In Jazz there are those singers who are unafraid to do something truly different. They will sing against the grain, or play in a new way that often shocks the establishment at first. Where so many others can’t resist the temptation to imitate the latest style, to sound like some already famous singer, these singers bravely trust their own voice. Sathima Bea Benjamin was one of these singers, her voice pared down to the last timbre. Like Billie Holiday, she turned her limited range into her greatest strength.
Like all the most outstanding jazz singers her art was as beautiful as it was political. She traced her roots to St Helena, and believed that Jazz was the cry of a woman. You hear this pain, and the beauty in her haunting tribute Winnie Mandela, Beloved Heroine. If ever a song could be at once poignantly beautiful but also palpably defiant, Winnie Mandela, Beloved Heroine does so. On this song Sathima is accompanied by Larry Willis, Ricky Ford, Buster Williams and Billy Higgins.
This piece was initially supposed to be a celebration of the reissue of Sathima Bea Benjamin’s African Songbird on vinyl. When word got out that African Songbird would be reissued on vinyl, I knew that I had to get my hands on a copy. Jazz is full of albums that quickly become fabled, and African Songbird had become one of these albums.
For those who may wonder why she goes under the name Bea Benjamin on the album, the name Sathima was given to her by the South African bassist Johnny Dyani. But over a course of six weeks of following the musician and her music, the piece also became a note of her death. Thankfully the truly great artists do not die, they live on through their music.
Amongst lovers of high jazz, Sathima Bea Benjamin belongs in that very small circle of singers who sing with little adornment. Nat King Cole with his clean lines and perfect pitch was an influence. But it was Billie Holiday with her limited range who gave her the confidence to tell her story through song. In her records, Sathima Bea Benjamin chose only the best accompanists. Miriam Makeba was known as Mama Africa, but it is easy to see why Sathima Bea Benjamin can lay claim to the title of African Songbird.
In July of 2013 a limited edition of this famed 1976 recording that has become a truly rare collector’s piece was reissued. In the UK, copies of the original vinyl fetch as much as £600. On the record Sathima Bea Benjamin is accompanied by South African jazz royalty, Abdullah Ibrahim, Basil Mannenberg Coetzee and Monty Weber with an impressive list of American sidemen.
After years of hunting for a copy of this record, I walked into a record store in Soho, London and as I was browsing the vinyl section, I stumbled onto African Songbird, in mint condition. When I went to pay for it, the storeowner Wayne told me of the story of the album’s reissue. Little did he realise that I had been on a quest to find this album.
Sathima Bea Benjamin’s story should be told widely, for she is unique in the world of jazz in that her debut album, A Morning In Paris, had not only Duke Ellington at the piano, but also Billy Strayhorn and her husband, Abdullah Ibrahim, then still known as Dollar Brand. She enchanted the great Ellington with her interpretation of his compositions. It was with Duke Ellington’s help that she relocated to New York together with her husband.
For those who hear platitudes from our arts officials that South African artists need to conquer the global market, it is worth reminding them that in the 60’s Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Chris McGregor, Caiphus Semenya, Abdullah Ibrahim, Letta Mbulu and of course Sathima Bea Benjamin had already won the world over.
When you put the album on the vinyl, side one has only the one song, Africa, a deeply moving tribute to the continent that Sathima Bea Benjamin credits with the birth of jazz. It begins with a lush, even orchestral interplay between the percussions and the basses, the drummer eliciting a richly polyphonic sound out of his instrument. About 9 minutes into the track, Abdullah Ibrahim is incredibly inventive on the Fender Rhodes. Basil Mannenberg Coetzee’s tenor sax is truly irresistible. This is quite possibly the most elegant musical tribute to the continent.
But it is on African Songbird in which Sathima Bea Benjamin sings without accompaniment that you grasp the depth of her musical power. Little wonder those who know this album treasure it as one of Jazz music’s greatest moments. Perhaps it is also the reason why she was not known to the bigger market as her style was devoid of the vocal theatrics that delight pleasure seekers.
