Dancing in Liminal Space: Youth, Waithood, and Transformation in the South African Documentary The African Cypher (2012)
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This article explores representations of youth in The African Cypher (2012), a South African documentary film that focuses on street dances practiced by youths who have grown up in townships. It proposes that The African Cypher depicts the young dancers as situated within what Alcinda Honwana has called a state of “waithood”, unable to obtain social and financial independence due to the socio-economic constraints that have continued after the formal end of apartheid in 1994. Simultaneously, the film’s focus on individual redemption, embodied by young Black men, circumscribes its potential for a wider, postcolonial critique of the predicament of disenfranchised youth in contemporary South Africa. Street dance, in turn, is represented as a liminal space where marginalized South African youth engage in “carnivalesque” performances that transform, subvert, and resist the experiences of spatial and social marginalization that characterize waithood. As the article suggests, liminality and the carnivalesque are depicted in the film as distinctively masculine experiences that preclude female perspectives to a significant extent.
Youth and Popular Culture in Contemporary South African Film
Since the transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994, South Africa has witnessed a proliferation of fiction and documentary films centered on youth and popular culture. Music, sport, and dance are the focus of dramas such as Otelo Burning (2011), Hear Me Move (2014), Ayanda (2015), and Necktie Youth (2015), as well as of documentaries, including Hip Hop Revolution (2007), The African Cypher (2012) and Future Sound of Mzansi (2015). And yet, these films’ engagements with the activities, spaces, and identities that constitute youth culture in contemporary South Africa have, with a few exceptions, remained unexplored within the existing scholarship.
Therefore, this article analyzes the representations of youth and street dance in The African Cypher, a feature-length documentary film that engages with the diverse street dances practiced by South African youth (See Figure 1). The African Cypher was made by two young White South African filmmakers, Bryan Little (the director) and Filipa Domingues (the producer), with the aim of exploring contemporary street dance practices in South African townships. The film focuses on two young Black dancers from Soweto, namely, Prince “Pringle” Mofokeng and Sthembiso “Mada” Moloi. It follows Prince’s transformation from a violent criminal to a dancer, and introduces a variety of street dance practices along the way, including Pantsula, Breakdance, Krump, and Sbhujwa, all of which will be unpacked later in the article. Although these dances are widely known in the townships of South Africa, they are relatively absent from the South African public sphere – except for Breakdance, which has increasingly received attention within the music industry and academic research. Recently, street dance practices have also been incorporated into the strategies of corporate businesses. As discussed later, The African Cypher was partly funded by a multinational corporation, Red Bull, and this has resulted in tensions between postcolonial and neo-liberal narratives constructed by the film’s representational politics.
Figure 1. The official trailer of The African Cypher (Dir. Bryan Little, 2012).
This article argues that The African Cypher depicts Black South African youth as situated within a state of “waithood”  – a term explained later – which describes a period of suspension between social childhood and adulthood, brought about by unemployment, poverty, and a lack of social and economic opportunities. At the same time, the film depicts street dances as means of carving out “liminal spaces” where disenfranchised South African youth challenge, subvert, and resist experiences of marginalization through what Michael Bakhtin would call “carnivalesque” performances. The article further suggests that the liminal spaces depicted by the film are heavily gendered, evoking and critiquing concepts of "hegemonic masculinity", a term discussed later. Hence, the treatment of space is central to The African Cypher’s representations of youthful identities, with “township spaces” representing ambiguous sites where experiences of marginalization and self-affirmation unfold side-by-side.
The article’s discussion ought to be located within the social, economic, and political context of youth in post-apartheid South Africa. As the first generation to grow up after the transition from apartheid to democracy, South African youth have grown up in a society very different to that their parents had experienced. In 1994, the segregationist legislations of apartheid were abolished and replaced with a democratic government and a constitution that guarantees all people the right to freedom of speech, sexual orientation, and protection from discrimination. However, Black youth, in particular, continue to grapple with poverty, unemployment, and violence, and this calls into question the popular assumption that youth in post-apartheid South Africa are truly “born free” – a term often bestowed upon the young generation born after the end of apartheid.
