There is a lot that South Africans can be proud of. South Africans are revered internationally for their ability to turn lemons into lemonade and to be innovative in the face of adversity.
One such innovation that South Africans can be proud of is gumboot dance. Today, it is common to find people orderly grouped, wearing mining gear, stepping creatively, clapping hands and banging their chests to create polyrhythmic sounds performing isicathulo or gumboot dance as it is otherwise known, in front of South Africans and tourists alike.
Rooted in the country’s early commercial mining ages at the end of the 19th century, the dance was not always meant to entertain. In fact, it was not even regarded as a dance at first, but was utilised as a communicative tool by black mine workers prohibited from engaging in talking, singing or any oral activity at the mines by the mine bosses of the time, the architects of South Africa’s monopoly capitalism.
The gumboot dance must not be misunderstood as specifically linked to a particular ethnic group. The country’s early spatial arrangements meant that economic activity could only successfully take place through the utilisation of migrant labour. It is, therefore, not difficult to understand why mine workers during those days were migrant labourers and why this is, to a large extent, still the case today.
Gumboot dance was hence formed by men from different ethnic groups with different language backgrounds, possessing wide-ranging customs and who possibly even engaged in different cultural activities. It would thus be fair to characterise the gumboot dance as a hybrid contemporary art form that represents an epoch which gave birth to South Africa’s contemporary township culture.
Ilfracombe (the township where the above young people are from), or Durban for that matter, has no mines or mining history but gumboot dance has managed to qualify itself as part of life in Ilfracombe, just like it has done in Khayelitsha, KwaMashu, Ga-Rankuwa, Turfloop and other townships. In its spreading, gumboot dance has infiltrated many urban towns and cities in the country.
Some people are worried that authentic aspects of South African culture are lost in the advent and perpetuation of globalisation. Also, over the decades, activism in the labour sector has resulted in miners’ rights being recognised. As a result, many of today’s mineworkers have never had to use non-oral forms to communicate with other miners.
However, this does not mean the death of gumboot dance. The current social setting in the country, including the manner in which the youth has embraced gumboot dance, provides reason for optimism that gumboot dance will continue to be part of South African performance culture.