The first decade after apartheid in South Africa was a decade of possibility. Like all epochs, it had a soundtrack, and for me the pianist Moses Molelekwa was the defining figure. Born in 1973 in Tembisa (to the east of Johannesburg), Molelekwa was trained by his father and grandfather. At fifteen, he was already touring with Hugh Masekela. By the end of the 1980s he had founded two bands. In 1994, the year black South Africans voted for the first time, Molelekwa released his first album, Finding Oneself. He was eventually compared to Abdullah Ibrahim, whom Nelson Mandela once called ‘our Mozart’. Molelekwa’s music seemed to capture the mood of the time, combining jazz, electronic music, kwaito and hip-hop in an exuberant mix. In 1996, when I returned from my first trip to the US, freshly equipped with a master’s degree and beginning work with a democracy think tank, that sound seemed to me like a harbinger of hope.
So it was a jarring shock when, in early February 2001, the news broke that Molelekwa and his wife and manager, Florence Mtoba, had died in an apparent murder-suicide: she had been strangled and he was found hanging from a beam. It was hard not to see their deaths as a metaphor for the reversals we were facing as a country. Drunk on freedom, we had failed to anticipate the devastating impacts that neoliberalism and Aids would have.
Members of a younger generation, the so-called ‘Born Frees’, may be feeling something similar now. On 10 February, the rapper AKA (Kiernan Forbes) was murdered in downtown Durban, along with his friend and manager, Tebello ‘Tibz’ Motsoane. They were on their way to perform in a nightclub when two assailants ran up to them and shot them at close range. AKA had turned 35 a couple of weeks earlier and had been South Africa’s top rap artist for at least a decade. He was celebrated at home (winning multiple South African music awards), toured several other African countries and was nominated for an MTV Europe award as well as a BET award in US, though in a separate category for African artists.
Yet his songs never travelled far beyond South Africa, although his collaborations boosted the careers of several global stars. Unlike many of his South African peers, he collaborated with Nigerian rappers such as Burna Boy, whose star eventually outshone his. Later, AKA, fiercely patriotic, felt disrespected by Burna Boy, when he called out South Africans, correctly, for their xenophobia.
AKA fronted the commercial turn in South African hip-hop, which had previously been associated with what Americans call ‘backpack rap’, ciphers and over-serious young people. Its most successful exponents were from Cape Town. The goal of most local rappers, with a few exceptions (Prophets of da City and Skwatta Camp among them), was to see how closely they could imitate their American counterparts. In time, though, the music charts became dominated by AKA, who rapped in South African English, Cassper Nyovest and HHP, who rapped in Tswana, and Riky Rick, who rapped in Zulu. Riky Rick took his own life a year ago.
Sampling South African classics, they rapped mostly about the good life, having lots of money, cars, houses, parties and enjoying the company of beautiful women. Their music reflected the desires and preoccupations of young middle-class black people, the beneficiaries of the new South Africa, though theirs was less a rainbow nation than a self-confident black country. On one occasion, guesting on a remix by Duncan, AKA referred to himself as ‘the coloured Will Smith’.
Online he developed an abrasive tone, beefing with the media, fans and other rappers. Cassper was his main foil in a battle about who could sell out events in local venues. But it felt like he was trolling the rest of us. One of his most popular tracks was ‘Fela in Versace’ (it includes a line about ‘Mandela in a ’Rari’ i.e. Ferrari). The title is ironic but AKA certainly had Fela Kuti’s showmanship, along with his flair for publicity and occasional pig-headedness.
AKA spoke to – and for – a generation of post-apartheid, middle-class black South Africans who had only known freedom: not only its limitations, excesses and crises, but what it meant to invent themselves and cultivate their aspirations on their own terms. His politics were complicated. He was a paid-up member of the ANC, which has governed since 1994; weakened and riven by factionalism, it presides over a corrupt, inefficient system and a country largely untransformed from the vantage point of poor black South Africans. Overall unemployment stands at 33 per cent, while nearly 60 per cent of under-25s are jobless. Yet AKA continued to campaign for the ruling party in elections. At the height of Covid-19, as the ANC faced criticism over its strict lockdown policies and long after Jacob Zuma had been removed from power over allegations of corruption, AKA tweeted: ‘I’m sure y’all miss Jacob Zuma now don’t you … ungrateful bastards.’
But he was also one of the most vocal supporters of the student-run Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements, which between 2015 and 2017 shook elite politics in South Africa. The students denounced Mandela and the ANC for having failed to take on white supremacy in the country’s institutions and for tolerating the patriarchy of African nationalism, epitomised by Zuma. They also called for the end of privatisation and for free university education. AKA donated money to both movements, offered to play benefit concerts, turned up at their protests and attended their rallies.
AKA was born in Cape Town – hardly a nurturing environment for black aspiration – but his family moved to Johannesburg when he was very young. He went to St John’s College, a private Anglican boys’ school in Johannesburg, one of the preferred finishing schools for South Africa’s new elites. He managed, all the while, to hang on to his mixed Cape Town roots: in ‘Touch My Blood’ he raps about being ‘vannie Kaap’ (from the Cape) and he later collaborated with a Cape Town rapper, YoungstaCPT, wearing the kit of Cape Town’s professional rugby team when they shot the video for ‘Main Ou’s’ in one of the city’s most violent townships, Hanover Park. At the same time he achieved a broader, explicitly black, South African identity.
Part of that identity, sadly, is being at risk of intentional homicide. AKA’s death is further evidence of the gun violence plaguing South Africa, which has one of the world’s highest murder rates. Durban and the rest of KwaZulu Natal enjoy an unenviable reputation for political assassination and murder-for-hire, along with the country’s second highest provincial murder rate.
After AKA and Tibz’s deaths, a government minister went on TV to argue that it was a ‘hit’. In 2021 Anele Tembe, AKA’s girlfriend, had fallen to her death from a balcony at a Cape Town hotel. AKA was in the room at the time. The suggestion now was that AKA’s death was a revenge killing for Tembe’s, even though the National Prosecuting Authority conducted a lengthy investigation into the hotel incident and decided against criminal proceedings.
‘It is now so easy to die in South Africa,’ a young colleague said to me after AKA’s murder. YoungstaCPT, remembering their trip to Hanover Park, told a Cape Town newspaper: ‘I lost so many people that are in that music video due to gang violence but never thought I would lose Kiernan in that way. It really hurts.’