Waithood and Township Space in The African Cypher
The African Cypher focuses on young Black South African dancers who have grown up in South African townships, such as Soweto, Orange Farm, and the Cape Flats. These settings are represented in the film as sites of poverty, unemployment, and violent crime. For example, the film’s main subject, Prince, is introduced in a scene in which he wakes up in a small shed in Mapetla, a part of Soweto. The camera frames various objects in the shed, arranged without any seeming order, evoking disorder and decay. Furthermore, scenes set in a shack in Orange Farm show a dancer’s grandfather desperately trying to fix electricity cables that hang loosely from the ceiling (see Figure 2). These spatial arrangements suggest that the daily lives of youth who grow up in townships are characterized by destitution, underdevelopment, and poverty. In turn, this indicates that the promise of economic redistribution embodied by South Africa’s democratic transition is yet to materialize in practice.
These settings in the film evoke a particular discourse on townships, as static and underdeveloped spaces, that has gained prevalence within South African public discourse. Throughout South African history, townships have been imagined through a White ideology of racial segregation. Since the establishment of colonial settlements during the 19th century, South African cities had been created by and for the minority White population. During apartheid, for example, the Group Areas Act of 1950 separated urban areas according to artificial racial groups (“Whites”, “Blacks”, “Asians”, and “Coloreds”) and violently removed non-Whites from areas designated as “White only”. This logic separating Black and White South Africans constructed townships as the opposite of cities, which often represent a symbol of modernity. In turn, this discourse on the township space has given rise to ideas that evoke Black South African identity as pre-modern, inferior, and the “other”. However, in reality, townships have historically represented ambivalent, multi-dimensional spaces, where class differences, crime, and poverty coexisted with developments of vibrant cultural forms, including music, dance, and literature. In the post-apartheid period, an increasing number of Black South Africans has moved from the cities to the townships, which have emerged as centers of social and cultural life. Simultaneously, the legacy of racial segregation continues to structure the public life of South Africa. Post-apartheid cities, in particular, have remained spatially divided, with many Black people struggling to access amenities and job opportunities.
Some fiction and documentary films made after 1994 in South Africa have been critiqued for tapping into narratives that construct the townships as pre-modern spaces. As Jordache Ellapen argues, contemporary South African fiction films – by both Black and White filmmakers –tend to “fix” townships as “backward” environments, leading, in turn, to constructions of Black South African identity as linked to poverty, crime, and violence. To a certain extent, The African Cypher embraces this “fetishization” of the township. In the film, townships emerge as the site of what Alcinda Honwana has called the predicament of “waithood”, to describe a “prolonged period of suspension when young people’s access to social adulthood is delayed or denied”. Honwana argues that the majority of young people in Africa is excluded from socio-economic opportunities and political participation and, as a consequence, is unable to form their own families and households. Many young people are unable to participate in the responsibilities ascribed to social adulthood; hence, they are “trapped” in a state of limbo in-between childhood and adulthood. This positioning of Black South African youth within “waithood” is pronounced in The African Cypher, for example, in a sequence in which Mada drives through Soweto, talking about a “chicken business“ he has set up. He says: “That money is very helpful [...]. I can also help out at home when they need food. [...] There’s five of us at home and all of us are unemployed”, which indicates that many Black South African youths living in townships are excluded from the economic prospects promised by the formal end of apartheid.
Simultaneously, The African Cypher challenges the discourse that positions Black youths within a period of waithood by representing townships as the origins of vibrant dance cultures. At the film’s heart are a diversity of street dances developed by Black youths, including Pantsula, a dance performed with long, loose, fast steps, which was created by Black South African youth in townships during the 1950s; Breakdance, a dance practice performed to hip hop music that originated in the United States (US) in the 1970s, which was appropriated by Black South African youths in townships from the 1980s onwards; Krump, which originated in the early 2000s among African-American youths in the US and involves frenetic dance moves, face paint, and “battles” between dance crews; and Sbhujwa, which merges Pantsula, breakdance, contemporary dance, and freestyle. By exploring these dance practices, The African Cypher emphasizes the intersections between South African dance, music, and fashion styles with international youth cultures, fashion, and trends. For example, numerous scenes show Prince and Mada perform in typical Pantsula outfits, known as “tsotsi”, which are characterized by loose trousers, American “Converse” trainers, and bucket hats (see Figure 3). By highlighting the blurred lines between Black South African and “global” youth cultures, the film challenges the discourse on townships as “backwards”, and with it, the problematic notion that Black South African youth are unable to successfully negotiate spaces of modernity.
