This Song Gives Voice to Our History
By Nomboniso Gasa
Apr 30 2011
Nomboniso Gasa is a South African researcher and
analyst on gender, politics and cultural issues.
The village I come from had limited access to medium
wave. Every day, from 6pm, I started fiddling with the
radio, going up to the shed at home, positioning the
aerial. When the time came, I would be ready.
The rhythmic march of soldiers accompanied by shouts of
Amandla! Ngawethu! (Power! To Us!). The sounds of
AK-47s and the singing of Hamba Kahle Mkhonto... would
confirm that I had indeed found the station. The formal
opening, "This is Radio Freedom, the voice of the
African National Congress... born of the people into
the front line..." would start the day's programme.
After a brief introduction, the standard update on
world news, the global political situation, the growth
of the anti-apartheid movement, the struggle in South
Africa and Namibia, women's struggles and similar
issues, ANC president Oliver Reginald Tambo would
address the nation in exile, diaspora and inside the
That is, all of us, those hiding in the street corners
of our townships, the barren villages in the back and
beyond of South Africa, and include us all in this
movement with which we wanted to establish a
Almost 30 years later I connect with those feelings
evoked by those solitary and furtive years of listening
to this radio station. For me, this was an important
rite of passage. Like many others, political or
otherwise, these experiences continue to shape the
person who continues to evolve, the woman I am today
and will be tomorrow.
The banned radio station fed my soul's yearning for a
different voice on the predicament of being a young
black South African trapped in what were constructed as
reserves for cheap labour.
Every day I had an hour when I learnt not only about
being oppressed but, most importantly, the possibility
of being a free human being.
The case which has been brought by AfriForum and the
Transvaal Agricultural Union against Julius Malema
concerning the song Dubul' iBhunu (Shoot the Boer) has
taken me back so many decades. I am sure I am not alone
in this. Many of us have stories that we have
consciously or unconsciously buried within us but we
nevertheless carry them in every fibre of our being and
they mark us in fundamental ways.
We are not prisoners of our history but beneficiaries
of past generations that imagined and yearned for
freedom. Like those who came before us we also cut our
teeth in the streets of South Africa and dived into the
unfamiliar waters of trying to change a society. But,
first, we had to know that and to name it as such.
As James Baldwin wrote so many decades ago, when the
oppressed begin to articulate their oppression, they
have taken the first step towards their own liberation.
Radio Freedom gave me this immense gift: the
opportunity to listen, digest and articulate the
character of the South African socio-political
Regrettably, over time, much of the narrative of
political song has become disembodied and truncated.
Many of us cannot identify with the use and abuse of
these songs and slogans today.
Today, a song originating from black youth expressing
pain and resolve to go away, appealing to their mothers
to let them go, be trained and bring bazookas to free
their land and people, has been reduced to a single
line, Dubul' iBhunu (Shoot the Boer).
This line may be the most controversial and newsworthy
but this distorts the song, its meaning, context and
content. The focus on one line has undermined its
essence. The resolve, the cry and the plea of the black
youth to his mother, we mama ndiyeke (oh mama let me
go) has been totally erased in the public discourse. We
do not see their words, we do not hear their voices nor
do we experience their pain.
Frankly, there is nothing new here. History is often
recorded from the voice of the powerful and the
hegemonic paradigm. Those who are on the margins and
the subaltern do not form part of this. But the ANC
could have tried to bring their voices into court and
centred their experience in the proceedings so no
matter how uncomfortable many may feel, we are forced
to see and connect with their experiences. We must ask
how the song of youth willing to leave everything they
know to go to foreign, unknown countries becomes a song
about killing alone. How did we get to this point where
the pain of the black youth and their willingness to
sacrifice their lives becomes a song about the fear of
white people, especially Afrikaners?
Is this shift in focus and simultaneous erasure of
As for Dubul' ibhunu, this is part of a chorus and a
refrain in the song. One does not require musicologists
to explain that this is not necessarily the central
part of the song, even more so in many African musical
Of course, these issues were not raised in court.
Important as the Equality Court is in this case, it can
only work within the mandate of that institution.
Long after the judgment has been made, these questions
of voice and history in the present will remain with
However, we cannot expect to address questions of our
complex historical heritage in this polarised manner.
Our past lives in the present, no matter how hard we
try to deny this. Similarly, the parts of our past with
which we are no longer comfortable cannot be easily
sanitised, nor can we easily throw them away because
they are no longer convenient. History is an untidy,
inconsistent companion. It is with us all the time, but
with all its complexity, meanings by no means settled.
Songs, buildings, poems, symbols are as much part of
who we are as a people as our individual DNA. There is
no escaping the social and historical construction that
has shaped us. And yet, we can choose what to make of
it and how to take it into the present and the future.
Songs are also about context. I cannot imagine a family
procession to exhantini (the entrance of the kraal,
where ancestral spirits are addressed) singing
somagwaza, ndakugwza ngalo mkhonto. That is a song sung
during the initiation of young men, when the celebrants
tease each other about the power of their spear. To
sing it at a time when one wants to intercede with the
ancestors would be mindless, disrespectful and
Similarly, during the Christian Holy Week (the week
preceding Good Friday) I cannot imagine an Anglican
congregation singing songs of the Advent. Similarly,
one does not sing a funeral song at a wedding or at a
This is an area the ANC leadership might want to
reflect on. The legitimacy of the song as part of our
Struggle heritage is not an issue for many South
Africans including, I suspect, those who may be
sympathetic to AfriForum.
The ANC would help greatly if it marshalled a different
line of defence to directly confront these difficult
Unfortunately, both sides in the case have fallen into
the dangerous trap, debating whether the song is hate
speech or not. Hate speech? But that is for another
day. Regrettably, the polarisation of the song (albeit
in a distorted fashion) has robbed us of a rich,
textured and, yes, untidy narrative of our history,
including that of those who come from AfriForum.
Consequently, many of us cannot help finding it
difficult to associate with such simplistic arguments,
irrespective of the quarters from which they come. Yes,
simplistic because in many ways the very political and
jurisprudential edifice upon which this case is built
limits human experience.
Even after these many years, Nazim Hikmet's collection
of poems, I Would Softly Tell My Love, hits me as
powerfully as the songs I sang and danced to in the
You're a mountain village
You are my city,
the most beautiful and most unhappy
You're a cry for help - I mean you are my country;
the footsteps running towards you are mine
So wrote Nazim Hikmet, a Turkish political prisoner
upon whom a multitude of indignities and torture was
visited. He defied the limiting walls of prison. In
jail in Turkey part of his defiance was in the form of
poetry, and he wrote subversive poems about the sky,
desire, breathing fresh air and love.
Hikmet's collection is as powerful as many
revolutionary, political and non-political songs and
poetry of South Africa and many others. From Winston
Mankunku's dirge Yakhal'inkomo (The Ox Bellows), Billie
Holiday's moody rendition of Strange Fruit, (about the
lynched black man in the Deep South, US), Tiyo Soga's
Lizalis'isidinga lakho (Fulfil thy promise, oh God of
truth), Wally Serote's poem City Johannesburg and the
slow movements of Yoruba Apala music, my hair stands on
Song appropriately located and used nourishes and
empowers the oppressed.
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