In the second week of August 2013, Sathima Bea Benjamin was honoured by the Joy of Jazz for her contribution to the music. On a beautifully lit stage at The SABC, she sang an impromptu song from the Duke Ellington Songbook. As it turned out, it was to be her last performance. It was fitting that she should honour Duke Ellington, the man who had set her musical trajectory on the path towards mastery. A week after receiving this rare honour in the country of her birth, Sathima Bea Benjamin died in Cape Town.
Perhaps in death Sathima Bea Benjamin will gain the kind of following that her music deserved. On each of her albums, she poured her heart out, singing with the warmth of a storyteller and at the grace of a minimalist. Luckily for us African Songbird, her masterpiece, has been reissued on CD and the music sounds as if it was produced just yesterday.
Pitika Ntuli is a man whose mission seems to be to defy convention and straddle as many categories as possible. He is a sculptor, art collector, poet, linguist, historian, teacher, writer, and academic. His studio in the Wynberg Industrial areas seems to be a bridge that connects Alex to Sandton.
It was no surprise then to find Ntuli on stage at the increasingly important Orbit Jazz Club in Braamfontein bringing together several generations through poetry and jazz. In less than two years since it was opened, The Orbit has established itself as the leading venue for live Jazz in South Africa. The vision of the founder, Aymeric Peguillan to create a venue that brings live jazz performances most days of the week seemed impossible, but it appears as if the plan is working.
Ntuli opened with his poem, Who Am I.
Who am I?
I am an African
Caressed by African winds
Trade and anti trade…..
Dressed in a simple but regal striped Ghanaian robe, his voice rose and fell with the inflection of a gentle wave. Then gathered pace as his lines moved from English to SiSwati, SeTswana and Afrikaans. Band leader Siphiwe Shiburi was painting a complex percussive tapestry with his drums. Yonela Mnana’s deft touches at the piano were almost like a whisper. The bassist, Amaeshi Ikechi played with a permanent smile etched on his face, his black and gold Dashiki a striking counterpoint to the complex notes he was teasing from his imposing instrument.
If Ntuli’s costume suggested a Pan African sensibility, it would come as no surprise to those who know his travels across the African continent during his 32 years in exile. He has also lived and studied in the United Kingdom and the United States. His poetry and art draw from this eclectic experience.
Then Ntuli walked off the stage and Nova Masango, nearly five decades younger than Ntuli jumped to the stage to join the Siphiwe Shiburi Trio. Dressed in an elegant two-piece Olive Green suit, Masango’s voice soared with the quiet rage of a poet who seethes at the ugliness of politics but revels in the beauty of love. Introducing her earlier, co-host for the evening, Myesha Jenkins said of Masango, “Nova is not a poet but an anthropologist”
Masango was born in exile in Sweden and her poetry is deeply infused with feminist readings as well as the politics of colonialism. Her poetry lines reveal a love for John Coltrane as well as for Nina Simone. There is a striking autobiographical urgency in the lines that explore sexuality, but they show a poet revelling in the beauty of language and feminist agency.
Co-host for the evening, Natalia Molebatsi, like Jenkins and Ntuli was dressed in Ghanaian garb. Her Kente cloth dress was a vibrant combination of yellow, green and red, reminiscent of the richly coloured food found in West African cuisine. Like Jenkins, Molebatsi did not limit herself to the role of traditional MC, but interspersed her delivery with performances of her own half-poems-half-announcements
Where De Korte Street in Braamfontein would have been deserted a few years ago on most Tuesday nights, this time there was no free space to park in the precinct surrounding The Orbit. The performance was sold out, and even the owner of the Orbit expressed his surprise that this still experimental fusion of jazz and poetry had attracted such a vibrant audience. But it was easy to understand why. For so long starved of quality live music, Joburgers once again know that there is a place that possibly exceeds even the standard set by the famous Kippies in Newtown.