Furthermore, it could be argued that the young filmmakers, Little and Domingues, were themselves positioned in a state of “waithood” – in a psychological rather than socio-economic sense – characterized by a struggle to “belong” to the new South Africa. Little has emphasized, during interviews and post-screening discussions, that he sought to explore the various South African street dances in The African Cypher, along with issues of ongoing racial disparities in the post-apartheid period. For example, he stated that he sought to “immerse himself” in Pantsula dance in order to explore Black South African youth cultures, while Domingues emphasized her desire for tackling the ongoing differences between Black and White South Africans. She has said: “People think now that apartheid is over we should all be friends [...]. It’s not like that. It’s a culture difference, not a color difference, [and] an economic difference [...]. We can all relate on a surface level, but I never thought that we ever go deeper. But we did with this documentary”. Hence, the filmmakers did not only explore dance practices in Black townships with The African Cypher, but also their own identities and questions of belonging to the new political dispensation as young White South Africans.
However, The African Cypher is not a film about White South Africans, but about young Black South African dancers; the filmmakers’ negotiation of their own identity thus took place in relation to others. In some moments in the film, this relationship has translated into the unintentional “othering” of the main subjects. For example, Little’s voice-over accompanies the scene that introduces Prince, stating: “This is Pringle. His real name is Prince. But that is a whole different story. He lives in Mapetla, in Soweto, in a shack with his elderly mum. Prince tells me, in Mapetla, if you steal phones and handbags, you will not live long. The community will kill you. But if you do a heist, they will tell the police you are not there”. In the subsequent scene, Little explains: “I don’t know him [Prince] yet, but I have a strange feeling that at some point he is going to tell us something absolutely true and beautiful”. Introduced in this way, Prince’s identity is defined by a White voice and gaze, rather than by himself. The following section will, therefore, explore in more detail the film’s engagement with the identities of Black South African youth and the spaces they inhabit.
Street Dance, Liminality, and the Carnivalesque
The African Cypher depicts street dance as much more than urban youth culture, suggesting that dance performances enable Black South African youth to carve out “liminal” spaces where individual transformation and maturation are made possible. Within sociological theory, “liminality” refers to the rituals and practices that mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. Liminality is often understood as a “betwixt and between” stage during which a person is no longer a boy, but not yet a man; no longer a girl, but not yet a woman. Liminality has also gained prominence within postcolonial theory, describing the spaces in which cultural transformation can take place, and where new cultural narratives are created. Homi Bhabha, for example, has emphasized the significance of border locations as spaces of “thresholds”, characterized by the potential for subversion and resistance. He has suggested that liminal spaces can carve out opportunities for subversion and resistance by marginalized groups and individuals. These “in-between” spaces represent opportunities for “subaltern subjects” to find a voice amidst oppression and domination.
The entanglements of street dance and liminality are emphasized throughout The African Cypher. For example, Breakdance – also known as “b-boying” – is introduced in a sequence in which a young boy rides a BMX bike through Mitchell’s Plain (a district of the Cape Flats), until he arrives at a mat placed on the edge of the township. This mat represents the “cypher” – the space where a group of breakdancers form a circle and enter the middle to dance one after another. In the following scene, the Ubuntu Breakdance crew is shown to flip over, balance, and perform summersaults (see Figure 4). Subsequently, one member of the crew states: “B-boying is fun and it keeps you off the streets”. In a scene later on in the film, the Ubuntu crew members Duane and Jed Lawrence explain that they seek to pass on their dance skills to other disenfranchised youth through training and mentorship. The film also shows a Krump dancer describing dancing as “a way to channel all the negativity that we are going through, instead of being part of a community where gangsterism is rife and drug abuse is everything”. Dance cyphers are thus constructed as spaces of “threshold”, that is, a temporary state characterized by “entering and leaving, passages, crossings and change”. In The African Cypher, Black South African youth forge thresholds through dance performances that embody pathways to personal growth, responsibility, and maturity.
