ongx mona

Behind the scenes: my ultimate test as a new South African

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Spoek Mathambo, Laura Gamse, and Bernard Myburgh conduct an interview

It was with a heavy heart that I entered Pickwicks bar late one night on Cape Town’s bustling Long Street. I had spent seven long months scouring South Africa for musicians, searching for the future subjects of my documentary. Yet night after night, open mic after open mic, I was unable to find the perfect fit. Meanwhile, I received a proper “welcome” to South Africa’s dark underside; I had been robbed twice, received a death threat, narrowly missed getting hit by bb gun bullets and had the wheel from my rental car stolen while it was parked outside of a new friend’s home. I was in Cape Town on a Fulbright scholarship, working in the same township where previous Fulbright student Amy Biehl had been killed by a mob in 1994. Murder rates in the western cape had since increased.  As I found the last seat at yet another open mic, I resigned myself to a night of sober, solo listening.

I’m not sure what it was about me that caught Nahum’s eye. From my frazzled appearance to begrudging-the-world posture, I can’t say I was the most approachable person in the room. All I know is that a bright-eyed, emaciated-looking South African walked straight up to me and said, “Hello. What is your name?” Without any seats left in the house, I tried to make room for him on the bench next to me. As he squirmed easily into the narrow space, he wasted no time in informing me that he was looking for a job and a place to live. I mentally winced as I remembered the last homeless guy that I tried to help. That situation had led to the above-mentioned death threat: a drunken tirade promising to “bring violence” on my “American home.”

Yet as I sat with Nahum throughout the remainder of the night, I listened to his story. He was an MC from the Eastern Cape who had recently moved to Cape Town to earn some money for his fiance and the baby they were expecting in another four months. Unable to find work in the township he grew up in, Nahum moved to Cape Town (where South Africa’s rich and fashionable come to parade and sunbathe and, inadvertently, create jobs). But like so many other young people in a country with roughly 40% unemployed citizens, Nahum had no luck in his search. I was surprised when I asked Nahum what type of work he would like to do, and he responded, “Producing film and music. I am a producer and a creator.”  Resolved to ignore the nagging voice in my head that told me Nahum could be another thief or worse, I told him the truth. “I’m making a documentary on South African music.” Then, before I could stop myself, “What are you doing tomorrow?”

The next day Nahum was helping me navigate the Cape Flats — one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods — to pick up a musician for a shoot. We had met at the same cafe, Nahum holding a copy of his passport which I had asked him to bring “for insurance purposes.” The truth was that I wanted his ID in case he stole my camera. He silently complied, not asking any questions.

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Nahum at work

When we got to the musician’s gig, I taught Nahum how to zoom and focus my Sony EX3 – a camera that I had flown back to the U.S. to purchase (which was more affordable than simply buying it in South Africa).  It was also the biggest investment I had made in my life. A few weeks earlier, I had been filming in the middle of the day inside a band’s studio when a man broke down the door (not so hard to do since the studio was a shack made of corrugated metal). He charged me with bloodshot eyes, reaching for the camera as the band held him back.  He didn’t get the camera, but I got one hell of a shot.  It didn’t make it into the documentary, for reasons that will soon become clear.

Having had the camera nearly stolen a few weeks earlier, I watched Nahum like a hawk.   I was soon impressed with his slow and gentle approach.  It wasn’t long before Nahum was accompanying me to all of my shoots.  When gangsters would stroll by with their eyes on the camera, he would stand between us and tell me what they had been hissing (“Get it from the white girl!”).

Nahum won my trust when we packed up a shoot in a particularly dangerous area of the Flats. He told me that his friend lived nearby, and offered to take me there for dinner. Cautiously, I said yes; he proceeded to direct me deeper and deeper into the Flats. We parked on an avenue I had never been to before, and I locked my car about nine times before walking to the door of a small house. Nahum knocked as I surveyed the area, mentally registering the fastest escape route.

The door opened, and I was ushered into a loudest, brightest, friendliest room you can imagine. Children ran in and out as women worked in every corner of the small kitchen with babies strapped to their backs. Nahum quickly made off with the men and I was given the task of chopping meat. I shyly offered to chop vegetables instead; “I’m a vegetarian, so I don’t—”

“VEGETARIAN!” the host cut me off, not needing an explanation. “Like Nahum!”