On this beautiful autumn evening in Braamfontein, Pitika Ntuli and Nova Masango were not just carving their names onto the musical and artistic consciousness of this city, but they were also signaling the artistic rebirth of downtown Joburg. In the audience was a mixture of students from nearby Wits University, tourists from Europe, hipsters from residential apartments converted from disused office buildings as well as the middle class set from the Northern Suburbs. On the table next to mine were two couples from Tanzania, and they seemed to be having the night of their lives.
If there was a sense of experimentation across forms and language, the musicians held on to their nerves, able to rise or go low as the poets mined the entire range of their poetic register. Pianist Yonela Mnana and drummer Siphiwe Shiburi have played in some of the most exciting new groups and appear on the important album by Lex Futshane, Innocent Victims And Perpetrators. These are musicians who know how to play within the traditional Jazz idiom, but are also able to play the new kinds of jazz sounds.
Perhaps the lines from Ntuli’s Conversations with Alberto Giacometti, Ernst Neizvestny and Amedeo Modigliani reflect the merging of traditions into one seamless new artistic experience:
I choose to converse with you in the language of form
Wrestle the octopus of memories of fire
Memories of death foretold and witnessed
Like you I reject the unlinear progression of time
From birth to death
Pitika Ntuli has seen the world for more than seven decades, but his zest for life infuses his poetry with a power that connects in a compelling manner with the more urgent voice of Nova Masango who is yet to make thirty. On this evening in Braamfontein the performance across the generations was a reminder that art knows no boundaries. It may also just be the elusive ingredient that will make gentrification be no more than a property developer’s dream and become instead a holistic process.
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” Milan Kundera as quoted by André Brink in Writing In A State Of Siege .
There is something indescribably attractive about those individuals who take great delight in the pleasures of language. For them language is palpably alive, laden with a beauty so raw that each word is charged with this essence. Such was Andre Brink’s relationship with language, whether it was the English in which he wrote so many of his novels, or the Afrikaans he was born to, or the French he acquired during his time in Paris.
Brink reminds us in an essay titled, Censorship And Literature that “Language is a meeting place, a point of confrontation, between the individual and the social”. This is a point worth reinforcing at a time when language is often presented as something neutral, even innocent.
Brink was a towering figure, lean and tall, with chiseled features, and a deliberate manner that did not fully prepare you for his quick wit. His deeply furrowed face hinted at his intellectual occupation. But when he broke into a smile, you knew that here was a man who has tasted fully life’s sweetness. When he walked into a room you knew immediately that here was a man of substance. His range of references was vast and you could tell that he had spent as much time living life fully as had reading from texts on philosophy, poetry, history and of course literature.
But how do you make sense of someone who was at once a traveler, a teacher, a man of letters, poet, essayist and perhaps, most importantly, a dissident. The truth is you can’t. Such a life is impossible to sum up, because it defies the limiting categories that we use to place individuals in certain boxes. For me Brink was the quintessential homme des lettres and his life was a manifestation of how those who succumb to the lure of letters live their lives.
As a dissident Brink had his books banned. His novel, A Dry White Season, was banned because it threatened the safety of the state, according to the censors. In one of his last works of fiction, the novel Philida, Brink turned to South Africa’s complex and uncomfortable past and he rummages through the dustbin of the history to tell the story of the slave Philida.
One of the books that comes closest to giving us some sense of the complexity of Brink’s life is his Writing In A State Of Siege. This is one of the finest introductions to Brink’s own sense of how history has shaped Afrikaner discourse. But these essays also establish his own concern with history and its effect on identity.
If Andre was once lithe, athletic even, in later years he had been slowed down by the ravages of age, and where his walk was once a swift and graceful stroll, it had now become slow, deliberate, even labored. But his mind remained as keen as ever, and the spark in his eyes remained a measure of his vitality.
