A scantily-clad coloured boy, a dreaded Greek surfer dude, and a smartly dressed black man walk into a coffee shop. This isn’t the intro to a joke but rather to my first ever excursion to Khayelitsha, a township located on the Cape Flats.
With a population of almost 400 000, Khayelitsha is the largest and fastest-growing township in South Africa. It’s only 30km from Cape Town’s CBD, but culturally they’re worlds apart.
Very comfortably and ignorantly nestled in my little Cape Town bubble, I’d never set foot there before because what would I, a relatively privileged coloured boy with a nice accent, be doing in a Xhosa-speaking township?
But there I was, walking into Siki’s Kofee Kafe, to meet and chat to George Kirkinis and Siyabonga Mbaba, the organisers of an event and movement called Ghetto Sessions.
George Kirkinis looks at me with a where-do-I-even-begin sort of expression when I ask about his background. He is of Cypriot descent, and from Joburg to rural Kwazulu-Natal, Edinborough to India, he’s a well-travelled guy who’s lived a thousand lives, “I’ve done so much weird shit from studying to lecturing poetry, to becoming a film-maker, to traveling Africa, filming animals, which is essentially my day job.” What he omits is that he also fronts an Afro-funk band called The Steezies and they’re a huge vibe!
Siyabonga Mbaba is of South African descent. He moved from Joburg to Khayelitsha at a very young age – basically a local. His parents moved to the Mother City to pursue careers as professional athletes. Their careers never took off the ground, so they had to find other ways to make ends meet – Siya’s father became a taxi driver and his mother a domestic worker.
He’s lived a hard life but his positive energy is undeniably infectious, “Growing up in the township, I’ve seen a lot of negative things but in order for me to stay focused I got more involved in art. I was doing acting and I was attending classes for contemporary dance, so that’s how I was exposed to theatre and music.” An advocate for community upliftment, Siya used to volunteer at an orphanage, teaching kids to read and write, and mentoring high school kids.
He created Ghetto Sessions in 2017, “I wanted to create a safe space for artists in my community. I believe that artists are the mirrors of society. We can reach people through art and we can say whatever we need to say through art.” It started out a small gathering, eight friends sat in a coffee shop, acoustic guitars and voices. It quickly picked up as more artists expressed interest, eventually becoming a monthly affair.
George met Siya at one of these events at a popular spot called Tembisa Ratanga, having heard about it from a friend. While living in Hout Bay, George tried to create something very similar, so Ghetto Sessions completely resonated with him, “What Siya had created was just a beautiful space in Khayelitsha, entertainment for people from Khayelitsha supplied by musicians and artists from Khayelitsha, in a place that’s got such a stigma against it, that’s been perpetuated by people not understanding [for lack of exposure] or being scared.”
I confess that I am guilty of perpetuating the stigma, oblivious to so much happening outside of my little Mother City bubble.
An impassioned George continues, “We live in a country where we have yourself [pointing at me], yourself [pointing at Siya], and myself, three people with such different histories, backgrounds, cultures and everything, and for me that is the special thing about South Africa.” He believes that our role as young South Africans is to dismantle the history we inherited, brick by brick.
His preferred tool for history dismantlement is his music with The Steezies, a project he admits to have grown much bigger than he thought possible, “When I was given a voice through music, it became important to me to think about how I was going to use it,” George states. “All of this led to this position where I am now – politically motivated, ambitious, proud of being South African, upset with being South African, and trying to reconcile all of these things.”
Ghetto Sessions is about breaking the borders between townships and cities and showing enough interest to expose ourselves to, and learn about each other’s cultures through art. Excitedly Siya adds, “People share poetry and music. They have stories to tell, be it sad, happy, stories about love. George and I, we wanna make sure that we integrate people.”
George drives the point home, “We’ve created multiple successful events and multiple manifestations of this idea of music bringing people together and this sense of community and being something that’s more encompassing, something broader than your strict community that you know in South Africa, or that speaks your language, or that looks like you.”
Everything from venues to sound systems to camera equipment and expertise has been a result of some serious hustling and pulling of favours. “Every favour alive,” jokes George. He grows more serious, “The challenge we’re facing now is to find sponsorship. We’re trying to find ways to make this thing sustainable and we’re trying to find partners who might wanna help us afford it.”
We talk about the kind of money that brands like Afrikaburn can afford to put into their events. Hundreds of thousands of rands are raised annually towards hedonism essentially, and who doesn’t like to have a good time?
But imagine if, instead of literally burning expensive and otherwise useful materials to the ground for fun, the time, energy and expertise of these highly skilled, highly privileged artists, engineers, and creators was put into a project like Ghetto Sessions. It could make a world of a difference in communities where they don’t have the infrastructure to help themselves.
It’s not about guilt-ing into giving but rather about acknowledging privilege and being more open to finding ways to affect positive change with it.
If any brands are interested in sponsorship, or if you or someone you know might be interested in donating time or money or man power, please reach out to Siya at Iphupha.email@example.com, or George at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Siki’s Kofee Kafe will play host to the next edition of Ghetto Sessions. Expect food. Expect drinks. Expect fabulousity and fashion. Expect maximum vibes. Expect a diverse lineup of top quality local music. Cape Town-based bands on the lineup include Androgenius and Jon Shaban. Township-based musicians include Sizakele INdlulamthizm Gegana and Babalwa Zimbini Embo Makwetu.
Khayelitshans can teach us a thing or two about partying and come Saturday, Ghetto Sessions in Khayelitsha is the place to be.