr Weasley is the real hero, go and argue with your walls), the next I was nodding my head to Jay Electronica; one moment enchanted by Patrick Rothfuss' magisterial The Name of The Wind and Martha Wells' searing All Systems Red, the next shuffling to Nas while wiping down a mug. Flitting unthinkingly between these two, seemingly unrelated, art-forms eventually got me pondering on their similarity.

"At its best, rap has always been a form of epic fantasy, grasping at the new by stretching the limits of the now."

In one sense, they're worlds apart: fantasy is the realm of geeks and ghouls; rap the arena of materialistic moguls. There's also a racial disjuncture: fantasy is dominated by white authors (strangely capable of imaging dragons but not black people in their stories); rap has long been an outlet for black expression.

But, look deeper, and underlying similarities emerge. Rap and fantasy are both, at their core, about world-building. Rappers fashion fictitious realities and invent mythological personae; fantasy authors wield the implausible to illuminate the possible through the eyes of heroic and mythical characters. At its best, rap has always been a form of epic fantasy, grasping at the new by stretching the limits of the now. Each art-form is best enjoyed by suspending disbelief. As rapper and producer Mike Shinoda once rhymed, in lines as relevant to Tolkien as to T.I.:

We don't care if it's true when we just lay the money down/

We don't believe the words, we just love the way they sound/

They're acting like we're idiots, they're lying to our face/

Maybe we are idiots, we buy it anyway/

In South Africa, as elsewhere, rappers aren't always exemplars of moral rectitude or prophets of social progress. Sometimes, the fantasies they conjure—and the personae they produce—unveil horror-filled presents or dystopian futures: from hyper-patriarchy, to nauseating narcissism and virulent violence. Even in these moments, rap reflects society back at itself, by lifting the lid on the social id.

But rappers also paint utopian lyrical visions and sculpt affective scapes that expand the frontiers of freedom. Rappers like Dope Saint Jude and Phola Phola, for instance, confound gender norms and subvert sexual stereotypes, restoring rap to the avant garde of social criticism. Take Saint Jude's new music video, Go High Go Low, which reflects on South African Coloured identity, flips gender roles, and explores life on the Cape Flats through vivid neon shop signs and the jarring notion of headlessness.

In a recent Twitter freestyle, Phola Phola uses a cadence so often mobilised by patriarchy to turn patriarchy on its head:

I'm the shepherd, I'm, the G.O.A.T. nigga/

Leading fellow black queers to the gold, nigga/

At its best, and its worst, rap captures the uneasy feeling of the "post-apartheid", and the contradictory desires for spectacular wealth and revolutionary equality which mark it. Fists up, Bentleys out.

The pandemonium of COVID-19 was not predicted by political analysts or economists, but by world-builders. In the pages of South African literary fantasy, we find horrifying visions of tomorrow, where werewolves roam Soweto street corners, and pandemics claim multitudes in Khayelitsha.

At its best, and its worst, rap captures the uneasy feeling of the "post-apartheid", and the contradictory desires for spectacular wealth and revolutionary equality which mark it. Fists up, Bentleys out.

Social fears are often best translated through the fantastical. This is why ideas of death-defiance and resurrection resonate so powerfully in South Africa today. Zombies and ghosts conjure fear not only by their mythical status, but also by revealing the deeper fear of a resurrection of white supremacy itself. As Buekes notes, fantasy eerily reminds us of "the monsters in our past that come up from the depths to eat us alive when we least expect them." The zombies and ghosts of apartheid that seem vanquished are, at once, omnipresent in fantasy and reality.

In Beukes' other work, the idea of apartheid's resurrection is tackled squarely. In Moxyland, she imagines a Cape Town of pervading "corporate apartheid", where the mobile phone is the new dompass. Beukes ironises contemporary Cape Town by hinting, between the lines, at the similarity between this fantastical dystopia and everyday life eKapa, where identities are coded by mouse clicks and the mobile phone mediates government and citizen. Today, our digital footprints reveal our preferences, movements and biometric information. In the hands of a bad actor, it's enough to make even the most ardent apartheid apparatchik squeamish.

"The Ghost Virus was quick, violent and efficient… Very soon, the country became a Ghost Town where most of what made people feel secure fell away," prophesies Mashigo. Neither rap nor fantasy promises a reassuring future. Their consolation, however, is this: imagination preexists catastrophe, and also outlives it.

OkayAfrica presents South Africa Reframed, an ongoing series of new personal essays from many of South Africa's best young writers. Read more here.

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Photo by ANNIE RISEMBERG/AFP via Getty Images

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