The African Cypher thus depicts dancing as a liminal experience that enables young Black South Africans to negotiate socially ascribed identities and dominant perceptions of the spaces they have grown up in. A sequence 60 minutes into the film shows Prince and Mada watch a promotional short film that Little made about them ahead of the Red Bull Beat Battle, an annual street dance contest in South Africa sponsored by Red Bull. In this “film in the film”, Mada says: “when I dance, I dance as if someone is holding a gun to my head. I dance as if someone had said to me: ‘This is your last day, you are going to die tomorrow’”. In another scene, Mbuso Kgarebe, the founder of the Afro Tribal crew states: “If I come from a shack, it doesn’t mean that my brain or my mind is [sic] a shack”. He states that dancing is “almost like a therapy thing. It’s where we relieve ourselves. It’s where we let go [...] and rise above”. Little’s cinematography captures the dancers’ “rising above” over again, devoting numerous scenes to the physicality of dancing bodies. Dance choreographies are emphasized through slow motion sequences shot from various angles, which illuminate the spinning, flipping, and wheeling movements of different dances. These techniques affirm street dance as an activity that transforms the identities of Black youth from being defined through “waithood” to affirmations of Black agency.
The African Cypher’s depictions of street dance as a transformative practice can further be described via Michael Bakhtin’s concept of “carnivalesque” performances. Bakhtin interprets the European medieval carnival as an event in which all rules, restrictions and social hierarchies that structured everyday life were temporarily suspended. He argues that medieval people lived a double life, marked by subordination to dominant ideologies on the one hand, and the unrestricted carnivalesque experience on the other, characterized by the subversion of social and religious norms. During the carnival, social hierarchies are often subverted in a playful and undefined way, through reversals, humiliations and mockeries performed by normally silenced voices. Hence, the carnival creates a space where subaltern individuals are able to re-define and re-create their identities, not simply by means of deconstructing a dominant culture, but through forging an alternative way of living based on play and subversion.
In The African Cypher, Pantsula is depicted as a carnivalesque act upfront. The film opens with a wide angle shot of a dusty street, lit sparsely by streetlights, the windows of skyscrapers appearing in a dark sky in the distance. The camera subsequently frames a pair of moving feet in trainers, followed by a close-up of Prince’s face and Pantsula hat. A hand-held camera follows Prince from behind until he enters a nightclub and begins to dance with Mada. Here, Prince and Mada perform for the first time in the film, claiming the dance floor with frenetic dance moves, entangling their bodies, and pulling grimaces, while spectators gather around them (see Figure 5). The pair’s performance embodies a carnivalesque act, forged through playful, exaggerated, and eccentric dance moves. In the nightclub sequence, the Pantsula dancers take on center stage – in a literal and metaphorical way – and this subverts those narratives that place Black South African youth at the margins of social life.
Throughout The African Cypher, Pantsula is depicted as a practice that re-affirms the central position of Black youth in post-apartheid South Africa. For example, in one scene, a Pantsula dancer is shown to cross the street while dancing, while police vans, cars and taxi-busses are trying to make their way past him (see Figure 6). This scene underscores the playful, humorous nature of resistance that Bakhtin has ascribed to carnivalesque performances. Furthermore, the film reveals that dancing Pantsula represented an act of resistance to the oppression of Black South Africans during apartheid. In one sequence, a Pantsula dancer called Sicelo explains that the dance was developed by Black working-class youths living in the townships around Johannesburg during the 1950s, a time when urban segregation was well underway in South Africa. Sicelo states that, in the 1980s, during the late apartheid years, Pantsula embodied a pathway for Black youths to reaffirm their presence in public spaces at a time when townships were ravaged by violent clashes between anti-apartheid groups and the apartheid police.
The African Cypher also highlights the political and historical significance of Breakdance as a means of subverting White minority rule in South Africa. In one sequence, South African hip-hop artists illustrate the entanglement of Breakdance with anti-apartheid movements. DJ Ready D, a member of the South African hip hop band Prophets of da City (POC), and the “gangster” rapper Isaac Mutant explain how breakdance performances in the streets of townships embodied an act of Black resistance to White oppression during apartheid. DJ Ready D states:
The b-boying was there to counter everything that said: “You cannot”. That was our way of saying: “We’ll smash you out of the way and this is the way we will. You suppress us, oppress us, come with your guns, come with your gas, but the pen and the mic is [sic] a very, very powerful tool”.
Hence, the film suggests that Black South African youth use dance as a pathway for carving out authorship and control over their lives. However, the film’s representations of street dance as subversion is compromised by its focus on Prince’s individual “redemption”, which is discussed in the following section.
