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Reflections on the Gothic in Contemporary South Africa: Spoek Mathambo’s ‘Control’(26 Nov 2014)
By Miss Esthie Hugo

Welcome all! A brief introduction is in order, I think. I’m a Master’s student currently based at the University of Cape Town’s English Department in South Africa. My research explores the relationship between the Gothic and the political in the contemporary South African context. It asks, in short, what connections can be drawn between the recent rise that the country has seen in Gothic cultural production and the political locale out of which these works emerge. Some of the questions I have grappled with in a recent paper at ‘Locating the Gothic’ concerned, for instance, whether Gothic pop-culture can retain any true disruptive potential in South Africa, considering that it is a form of Gothic so thoroughly entangled in the very processes it sets out to critique? In other words, is the Gothic in the popular South African imaginary simply a response to the global consumer market hell-bent on getting its next fix of the gruesome or can the Gothic offer the country a means by which to resist, or at the very least critique, these homogenising, and undoubtedly lucrative global cultural influences? These questions continue to haunt me, so I thought I would explore them some more in this post. 

In The Literature of Terror (1996), David Punter asserts that the Gothic functions as an ‘outcropping of darker forces’ – forces that are held down through the repression of that which dominant narratives find intolerable. These dark forces, following classic Freudian thought, must be rejected in order for governing realities to remain stable. The Gothic, however, registers that which has been excluded in the interest of giving the world its conventional shape. It is a fictional mode that registers the untenable alternatives to what we take to be the natural order of things – alternatives on which, it insists, any conventional reality always rests. The Gothic thus throws into question the stability of dominant world-codings, and therein lies its potentially dissenting function. Following Punter, I want to consider the dissenting potential that the Gothic offers within the contemporary South African context, and I want to do so by making use of one of my favourite South African music videos – a Gothic gem that goes by the name of ‘Control’. Find here:

'Control’ was released in 2011 and is performed by one of South Africa’s most prolific musicians, Spoek Mathambo. (Spoek takes his name from the Afrikaans word for ghost; it is a Gothic play on the social label ‘coconut’ – a derogatory phrase used to describe a black person who acts, supposedly, like a white person). The video is directed and designed by photographers Michael Cleary and Pieter Hugo (no relation of mine). ‘Control’ is essentially a South African cover of Joy Division’s 1979 tune ‘She’s Lost Control’. The Joy Division track, as many will know, was followed in 1988 by a markedly Gothic video: ‘She’s Lost Control’ is replete with a variety of disturbing images; it features, for instance, recurring shots of a woman’s emaciated body, a pair of carnie twins who are sewn together at the flesh, and flashes of human faces contorted in fear and pain. It has been suggested by fans that the song was inspired by lead singer Ian Curtis’ struggle with epilepsy. Mathambo’s ‘Control’ responds to this suggestion by drawing a parallel between the experience of epilepsy in ‘She’s Lost Control’ and the practice of Christian spiritual revival in South Africa. 

In this video, Mathambo is featured as a ghostly evangelist who haunts various desolate South African locations, exerting his Gothic influence on groups of children whose bodies tremble violently after he has touched them. The video begins in an archetypal Gothic setting – a graveyard – with Mathambo kneeling on an open grave. Mathambo, the opening suggests, has risen from the dead carrying a megaphone and wearing a swanky white suit which features an embroidery of a large crucifix framed by pair of peace-doves. The image effectively offers us a Gothic inversion of the typical preacher-man; it portrays Mathambo as a ghost-preacher; a deathly man of God. In this video, Mathambo is, for all intents and purposes, a force of death sweeping across the South African landscape. 

Mathambo targets children who occupy the poorest and most desperate parts of the country – the township. Once there, he begins to gruesomely zombify his child-followers, exercising his dark powers on South Africa’s most vulnerable. He pours white paint over the faces of the children he encounters, driving them to a series of grisly bodily convulsions which cause the liquid to spray graphically forth from their mouths and nostrils. These children are thereafter transformed into Mathambo’s army of the undead: once they have come into contact with him, their eyes turn deathly black and stare unseeingly forward as they sway alongside him, hypnotised by his presence. Mathambo’s zombie-army then moves to inflict violence onto other children – there is an uneasy scene where the gang repeatedly plunges the frightened face of a young boy into a bucket of water; suggesting, in part, an endeavour at a violent exorcism. Finally, the kid-zombies turn on their master when the video concludes – the children brutally beat Mathambo with sticks and leave him for dead on the paint-spattered ground.

In light of this ending, let us return to the questions that frame this post. ‘Control’ clearly draws on an arsenal of disturbing Gothic devices in order to trouble some of the negative effects that evangelism has had on the South African social sphere. The ending, in particular, suggests a rejection of this practice: as the symbolic avatar of the evil-preacher-man, Mathambo is beaten to death by a generation of children who were previously under his control. The children, as representative of the South African future, violently reject Mathambo at the video’s conclusion, and thus also the oppressions that he represents. After all, Mathambo’s character exploits the very people who continue to bear the brunt of South Africa’s history of oppression – he targets those who live in the country’s historically segregated areas. Mathambo enacts, in other words, a markedly South African narration of oppression when he enters into these spaces and creates bodies that are docile to his will. The video offers us an alternative to this narrative, however, when these bodies wake from their zombie-hood at the video’s end – and therein lies ‘Control’s political sting. 

Mathambo’s video effectively critiques the nature of the systems that are used to control – both literally and metaphorically – South Africa’s most vulnerable and desperate. It questions the motives of the systems that enter into these spaces in the name of ‘good-will’, suggesting that these stories may possess a darker, more sinister side. It is this need to ask the darker, harder questions – to trouble the codings that keep South Africa’s social fabric static – that has given rise to Gothic forms of social critique in the country. Gothic, as Punter reminded us, is suited to this purpose like no other genre or mode of fiction-making. By mining the fearful features of the Gothic, ‘Control’ powerfully animates some of the ways that conventional narratives may be used to white-wash other forms of social oppression, which, while not immediately visible, are still violently at work in South Africa today.