He has left us a rich oeuvre and those who wish to acquaint themselves with his considerable body of work can choose from works such as Before I Forget, A Fork In The Road, An Instant In The Wind, The Wall Of The Plague, The Other Side Of Silence, A Dry White Season and his other writings. When you read his memoir, A Fork In The Road, it is clear that for Brink, the confluence between distance and historic events in Paris led to his own social awakening. After this he had no doubt that Apartheid was a very dark evil, and one that he would write against in both his fiction and essays.
Throughout his life and career, language and culture were very important concerns for Brink. For a writer who did not stay with one language, the idea of “translation as rewriting” loomed large in his own work. Once he was banned by the Apartheid bosses, Brink was forced to adopt English as a co-first language. But even though he drew from a very wide circle of influence, it was quite clear that Brink regarded himself first and foremost as a South African writer – one who had experienced both the exilharating discovery of new worlds and the claustrophobic boxing-in of Apartheid, which sought, at its most basic level, to deny experiences other than those dictated by its segregated, racialised norm.
Brink received France’s highest honour when he was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters and awarded the Legion of Honour by the French government; and in 1992 he was awarded the Monismanien Human Rights Award from Sweden’s University of Uppsala, for making known the injustice of apartheid to the wider world.
It was always such a pleasure to see Brink’s name in a literary programme for his presence at today’s ubiquitous literary events was a guarantee of a certain old fashioned literary seriousness that is fast disappearing under the pressure of literary celebrity. Brink’s works will serve as a reminder of how the past invariably imposes itself on the present. But they will also sharpen our sense of the pleasures of language that he felt so acutely.
He should have been a Sophiatown heavy. With his two-tone brogues, tweed jackets, and occasional bowtie, he looks like something straight out of Sophiatown. Or from the Harlem of the Renaissance in the 20’s. All of which would make sense because Bongani Madondo’s literary soul mates include James Baldwin, E’skia Mphahlele and Miriam Makeba. He is a fast talking dandy armed with an encyclopedic grasp of all things Pop drawn to noire movies. He devours long reads in Esquire, Vanity Fair or the Paris Review Of Books.
At a time when so many writers peddle words mostly to pay the rent, Madondo is that rare cat who still answers to a higher cause; the art of it all. It would be incorrect to call Madondo a reporter even though he has a nose for the news. Little wonder he calls himself a storyteller. But the stories he goes in search of stay with him for a long time. As he says in his Note to the Reader in I’m Not Your Weekend Special, “Way before I’d even seen her, let alone met her in person, the story of Brenda Fassie fascinated and perplexed me on many levels”
But then again Madondo should perhaps have been a rock ‘n’ roller. A quick glance at the musicians he loves brings up the baddest rock artists of all time. Busi Mhlongo. Philip Tabane, Joni Mitchel. Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Brenda Fassie, Ali Farka Toure. If this list seems confusing, it’s because Madondo has an expansive sense of what qualifies as rock. Not for him the narrow definition of rock that bizarrely disqualifies its founders and acknowledges those who borrowed the music.
For Madondo, the ultimate rock’n roll star of them all was Busi Mhlongo. What with her ability to bring to Maskandi a devil-may-care attitude, matched by a hoarse voice that announced Maskandi as the ultimate rebel party music. And if you ever saw Busi Mhlongo in performance, dressed in a punk-meets-goddess style, then you know Madondo says she is or rock ‘n’ roll royalty. What she did to Maskandi, recognising its urban roots that harked backed to rural stories and minibus taxi gossip is the stuff of genius. If universities are teaching courses on modern day Divas, it is Busi Mhlongo who should be enjoying the bulk of the attention.
And when Busi Mhlongo sings Ebathenjini, she brings to Mfaz’ Omnyama’s song a certain wistfulness to it, but one that rests on the pillars of life’s hardest lessons. Where Mfaz’ Omnyama’s song has a boundless joy, there’s a dark blues tinged edge to Busi Mhlongo’s. And one can imagine Madondo bobbing to its hypnotic rhythm even as he clutches a dog-eared copy of Rolling Stone. When he dances, he moves to the music with the joy of a practiced hedonist. It is as if when the music gets him, it gets all of him or not at all. Then it is easy to make sense of Madondo’s close reading of these wizened artists. For like them the music reaches into the deepest parts of his being.