Narratives of Redemption
The African Cypher’s narrative is driven by the personal transformation of Prince, who has changed his life from a criminal into a Pantsula dancer. A sequence 20 minutes into the film shows Prince standing in front of a fence outside of a shack, explaining how he used to conduct robberies, hijackings, and burglaries before he was jailed (see Figure 7).
This setting evokes the enclosed space of a prison; and this is where Prince changed his life and became a dance choreographer. The camera frames his face behind the fence in close up, while he recalls:
If I hadn’t gone to jail and continued doing crime the way I was before, I probably would have been dead by now. Jail can punish you, discipline you, but it can also ruin you if you don’t watch out. So it’s up to a person to decide. Your decisions will determine your future [...]. I want to show the world that Pantsula is talent. Pantsula could be someone’s daily bread or someone’s success story. [...] Pantsula saved my life.
This sequence once again constructs street dance as a liminal experience, suggesting that partaking in Pantsula has “redeemed” Prince by helping him to regain social and political consciousness.
The African Cypher can be situated within a tradition of South African fiction films which focus on the “redemption” of Black, male youth. Films including Hijack Stories (2000), Tsotsi (2006), and Gangster’s Paradise (2009) evoke narratives of individual transformation, played out in township spaces and embodied by a young Black, male anti-hero who develops political consciousness and social commitment. Yet, these films depict a romanticized way of coping with political and social inequality in post-apartheid South Africa. As Lindiwe Dovey has argued, the internationally acclaimed fiction film Tsotsi is driven by what she calls “redeeming features”, to describe the transformation of a young gangster, called Tsotsi, who steals a car from a wealthy Black couple and afterwards finds himself in possession of their baby. Looking after the infant initiates a transformation in Tsotsi that enables him to make amends with his delinquent past. Dovey concludes that in focusing on Tsotsi’s transformation, the film sacrifices a possible Marxist critique of class divisions in post-apartheid South Africa and submits to a neoliberal point of view on social relationships.
Like Tsotsi, The African Cypher can be said to evoke a romanticized vision of social change in the post-apartheid period. The film’s vision of Prince’s “redemption” is compromised, in particular, by the fact that its production was enmeshed with the same logic of neo-liberal capitalism it seeks to critique. The film was co-produced by Red Bull, a multinational corporation which sells energy drinks. Red Bull has gained an increasing presence in the South African mass media and youth leisure market through introducing its own TV channel, a mobile phone brand, and sponsorship of surf contests, motorsports, and dance events. Red Bull contributed financially to the colour grading of The African Cypher, but, according to the producers, was not actively involved in the film’s production and post-production. Yet, the corporation is ubiquitous in the film. From the Red Bull logo in the opening credits and the film’s climax in the Red Bull Beat Battle to the dancers’ Red Bull T-shirts, the film creates “advertorial” content for Red Bull. Furthermore, The African Cypher’s focus on young, male dancers living life “to the full” runs in line with Red Bull’s marketing strategy and target audience, who are active, urban men aged 16-24 engaged in sport and risky leisure activities.
As The African Cypher’s narrative unfolds, the Red Bull Beat Battle emerges as the central event that empowers young Black South Africans to “make it” in life. The scenes set at the Protea Hotel in Johannesburg, in which the dance crews stay for the time of the Battle, unravel a luxury that is unaffordable for the majority of South African youth. A number of scenes show Prince’s and Mada’s fascination with their hotel rooms, the hotel’s fitness center, and its rooftop swimming pool. Subsequent sequences show the dancers’ performance on an illuminated, elevated Red Bull dance stage, surrounded by cheering spectators (see Figure 8), which forms a striking contrast to the dusty, unpaved streets and makeshift accommodation of the townships introduced at the beginning of the film. Hence, the Red Bull stage embodies the threshold that enables marginalized Black South African youths to escape the predicament of waithood. Consequently, as the film suggests, it is Prince – not White-owned businesses – who ought to seek “redemption” through turning away from violent crime. Prince has to answer for the actions of his past during his time in prison, while multinational corporations such as Red Bull are neither critiqued for their operating mechanisms, which tend to exacerbate structural inequality, nor for appropriating Black youth culture via sponsorship and events. While it was not the filmmakers’ primary aim to make a film about structural inequality in South Africa, but the film’s emphasis on Prince’s transformation from a criminal into a dancer situates the major subject in an environment of violence, crime, and economic inequality. In this respect, the film eschews an engagement with the continuous racial divisions in contemporary South Africa, which are determined particularly by persisting inequalities in the distribution of economic resources, and with it, the continuation of White privilege.