“Really? Nahum?” I asked, wondering why I didn’t know this already.

“Yebo, Nahum is a vegan!” the women informed me, pushing me towards a cutting board with vegetables piled on top.

That evening, I dined with the friendliest people I had met in South Africa. The children climbed all over me, the teenagers asked what celebrities I had met, and the adults told me about African Hebrews — the group some had joined as teenagers that influenced their decisions to become vegans. Nahum explained that the group had prepared him and his friends to adopt healthy and independent lifestyles, unlike many who ate the fried meat and dough ubiquitous in the townships. Eventually he left the group, preferring, as he put it, “the messiah within.” He had remained a vegan ever since.

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Ongama (Ongx) Mona on guitar, filmed by Bernard Myburgh and Laura Gamse

It’s one thing to be a vegan in the middle of Portland.  Another thing completely in the middle of a barren township in South Africa.  Impressed by the first homeless vegan I had ever met, I began to chat more with Nahum on our daily drives to and from the townships. He told me that life without a home was exhausting, and that he would be alright if he simply had a place — any place — to lay his head down at night.

I asked my English South African housemate whether Nahum could surf our couch for a week or so. His immediate response: “No.” It didn’t surprise me. Though many young white South Africans I met recoiled at the word “racist,” they also recoiled at any suggestion of interracial living. Gumtree, South Africa’s version of Craigslist, was littered with apartments posted for “whites only please.”  “No disrespect.”  Many people had suffered multiple robberies or car-jackings and used these incidents as evidence against any real-life manifestation of South Africa’s famed “Rainbow Nation.” Though no one would say it out loud, it was clear that some white South Africans felt that black people had their place: in the townships.

Nahum did not want his first born to grow up in a township. For one, the murder rate is devastating. Even after apartheid ended in 1994, the number of murders in South Africa exceeded the number of American soldiers’ deaths in Vietnam – by four times. The rate of violence against women is among the highest in the world. And the schools are falling apart, attended infrequently and often taught by untrained and undereducated teachers.

Nahum wanted more, and I could not blame him. He had been through more than those of us who live in the world’s wealthier nations could imagine. So when my housemate left on a month-long business trip, I took a chance. Against my housemate’s wishes, I invited Nahum to come stay in the empty bedroom. Nahum accepted, but would not sleep in the bedroom of someone who did not want him there. “Bad vibes,” he said. He slept on the couch.

By this point, I knew Nahum well enough to be sure he wouldn’t pillage the place. What I couldn’t have expected was the supreme peace that he brought into our home. He taught me how to bake delicious vegan pizza. I helped him write a cover letter for his college application. He laughed when my wet clothes were stolen from the community washing machine and taught me how to wash clothes “the African way” — in the bathtub.

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“Become the owner of the land we occupy!!”

Living with Nahum prepared me for my ultimate test as a new South African. One day I returned home to find that the external hard drive containing my documentary footage was missing. Days, weeks, months, hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars worth of footage, gone.  Six months earlier I might have broken down and asked Nahum to leave. As it was, I muffled my gut reaction. I asked Nahum if he had seen the drive. He said no. I asked the friends who had been in my room. They all said no. I locked my remaining hard drive in my closet (I had backed up half of the footage, but only half) and went out again with Nahum the next day to start shooting all over again.

I continued to live and shoot with Nahum for about two weeks before I found out what had happened. I had racked my brain over whether to trust Nahum, and racked Nahum’s brain over whether we could trust our maid — a woman who my former housemate had hired to clean the house once a week. Nahum refused to overthink it.  He didn’t pass judgement or expend breath defending himself. He just said that he didn’t know. He didn’t show any shock or indignation over the loss.  He wasn’t unsympathetic, but his silence reflected a reality I might have otherwise overlooked. The loss of a hard drive full of documentary footage is nothing compared to real loss; the type of loss that is a fact of everyday existence for South Africans who have lost their homes, families, communities and traditions.

The next week my housemate’s maid did not come to work, but the following week she showed up. Nahum and I were out on a shoot when I received a text message from her. “I found R900 under the speaker,” she wrote. “I will place it on your desk.”