Madondo is good at slicing through the of minutiae of celebrity. In Hot Type we find him philosophizing on Bob Mabena in Hi I’m the new bob Mabena
“here the name Bob Mabena is not used as a third person display on an ego , tripping off the runway again, but playful metaphor, for a blind but adventurous thrill seeker and urban hedonist of days gone by ”
Where others worship at the altar of religion, it is safe to say that if Madondo has any faith that moves him at all, it is the connection with the ancient souls that walk this earth disguised as musicians. As he writes in Hot Type on hearing Magwaza by Johnny Dyani;
“Yep , it was a religious experience . Hallucinatory even. The sort of ‘ high’ thousands of rock ‘n roll and jazz fanatics are prone to evoke in their countless ‘I saw Elvis’ or ‘ It rained horizontally the day Miles Davis died.” Here is Madondo implicating himself in the observations that he delights in pinpointing in fellow converts to the faith of music.
If it comes as a shock to the reader that Madondo knows his way around rock’n ‘roll as much as around Kwaito or Maskandi, it will probably shock jazz purists that this cat knows his Charles Mingus from his Winston Mankunku Ngozi. When he drops in for a visit, he will pick that rare vinyl that no one else even recognizes, and he will proceed to school me on its importance in the discography of that artist. Such passion is a joy to behold, and it explains why when Madondo writes on art, it is a deadly serious matter.
For Madondo this isn’t just music. It is something else altogether, something tinged with the numinous. It will come as little surprise to learn that Madondo has been known to go on a pilgrimage to Dr Malombo, Philip Tabane’s home in Mamelodi. When Busi Mhlongo was still amongst us, Madondo also went on regular, extended pilgrimages to her home north of Durban in KwaZulu Natal. Where others just want to get the story and file it, it is obvious that for Madondo the story goes way, way beyond what the artist wants to be written about them. And perhaps that’s why he connected so deeply with artists of the highest order, such as Busi Mhlongo.
Like Busi Mhlongo, Madondo makes it his business to turn convention on its head. He speaks a language that is wholly his own. One that borrows from his hometown of Hammanskraal but embellishes with bits from his adopted Joburg and that also picks up from his spiritual homes of New York. Even in his writing, you sense that he has a fine ear and listens very closely not just to what is said, but how it is said. Interviewing Rita Marley, his essay is filled with what Madondo picks up of her diction, her Jamaican voice booming unmistakably across the page. It is a remarkable skill at a time when reading through interviews you would think linguistic nuance was a thing of the past. In Hot Type in his essay on Rita Marley he writes “Boojah! So ’tis you? Mah dear , Afreeka feels good to me. The sun, the energy, the love, shoo , I feel blessed mon. Blessed! Discussion? Oh , go get the rest in the book my brethren.”
Perhaps Madondo’s fine ear for language explains the confidence with which he delivers his musical judgements. They may sometimes be written languidly, developed with the patience of an artist painting on a delicate surface, but when he delivers them, they are sharp, direct and unforgettable. As Njabulo Ndebele remarks of Madondo’s Hot Type “Bongani Madondo’s portraits made me gasp and sigh and shake in my seat. Long after I have experienced them, I’ll be saying: ‘life is beautiful after all.’
When you catch him in a sit down with Hugh Masekela, you can tell that the connection goes way deeper than the ask-question-answer-question that is today’s sound-byte journalism. Where others might be quite content to meet their deadline, to turn in the story they promised at conference, Madondo seems to be interested only in the backstory. Not for him the glib quick shallow answers that satisfies the curiosity of a generation ever on the move. It is when the stage lights have long been switched off, the fans gone home, the stage dismantled, that Madondo moves in for the kill. He has the instincts of a hunter, patient when necessary, but well aware when it is time to ask the burning question.