Gender Relations in Liminal Spaces
The African Cypher constructs street dances as distinctively masculine performances from which female dancers are remarkably absent. The exception forms a young female Krump dancer, called “Snow”, who is introduced in a short sequence. She states: “When I dance, it’s like there’s nobody there [...]. There’s relief like no-one else matters”. However, whether or not her experience of dancing differs from that of boys is not explored further in the film. Female characters are shown predominantly as background figures in the documentary, including as bystanders of dance performances. For example, in the scenes set in Mitchell’s Plain, described earlier, children are shown to play on the side of the Breakdance mat, and a high angle shot frames a group of women who watch the performances of the male dancers.
This exclusion of women and girls from the male communalism enabled through street dance is also evoked by interviews with the dancers. For example, in once scene, Duane Lawrence refers to his co-dancers as “our brothers, our family”, saying that “we need to support each other, motivate each other”. In another scene, he explains that Breakdance is “about unity, brotherhood. We stand together and nothing can bring us down”. These homosocial relationships established through dance are underscored through recurring sequences devoted to male dance choreographies. For example, the dancers of the Soweto Finest crew wear identical clothes, with their choreography impeccably synchronized (see Figure 9). Consequently, the ability to affirm and transform one’s identity through dance is defined primarily through male bodies and perspectives, from which females are remarkably absent.
Furthermore, the street dances represented in The African Cypher are enmeshed with exaggerated masculine behavior, including physical strength, sexuality, aggression, alcohol abuse, and the possession of fast cars. In one scene set in Mitchell’s Plain, a b-boy is shown to perform in front of a graffiti wall, while a racing car approaches with fast speed and makes an abrupt stop with squeaking breaks. Furthermore, one male dancer of the Ubuntu crew states: “B-boying can do a lot for you, my bru [brother]. Especially with the girls”, indicating that street dance performances also represent an act of “peacocking”, that is, an attempt to impress women in the audience. In another scene, Mutant performs a short rap that consists of an accumulation of Afrikaans swearwords (which are not subtitled in English), to evoke male aggression and obscenity. While it would be naive to conflate the various types of hip-hop that exist in South Africa, the lyrics of this genre have often given expression to sexism and materialism. For example, Adam Haupt points out that POC’s lyrics are heavily gendered, with songs of their 1993 album Age of Truth discriminating against women.
The African Cypher’s soundscape underscores the focus on assertive masculinity established by the film’s visual aesthetics. In the film’s opening sequence discussed earlier, a non-diegetic, kwaito song with an upbeat feel – Boss by the South African DJ Richard the Third – is heard, while the camera follows Prince into the night club. This track authenticates the film’s narrative context in the post-apartheid period, while framing Prince in a masculine way: kwaito has been criticized for lyrics containing sexism and sexual violence, and for objectifying and patronizing women through “explicit lyrical content and in the scantily dressed female dance troupes performing raunchy routines”. However, as Angela Impey notes, some kwaito bands also offered women new agency in South Africa.  Impey argues that although the lyrics of the former kwaito band Boom Shaka at first glance enforce stereotypes of Black women, they also contain critiques of gender inequality and violent masculinities.
This audio-visual composition of The African Cypher evokes R.W. Connell’s concept of “hegemonic masculinities” when it comes to representing young Black South African men. Connell argues that within a patriarchal social order, hegemonic masculinities represents the social standards into which boys are socialized when they grow up, and to which they are expected to conform in order to be seen as “real” men. The entrenching of a form of hegemonic masculinity in South Africa has been interpreted as part of the legacies left by colonialism and apartheid. Decades of apartheid have resulted in the systematic brutalization of Black men through economic and political oppression, institutionalized violence, and the systematic destruction of Black families. In turn, the apartheid government ensured that White South African men were recruited into the military, although many White men refused to enter the military forces. In the post-apartheid period, leading politicians, including the former President Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema, the previous president of the ANC youth league, have sought to valorize an African masculinity that is race-specific and predicated on the notion of male superiority, which contradicts the non-racial, gender-inclusive values embraced by the ANC’s stated principles and South Africa’s Constitution. However, The African Cypher also nuances the discourse of hegemonic masculinities in suggesting that not all young South African men conform to violent, deviant and aggressive behavior. As noted above, the brothers Jed and Duane Lawrence explain, in one scene, that they seek to pass on their dancing skills to younger children and act as role models for them. Duane Lawrence has said in an interview: “This [dance workshop] is what gets me through the week [...]. It’s just for these kids, because they don’t have role models; they don’t have people to look up to”. Hence, this scene suggests that many young Black men are “giving back” to their communities by acting as role models for younger children, rather than simply being co-opted by the norms of hegemonic masculinity.
