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Friday, May 6, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dance Of Power -- Toyi-Toyi: Dance Speaks Volumes, Has Become Trademark Of African National Congress

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"Johannesburg, South Africa - . . . In a memorable scene broadcast on national television, (Nelson) Mandela danced across the hotel stage with Coretta Scott King... The dance was the `toyi-toyi', a shimmy step that has become an African National Congress trademark. . ."

- Associated Press ------------------------------------------------------------------

The toyi-toyi. Jubilant South Africans are dancing it through the streets.

We thought maybe you readers might like to know how to do it. So we asked around.

Julia Mekwa, a nursing lecturer at the University of Bophuthatswana in Mmabatho who came here in 1990 to get her Ph.D. in nursing, and Vivian Manyike, a lecturer at Shingwendzi College of Education in Northern Transvaal, set us straight.

First, they said, it's pronounced dooey-dooey.

And second, it's not just a lighthearted dance, or something you just `do.'

True, Mekwa describes it as "an irresistible type of dance, it's infectious. It's energizing, intended for that. . . it builds people's spirits, builds the spirit for solidarity and determination."

But, she explained, "It's not so much the dance itself; what's really important is what's being said." Always, says Manyike, there is a political meaning and context to toyi-toyi.

(In fact, says Manyike, from what she saw on TV, Mandela's victory "dance" at the hotel with Coretta Scott King wasn't the toyi-toyi, but just a celebratory dance, though maybe toyi-toyi came later, as people danced in the streets. And toyi-toyi does not "shimmy", the two women said.)

Searching to explain across a cultural gap, Mekwa hit upon an analogy: "It's what I've noticed seems to be the equivalent of rap music: how people convey messages through rap music.

"During the struggle in South Africa, it was a way of telling the apartheid government of our grievances and our determination to win.

"Africans being Africans, music plays a major major role in their lives. Whether in love or war, music is the language."

To do the toyi-toyi, Mekwa says, "you stamp your feet in rhythm with the chants; the most important thing is foot stamping - it must have that. You lift your knees high in time with the music; the higher you can lift your feet, the better, almost up to the chin. And you march - not exactly march, a slow pace of walk. If there is no room in a crowd, you move in place. . . You go down low and the voices get low, and you rise as the voices rise. It depends on what is being said at the time. The noise builds up the emotions and excitement."

"What happens in the toyi toyi. . . they'll be a leader, somebody who chants something, and the others respond. (Toyi-toyi has to be done in a group. It's not what one person can do.)

"For instance, there was one chant: for years, blacks wouldn't dare to get close to the union building in Pretoria, the administrative capitol. We needed to get to Pretoria, to present our grievances. Pretoria was a terror; it was one city in Africa where blacks `knew their place.' So the chant - the leader would take the high tone - was, `we are going to Pretoria, we are going to spoil.' Spoil meant spoiling the myth of Pretoria being a place where a black man had no rights.

"And that motivated people, beforethey wouldn't think of daring this. But it grew in people's minds." (And indeed, when Mandela led a march into Pretoria in 1992, Mekwa's friend, a lawyer who had since left Seattle, telephoned her from South Africa to say, simply: "We made it.")

Too, Manyike says, another advantage of being enveloped in the toyi-toyi was to "hide the bad feelings people are having" and to distract them from fear during marches, because people knew that after most marches, they would be harassed by the police.

Mekwa says the origins of the toyi-toyi go back to the Mau Mau people in Kenya, who rose against the English colonialists; "people used to move in groups, marching from place to place, motivating others to join in the struggle."

It was a tremendously effective technique for persuading the youth, "it's more effective than if I sit down and pump ideas into you."

Despite the news reports, she says, it was not just a trademark of the ANC; it was more widespread than that. The ANC, she noted, was banned until 1990, "and toyi-toyi was since 1976, when the struggle began."

Neither of the women, though they said they have been politically aware, would claim the title of "activist." In South Africa, that means giving one's life, risking one's life; "I have never been behind bars," Mekwa says. Still, she says, she has always been determined, maybe especially because she grew up in Brandfort, in deeply conservative country, the heart of the Orange Free State, the small town Winnie Mandela was banished to for many years, and the home of the architect of apartheid, H.F. Verwoerd. "So that tells you something."

Could she show us a little of the toyi-toyi movement? She gave us a little taste. . .

But Mekwa says, in truth, "I'm sorry that I am out here, and I won't see the last demonstrations, the real toyi toyi."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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