He is a critic who does not fear offending the biggest names in music or the arts. If his book, Hot Type, introduced him to a wider audience, those who follow him across the various magazines, newspapers and websites for which he writes know he is bold with his opinions. But he is also insanely funny, and has trained himself to resist the performance that many artists use to shield their real selves from those who chase them for stories. He is wise enough to know that patience and persistence can wear out even the most difficult superstar.
Throughout Hot Type you see Madondo chasing after an interview. It is as if he doesn’t know when to give up. In his new book, I’m Not Your Weekend Special, Madondo tells of how long it took him to get Brenda Fassie to agree and sit down to an interview. He is a cat who is not only curious, but knows when to bide his time till the rock stars yield to his combination of charm and stubborn persuasion.
When Madondo has a new book to read, or a new record to listen to, or even an art exhibition to attend and review, he retreats into a kind of sanctuary. It is fascinating to watch him go through his rituals of coming to terms with a new piece of work. Then he will disappear, he wrestles with the demon of writing late into the night and into the wee hours of the morning. Not unlike an animal responding to nature’s call to hibernate. One senses that it is not the deadline that makes him switch off his phone and not even respond to emails, but a need to withdraw into some primeval space in which he is alone with the literary gods.
Even though politics is not his subject of choice, every now and again Madondo will tell us how the politics impedes or subverts the artists whose lives he dissects with such thoroughness. But then again perhaps it is by looking through the lens of pop culture that we may see politics for what it is, modern day theatre, complete with props. As Madondo writes in Hot Type: “Why is it that we despise self-promotion by leaders who are all sheen and no substance, yet we are inherently opposed to those hard-working types we tag as ‘lacking charisma’? But he also makes the larger point that maybe we already live in the post politics era. How else do you explain, he wants to know, why “in New York City, Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls’ funeral was attended by close to a million people, blocking the streets of Brooklyn”
In the essay Pop Among The Believers, Madondo lays bare some of the contradictions of modern day life. He is at his sharpest when asking questions. “Why is the majority of populations in democracies voice out their disdain about the cult of personality, especially as it pertains to a popular leader – say Bill Clinton – and yet go ahead to venerate another leader, Nelson Mandela?”
When he brings his sharp eye to what may seem like banal pop videos or lyrics, Madondo often draws startling conclusions. On Makhendlas he writes, again in Hot Type;
“The notion that black men are buffalo soldiers blessed with a natural gift for toughing it out on the rough edges of life has sent young black males into a cyclone of confusion , fear and unending challenges to legitimise their status in this depoliticised, insensitive, indifferent era , where the fruits of the revolution feed on their offspring.”
It is why Nathan McCall says that Madondo has “a wicked wit and a keen sense of the complex ways that pop culture intersects with politics”
There’s a special place in Madondo’s universe for Miriam Makeba. His pursuit of an interview with Miriam Makeba reads like a courtship of sorts. Here was the scribe as convert, seeking an audience with one of the deities of the music. Where others may have wanted confirmation of what they has read elsewhere, Madondo wanted to get to the core of what set Miriam Makeba apart. Not what was familiar and rehashed over and over till it became bland. But something that would explain the Songbird who had sung Soweto Blues, Sophiatown Is Gone, Ask The Rising Sun and of course the hypnotic Pata Pata. He got his story all right, but he was after something else. He wanted to reach into the inner secrets that had compelled Miriam Makeba to take on the might of Apartheid and even Uncle Sam so she could sing the songs of freedom.