It could also be argued that the film’s representation of street dance as built upon familial relationships among young men subverts prescriptive ideals of the heterosexual family. In the context of contemporary South Africa, this narrative focus challenges homophobic attitudes that have come to permeate social and political discourse. While the post-apartheid Constitution of 1994 guarantees all citizens equal rights, regardless of their sexual orientation, gay and lesbians are often subjected to discrimination and violence, including sexual violence. For example, in August 2009, three years before The African Cypher’s release, South Africa’s former Minister of Arts and Culture, Lulu Xingwana, walked out of an exhibition that contained several works by Zanele Muholi, a queer activist and photographer, for she perceived the photographs as immoral and offensive.
However, given that The African Cypher does not devote much attention to the girls that do participate in street dance, or to the reasons why street dance are predominantly male practices, it ultimately participates in a masculine narrative that denies women the agency to participate in processes involving transformation, subversion, and resistance – they continue to be positioned within the state of waithood.
The African Cypher’s engagement of liminality, waithood, resistance, and subversion represents an optimistic affirmation of youth culture in the "new" South Africa; and yet, this vision has not materialized for all those who participated in its production. One example of this issue is the fact that, in early 2014, Prince was diagnosed with leukemia. Little and Domingues subsequently initiated a campaign on social media in order to raise money for Prince’s medical treatment and to support him psychologically. Despite these efforts, Prince passed away at the end of May 2015, only three years after the film was released. That Prince did not survive his illness indicates once more the ways in which waithood is experienced by many Black South African youth in post-apartheid South Africa, where a lack of adequate medical care continues to impact negatively on their health and wellbeing.
In turn, Mada has reported to have benefited from the national and international acclaim of The African Cypher to an extent, which provided him with some acting roles; however, he too is still living in poverty. Hence, The African Cypher’s dilemma lies in its oscillation between a critique of Black South African youth’s predicament of waithood and submitting to the values of neoliberal economics, which has made few contributions towards the redistribution of wealth in South Africa. This tension could, however, be interpreted as illustrating an important moment in contemporary South African society that is characterized by an uncertainty about how to address the socio-economic legacies of apartheid on the one hand, and the current climate, of economic globalization and privatization in the other.
Simultaneously, the initiatives Mada has taken after the film was completed challenge the values of consumerism and individualism promoted by Red Bull, as well as attitudes associated with hegemonic masculinities. Mada has begun to teach Pantsula to disenfranchised youths from Soweto, while initiating art projects and computer literacy training. He has said: “It’s not for us to be the best dancers [sic], but it’s to be [sic] the best guys who can share their joy when they’re on the stage. Just to share that with other people who are sitting there watching us. That’s bouncing back to us”. His words highlight once more the various expressions of masculinity, which are not unequivocally violent, hypersexual, and deviant. The African Cypher’s focus on male bodies as the locus of transformation thus calls for further films and research on women and girls that take part in dance, and the ways in which girls may create liminal spaces of their own that allow for female transformations, subversions, and resistance.
Christine Singer is currently a Research Affiliate in the Department of Culture, Media, and Creative Industries (CMCI) at King’s College London. She holds a PhD in Media Studies from SOAS University of London, with her doctoral thesis, Transnational Narratives: Youth and Screen Media in Contemporary South Africa (1994-2014), exploring notions of childhood and coming of age in relation to film, television, and digital screen media in post-apartheid South Africa.
Apartheid was a system of racial segregation imposed by the National Party government of South Africa between 1948 and 1994 which curtailed the rights of the majority non-White population to establish, and maintain, White minority rule.
