Music’s important role in creating social cohesion in South Africa


I have been fortunate enough to travel recently. I say fortunate because I have made a conscious decision to understand and observe how different cultures have structured their societies and how they define their interactions. I made this decision in order to draw parallels with the society from which I come from. This experience has allowed me to take a step back and critically analyze South Africa and the structure with which we live in. That is, ours is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. That said it’s extremely hard to ignore the fact that South Africa is an overwhelmingly complex society. Our country is plagued by excessive racial discrimination and structural inequality. A result of which is a divergence amongst our populace as to what is the best way to overcome the aforementioned challenges. One just needs to contrast discussions across the racial divide to understand the alternative views and unequal realities that people live through everyday.

Given this, I kept thinking back to some of the underlying drivers behind these alternative realities. Moreover, I began thinking about how we can find a middle ground to start re-engaging in robust dialogue around how to take our society forward. My conclusion is that there is a vast disparity that cannot be overcome without increased interaction and integration across the various cultural and racial divides. This is where I believe that language and more importantly music could and should play an increasing role in unifying our nation. In this article I aim to elaborate on how I have used music as a means of appropriating different cultures and as a platform to learn various South African languages. Don’t get me wrong; this is by no means a panacea to the problems we face regarding integration, inequality and racism. However, it is a starting point towards moving in the right direction. The right direction being a populace that begins to understand one another by speaking the same language. Moreover, a populace that better understands the cultural subtleties that underlines the way in which they interact with each other. The end goal should always be to use music and language as a platform to ensure robust dialogue around the underlying disparate conditions that plague our people.

The structure of this article as follows, initially, I will outline and synthesize experiences and prominent individuals’ views that have propelled my thinking. Thereafter I will provide a playlist of eclectic South African music that I constantly listen to and have begun to appreciate. I hope that this article will inspire other young South Africans to start listening to music across all 11 official South African languages. Moreover, I hope that by listening to the music, you begin to appreciate the culture. This appreciation will provide you with the platform to begin learning the language in a more structured way. Moreover, it will allow you to break outside of out historically racially charged, socially constructed boxes.


Music as a platform for increased social and cultural intelligence

Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” In essence, our legendary leader was underpinning the importance of language and its ability for us to connect with one another. This is where I believe music has an increasingly important role to play. That is, leveraging off the advice of Kwesta – a famous South African rapper- it is important to listen to and appreciate music from other cultures. Kwesta’s logic was that this appreciation breads an intrigue that transcends racial boundaries. In essence, he argues, it will bring us to a point where we start asking questions like what do the words mean, why is the artist saying this and what is the underlying social construct with which this song can be framed. An artist creates music in vernacular in order to speak directly to their people, to inspire them, to make them feel good. Ultimately, listening to and appreciating music in various South African languages will allow us to develop a higher level of social and cultural intelligence that is of utmost importance in our society. It will also allow us to frame our conversations with people in a different way. But, how do we apply this logic?


Applying these ideas

In the Phillipines for example, I used this framework to engage with local from the rural areas where we were working. Their English was patchy at best. Moreover, my Tagalog was limited to saying “hello”, “thank you” and “you are beautiful”. However, one evening, sitting outside, beers in hand, I was able to connect with these people without a firm grasp of their language. The medium that we used initially was music. It is from their music that I learnt about the impact of the typhoons on their livelihoods and the importance that Phillipinos place on a sense of community. Beyond that, I started dancing along different beats and falsettos that I have never heard before. Needless to say, the night ended with me teaching them “Sika makhekhe” with “’Ngud” blasting in the background. This experience had a profound impact on me because I began to structure and understand the locals in a different way. Moreover, it allowed me to increase my Tagalog repertoire to twenty words in one evening. This is exponential improvement in a very short period of time. I have further made friends and experiences that I will never forget.