Which makes you understand why Zolani Mahola of Freshlyground says of Madondo “I found Madondo slightly unsettling, not least of all least because this was not a journalist asking the usual superficial questions”
If Madondo writes with an urgency about artists, there’s perhaps another side to him that comes through Social Media. On Twitter he is not only deeply informal, but he displays a comfort with the short prose format that a 140-character limit imposes. His posts are often pithy, irreverent, but still deeply conversational Below are a few posts that show a vintage Madondo
‘Some kinda time out. Road tripping with filmmakers Deon Maas&Keith Jones to Giyani in search of the soul of Shangaan Futurism. What holiday?’
‘Great day hanging out with Mr. Rose Phaahle talking about Nat Nakasa.Later with homegal Trudi Makhaya talking new ways of Business Journalism’
And when he uses his allocation of 140 characters by Twitter Inc. to ask;
‘Sorry, but what is the National Democratic Revolution? Also can a “revolution” truly be democratic?’
You know that Madondo would make a rebel reporter in politics, one who questions even as he chastises.
He can also be wickedly funny even as he is dead serious. Here is a post to Twitter Headquarters, written in a moment of exasperation; ‘Letter to Twitter HQs: How many times should I change my password? How come I get hacked everyweek, does my machine have an incurable virus?”
At times he is just plain out to have fun. And what’s wrong with that. Pop was founded on the principle of hedonism.
‘I’m Nelson Mandela’s long lost grandson. Mother is Orphelia Madiba Madondo frm Qunu.I got meself some accent. Some1 gimme a TV talkshow now!’
‘Surely thanking any1 on Tweeter’s like peeing into the Atlantic but hey.Mad Love to YALL supporting ‘Im Not Yr Wknd Special book.’ Touching.’
Here is a man having the time of his life, chasing his dreams and stopping every now and again to peer into the abyss that separates the normal from those who suffer from artistic greatness. Bongani Madondo will read their books, listen to their music, and even get lost in their shows. But he is the cat who always gets to the bottom of their story. Little wonder that he follows so closely the work of those other mercurial readers of their culture, like Greg Tate, Deborah Willis and Binyavanga Wainana. Like them he doesn’t just want to report on his society, he wants to explode some of the myths that have turned culture into mere commodity.
Madondo has no doubt that if we look closely at pop culture, we will get to the kernel of what drives our societies. As he says in Hot Type
“If pop culture as well as political personalities bizarrely evoke God and Christ for their own crass ends, how come then, society and the media accord those ‘stars’ reverence befitting early prophets, sages, shamans, the true social conduits to higher forces, huh?”
But he is aware that many of those revered in pop culture as ‘icons’ are often reckless self promoters. As he writes in Hot Type, “Like the wickedest pop image-makers, self publicists, artists, con-artists and manipulators of the age – Don King, Muhammad Ali, Mobuto Sese Seko, Prince, Miles Davis, Fela Kuti and others (Kanye) West has a cunning internal compass wired to the root of his brain”
Naturally the last word should go to Madondo via his musings on his beloved Miriam Makeba. “Whether performing for European lefties in Paris or singing Black Power songs for guinea’s peasants, Makeba – eternally stylish and perennially edgy – knew how to carve a niche between counterculture and couture culture. For her, it was, I imagine, a matter of saying: ‘I am an artist, but if I have to speak for my people, honey, let me do it in style.’
It was inevitable that the defiance, dissent, resistance and protest against Apartheid should be reflected in South Africa’s literary tradition. What is surprising is the extent to which the literature that dealt most urgently with South Africa’s unbearable political oppression was dismissed as ‘protest literature’. The suggestion was that this fiction did not deal sufficiently enough with the depth implicit in most things, but scratched only the surface of meaning. An entire cottage industry emerged that extolled the literary shortcomings of the literature that dared to explore in its fictional worlds both the political repression as well as the dissent.
The most troubling aspect of the school of thought that sought to belittle this literature they called ‘protest literature’ was that it seemed that the very act of questioning the political persecution of the day was a betrayal of some higher literary code. There was a suspicion of a commitment to the political as a kind of betrayal of the literary or even a lowering of literary standards. Poets like Mongane Wally Serote and Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali wrote poems that were at once deeply political even as they were allegorical. The meaning that their work yielded depended on the effort the reader was prepared to make to go beyond surface meanings.