Meg Samuelson, “Re-Telling Freedom in Otelo Burning: The Beach, Surf Noir, and Bildung at the Lamontville Pool,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 26 , no. 3 (2014): 307–23; Christine Singer, “Surfing to Adulthood: Childhood, Coming of Age, and National Transitions in the South African Fiction Film Otelo Burning (2011),” in The Child in World Cinema, ed. Debbie Olson (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2018): 97–124; René Smith, “Yizo Yizo: This Is It? Representations and Reception of Violence and Gender Relations.” (MA diss., University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2000).
The full film is available on Vimeo. See: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/theafricancypher.
The capitalized “White” refers to the apartheid nomenclature for South Africans of British and other ancestry, whose main language is English, and to those known as Afrikaners, who are primarily of Dutch and other European descent. By using uppercase first letters of terms connoting ethnic groups, the article seeks to avoid the naturalization of racial categories that are socially and politically constructed. The capitalized “Black” is used in this article to refer to South Africans who would have been classified as “black”, “Indian”, and “colored” (mixed-race) during apartheid. The lowercase “black” is used to identify people sometimes referred to as “African”, in racial terms.
Adam Haupt, Static: Race & Representation in Post-Apartheid Music, Media & Film (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2012); Lee Watkins, “A Genre Coming of Age: Transformation, Difference, and Authenticity in the Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture of South Africa,” in Hip Hop Africa: African Music in a Globalizing World, ed. Eric S. Charry (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2012): 57–78.
Alcinda Honwana, “’Waithood’: Youth Transitions and Social Change,” in Development and Equity, eds Dick Foeken, Ton Dietz, Leo de Haan and Linda Johnson (Leiden: Brill, 2014): 28-40; Alcinda Honwana, “Youth, Waithood, and Protest Movements in Africa,” International African Institute (Lugard Lecture, 2013), https://www.internationalafricaninstitute.org/downloads/lugard/Lugard%20Lecture%20%202013.pdf; Alcinda Honwana, The Time of Youth: Work, Social Change and Politics in Africa (Sterling: Kumarian Press, 2012)
Informed by scholars of the “New Sociology of Childhood”, this article understands “childhood”, “youth” and “adulthood” as social constructs rather than categories defined by biological age alone. See, for example, Allison James and Alan Prout, Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Study of Childhood, (London: Falmer Press, 1997): 7–32.
Jordache Abner Ellapen, “The Cinematic Township: Cinematic Representations of the ‘Township Space’ and Who Can Claim the Rights to Representation in Post-Apartheid South African Cinema,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 19 no.1 (2007): 113–37.
Adam Haupt, “Hip Hop in the Age of Empire: Cape Flats Style,” in Edgar Pieterse and Frank Meintjies, eds, Voices of the Transition: The Politics, Poetics and Practices of Social Change in South Africa (Cape Town: Heinemann, 2004): 215-225.
However, the filmmakers have explored questions of Whiteness in their preceding documentary film Fokofpolisiekar: Forgive Them for They Know Not what They Do (2009), which focuses on the controversial Afrikaans rock band Fokofpolisiekar.
Michael Carklin, “Images of Childhood in Southern Africa: A Study of Three Films,” Journal of African Cinemas 2 no. 2 (2010): 137–49; Carol Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (London: New York: Routledge, 1995).
Ratan K. Chakraborty, “Liminality in Post-Colonial Theory: A Journey from Arnold van Gennep,” in The “Drum” Decade: Stories from the 1950s, ed. Michael Chapman (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2016); Ellapen, “The Cinematic Township”; Samuelson, “Re-Telling Freedom in Otelo Burning”.
Lindiwe Dovey, “Redeeming Features: From ‘Tsotsi’ (1980) to ‘Tsotsi’ (2006).” Journal of African Cultural Studies 19 no. 2 (2007): 143–64; Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk and Adam Haupt, “Redemption to a Kwaito Beat: Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi,” Journal of the Musical Arts in Africa 4 no. 0 (2008): 29–46.
Graham Lindegger and Justine Maxwell, “Teenage Masculinity: The Double Bind of Conformity to Hegemonic Standards,” in From Boys to Men: Social Constructions of Masculinity in Contemporary Society, ed. Tamara Shefer (Lansdowne, South Africa: UCT Press, 2007): 94–111.
Deborah Posel, “Sex, Death and the Fate of the Nation: Reflections on the Politicization of Sexuality in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 75 no. 2 (2005): 125–53.