“Thank you” I wrote back. I didn’t need to ask any questions. I had not left any money under the speaker, and neither had Nahum. She certainly hadn’t placed the money there as a gift — it was more than the amount my housemate paid her each month. The R900 amounted to slightly over $100 – about the amount one might receive for a used hard drive sold on the street.

She continued to stop by each week, and I told her that it didn’t feel right for her, a young mother, to clean up after me. She said that she needed the money, and we agreed that she would stop by each week and have lunch with me instead. She continued to clean the house afterwards — she said she didn’t want to accept money for nothing — but the dynamic of our relationship changed. I learned that she was a religious woman and that her son had recently been so sick she had to take him on an expensive trip to the hospital.  Luckily, she “found” the money and he lived through the incident.  She continued to express interest in whether I was able to re-shoot the scenes I needed for my documentary.

I’ll never know what exactly happened to that hard drive, but now it is the least of my concerns. I could make the choice to mistrust my fellow people, like so many have done during apartheid and afterwards, or I could invest my trust in a new future for all.

No one could have made this more clear to me than Nahum, the producer of The Creators.  After we finished the documentary, he moved into a new home with his fiancé and their four-month-old daughter. No longer homeless or jobless, he is working professionally as a producer in the South African film industry. His daughter will grow up in a new world, with the best of guides.



Die Antwoord raps:


…Or 2012.  South Africa’s latest census, released October 30 2012, has a few points to make on the racism question:

To avoid playing the blame game, we’ll throw in here that according to the 2010 US Census, white families in the US make 168% what black American families make on average (and according to a recent Brandeis study, white families in the US hold an average of $95k more total wealth than black families — a gap that has more than quadrupled in the last 23 years).

While statistics like these can be daunting, we need not throw our hands up in despair.  Complicated policy arguments can distract us from a basic solution that the majority in every country favors, but neither South Africa nor the United States invests enough money, political pull or airtime in: education.  Anyone who doubts that basic education is dysfunctional South Africa need only pick up a copy of Catherine Besteman’s Transforming Cape Town:

“Of fifteen secondary schools in Khayelitsha in the year 2001, only forty-three learners from a matric group of nine thousand attempted maths as a requirement for university entrance.  Forty-three out of nine thousand. Only six people in the whole of the Western Cape — I’m talking about African language speakers — managed to get above 60 percent for maths and science.”

– John Gilmour

But enough statistics.  Here are some options for action.

For South Africans:

– Get involved with Heal the Hood (founded by The Creators‘ Emile Jansen)

– Help build The Khayelitsha Music Academy (founded by The Creators‘ Ongx Mona – more from him below)

– Volunteer with Khayelitsha’s own Baphumelele orphanage 

-Donate your bike.  The Abahlali Bikes Initiative repurposes old bicycles as pedicabs (providing much-needed jobs in the townships) and donates the rest to Baphumelele.

For those not living in South Africa:

Connect directly with any of the artists in The Creators to get involved with their current projects:

  • Emile Jansen (Emile YX?) is the founder and director of Heal the Hood.  They have programs based in the Western Cape that operate in townships throughout South Africa around the world.
  • Ongx Mona (lead singer of Warongx) founded the Khayelitsha Music Academy.  The school was recently robbed and is in the process of relocating to a safer area now.  No better time to get involved.
  • Black Pearl just released her full length album, Against All Odds, and works based in the Cape Flats as well.
  • Faith47 just opened her first solo exhibit, Fragments of a burnt history, at the David Krut Gallery in Joburg
  • Mthetho Mapoyi is studying opera at the Black Tie Ensemble in Pretoria.
  • Sweat.X continues to tear it up aurally on Bandcamp

-Donate to one of the charities recommended by The Life You Can Save.  Measure the direct impact of your donation using their Impact Calculator, developed by producer/director of The Creators Laura Gamse.

-Help build libraries in South African schools

For the faint-hearted (or shallow-pocketed):

-Donate your bike.  The Abahlali Bikes Initiative repurposes old bicycles as pedicabs and donates the rest to Khayelitsha orphanages.

– Give The Creators DVD as a gift.  75% of net proceeds go to the artists featured in the documentary and the South African crew who made the film a reality.