Another example was when I was at my apartment with a good friend of mine, Ntsizwa Zwane. After exhausting my Drake playlist, he asked me whether or not he could play me some on his music.  I duly obliged. The first song that Ntsizwa played was Buyele’khaya by Nathi. Needless to say, initially, I understood about twenty percent of the song. That said, Ntsizwa was patient enough to translate the words to me and explain the cultural implications of the song. He went on to explain the underlying conditions plaguing many black South Africans in the townships. To elaborate on this I will two pertinent parts of the the song:

” Kalok’ utata uye wasishiya nomama. Uthi uzobhuya, usayophangela imali”

(In english this means, “Our dad left us with the mother. He promised us he will be back because he was going to work for money”)

“Syambulel’ mama, ngokusikhulisa kwakhe. Kungekho mali, umama ebexolel’ ungatyi”

(In english this means, “We thank our mother for raising us. Even though we had no money, she sacrificed her meals for us.”)

In essence, he was describing the situation of being brought up in a single parent household. Moreover, the struggles of the need for individuals to leave the rural areas in order to get employment and the impact that this has on their families. His explanation opened my eyes to an alternative reality that was I was never confronted with. Thereafter, I began listening to the song over and over again and started talking to my other friends about their experiences. This got me to critically engage the constructs of our society through a different lens that I would never have appreciated before. Moreover, I began to appreciate the power of language, music and dialogue as a means of integration.


To synthesize the aforementioned examples in a purely South African context, learning both Afrikaans and isiZulu has been invaluable in my ability to connect with my fellow South Africans as a friend and a young leader. Moreover, I am currently learning Setswana with the help of my patient roommate Katleho who has had to endure and translate Ska Bhora Moreki and Cassper Nyovests Refiloe for me. This process has allowed me to appreciate music’s increasingly important role in fostering our social and cultural intelligence. I believe that this higher level of intelligence should be used as a tool for increased integration and social cohesion amongst South Africans. I’m steadfast in my view that music should be used as a means for learning different pronunciations; colloquial terms and even to understand the way our various sub-cultures think.

In conclusion, I now fully comprehend what Nelson Mandela meant when he said that the easiest way to understand someone and connect with people is to talk to them in their own language. My fellow South Africans, let’s exert more effort to learn each other’s languages and cultures without fear or prejudice. I refuse to let out checkered past, dictate our future. That said I am also realistic in saying that this requires many more of us to start learning the languages of the majority of our population. It is extremely short sighted and misguided to believe that we can achieve the rainbow nation ideal without taking the time to understand one another. We must start by harnessing our strength that is our diversity.   In order to do this, I challenge you start listening to the following eclectic playlist:

  1. Kwesta- Ngiyaz’fela ngawe (my favorite at the moment)
  2. Sphectacula and DJ Naves- KOTW anthem
  3. Kurt Darren- Kaalvoet sokkie
  4. Theuns Jordaan- Soos bloed
  5. Cassper Nyovest- Bheki’Ndaba Zakho
  6. King Monada- Ska Bhora Moreki
  7. Gerhard Steyn- Afrikaanse meisies
  8. Emtee- About me
  9. Mi Casa- Bora viver
  10. Nathi- Noba ngumama

Young South African, I challenge you to use music as a means to learn Afrikaans, isiZulu, Setswana and Vhenda. What are you waiting for, start today!

About the Author

Carlos Baeta
Proudly South African. Masters student at Fordham University in New York. Entrepreneur, young leader, coffee addict and an avid Liverpool fan. Let's change the world.

2 Comments on "Music’s important role in creating social cohesion in South Africa"

  1. I agree with learning different languages but it is also a skill that not everyone has. I believe adapting and changing our views on different cultures and respecting one another is a good start. That I believe is a big obstacle in our country not respecting one another. It all starts at home and should be the first step from a young age respect a fellow human no matter what culture colour or creed.

    • Language is the powerful tool( and music is the perfect vehicle at our disposal). respect in my opinion, can’t be the biggest obstacle, lack of interest is the biggest obstacle. on respect, through different cultures and mannerism respect is interpreted differently, for an example. for black people when addressing an elderly person looking them in their eyes while they are speaking to is sign of disrespect. whereas with my white friends the opposite is true, if you don’t look at me while i speak to you is sign of disrespect and not paying attention. therefore you can only show the deserved level of respect by taking interest on other cultures, gender, sexual preference,race and creed. interest.

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