– Check out what the one and only Vusi Mahasela (whose music was removed from the international release of The Creators, despite the artist’s own wishes, by Sony Music earlier this year) has to say about education in South Africa.

For everyone else, here’s a deleted scene from The Creators, featuring our favorite man Ongama “Ongx” Mona:

P.S.  One last word on Die Antwoord.  Their lyrics now fit in well with the global top 40, but hopefully their master plan involves infiltrating mainstream media in order to bring billions of rands back home and start schools all over South Africa.  Let’s hope.  In the meantime, check out Waddy Jones’ much more lyrically substantial, aurally stimulating and less financially successful former project, The Constructus Corporation (which he made along with Marcus Wormstorm of Sweat.X long before The Creators was a glint in our eye).  Read the lyrics below if there’s any mystery why they’re not big on Gaga.


I don’t know if you noticed, but your planet is uh, sorta like, pretty fucked up.
Now the severely chaotic vibration caused by the slaughter of innocent sentient beings has led to this current situation.
Now unless you’ve been blessed with the ability to manipulate your destiny, stick your head back in this hole.
Part of me is like, “Pardon me, sorry to disturb your little comfort zone,”
and the rest of me is like “WAKE THE FUCK UP FOR GOODNESS SAKES!”
Don’t let you children pay for your mistakes.
The human race cannot evolve so long as they consume flesh.
Question: does your world resemble heaven or hell?
The demon people have got you trapped in their voodoo spell
We weren’t designed to exist like this
It was created in the image of an almighty compassionate entity
So it looks like we’re gonna have to rearrange things a little
So we can experience this shit like it was meant to be.


How come I can’t fly or breath under water like I can in my dreams?
Or like, communicate with animals like Adam and Eve?
These and many other exciting questions will be answered
When the power hungry uglies controlling this realm get blasted
By their own reflection
Calm minds provide protection
Neglection of your health is the best way to get swayed
Manipulated by blood spells
You eat food containing fear that’s why you’re scared
And I’m prepared for the transition from Pieces to Aquarius

I’m on a mission, steady
Hitting pressure points with pinpoint precision
‘Til they take the carrots of their fuckin’ ears and listen


I don’t really think anyone’s that different from me
We rock individually and connect invisibly
The Thunder cats on the track never skipping a beat
Fresh like an early morning skinny-dip in the sea.

“Do you hear that humming?
What are these strange tracks in the sand?
There’s something coming! Come on man, let’s get back in the van!”
Said Jim to his good friend Dr. Spock but when Spock disappeared Jim was like “What the fuck!”
He freaked out — whipped out his face and started looking around.
Little did he know that Spock was safe with us under the ground,
“Relax doctor this won’t hurt, please don’t panic!”
The beat started banging, and we began the reprogramming.
I told him not be nervous, we’d fucked with his head on purpose and sent him back to the surface with Jim
“*bah* Spock my heart!”
“Sorry captain.”
“Aw it’s fine man, what happened?”


“Sir, um why do have those two carrots stuck in your ears?”
“Uhhh, I’m sorry I can’t hear you, I’ve got these two carrots stuck in my ears…”


Thanks to generous donations from The Creators audiences, the Khayelitsha Music Academy is here.

It all started with Ongx Mona and Wara Zintwana:

Warongx from invisible sessions on Vimeo.

Ongx is one of less than 5% of Khayelitsha residents that graduated from high school.  He knows that roughly half of this year’s graduating high school class in Khayelitsha will fail their final exams ( and that those who do pass will have an uphill battle fighting to pay for university fees.  In Khayelitsha, unemployment estimates range from 40% to 70% (as opposed to 3% of white South Africans who report unemployment).  Ongx has petitioned the Western Cape government to help to start a school in Khayelitsha, but his plea fell on deaf ears. So this week, together with his bandmate Wara Zintwana, Ongx is taking matters into his own hands.

With $548 donated by (two) generous Creators audience members, Ongx and Wara bought a school.  It is small and empty at the moment, but they are turning it into the first and most prestigious music academy in the South Africa’s largest township.  And they’re doing it by hand.

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The Creators Trailer

The Creators trailer, featuring Emile YX?, Blaq Pearl, Warongx, Faith47, Sweat.X and Mthetho Mapoyi.