The Poems in Sounds Of A Cowhide Drum by Mtshali offer a powerful reminder that the most political language is often deeply coded so that those unaware of the code may read it at the surface level. But when picked up by those familiar with the code, the same line, passage, or poem yields an entirely different meaning. One of the things that I always found troubling about the dismissal of ‘protest literature’ was the uniformity of the reading of the texts.
Now one of the things that is well known is that the same text yields different meanings to different readers because they bring both themselves and their expectations to the text. So the idea of the text as a uniform narrative is not plausible. It suggested to me the emergence of a popular response that may have amounted to a cultural sleight of hand because it relied for its uniformity on referencing the responses of persuasive reviewers and critics.
The alumni of this loose network of critics of this literature were not always openly hostile to these writings. At times the criticism reacted using the well-known rituals of literary criticism before delivering that telling blow that typically faulted these writers for serving political rather than literary gods. But the agony, the anguish and on occasion, even the ecstasy of small triumphs within the milieu of Apartheid were said to strangle the literary imagination of the writers of what was styled ‘protest literature’.
In its introduction to the course on American Literature of Dissent, the University of Pennsylvania says ‘The United States is a nation founded on dissent and some of the most enduring works of American literature deal with topics that were politically controversial at the time’
The Urdu writer, Dr Gopichand Narang says of literature “Basically it is a social act, sa-hitya, that which is with the people. Like all arts, it provides a space for dissent, raises voice for the oppressed and against social injustice” He adds “Literature reflects the dreams, desires and aspirations of the people. It is inspired by ideology but it goes beyond the narrow confines of ideologies”
Within South Africa there was relief amongst some that the end of Apartheid signaled the death of politics as the primary source for the country’s literature. For many a burden had been yanked off their backs and they could rush to write novels and poems about flowers, birds, and even love. It was truly fascinating to hear at literary gatherings so many writers express the view that the end of Apartheid signaled the moment of their literary freedom.
But things did not work out so neatly. As the post Apartheid novels of writers like Mandla Langa and Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee and Njabulo Ndebele have shown, the everyday can be deeply political. In the works of Gordimer, Langa and Coetzee, it is clear that there are always sides to be taken in any conflict, no matter how large or small.
As soon as the political dust had settled and even former combatants found themselves locked in the tentative embrace of reconciliation, they were surprised to find that the old suspicions persisted.
It is worth revisiting this important period in South Africa’s literary history. It is true that some South Africans find it unsettling when the dark periods in our history are revisited for fear that this may open old wounds. The trouble with this kind of nation building that favors amnesia is that it leaves too many questions. In any case peace founded on ignorance is not worthy of our aspirations.
In fairness to the school that curated this ‘protest literature’, South Africa has an enduring fondness for catch-all labels as could be seen soon after 1994. The label ‘the new South Africa’, suggested a neat break with our past that was politically and emotionally desirable to many but was sadly implausible. What was fascinating was to see how so many in the literary establishment prayed that this new South Africa might bring what they called ‘one dimensional’ protest literature to a quick death.
Incredible as it may seem now, the common prayer was that the new writers would spurn the exterior for the interior, and the gun for the flower.
It is worth noting that one of the strongest critics of ‘protest literature’ was Lewis Nkosi. Nkosi brushed aside much of the literary response to Apartheid as formulaic and devoid of the imagination. Nkosi’s main charge was that writings by Black South Africans had not responded with the imaginative force that matched the scale of the oppression. His assertion was that the literary works were minor in the face of a major political crime. Njabulo Ndebele refined Nkosi’s position, saying that a lot of the writing favored spectacle at the expense of the ordinary and the nuanced.
It was thus not surprising that at the crossroads between the repression of Apartheid and the freedom of democracy, there was this hope, perhaps even plea that writers should abandon the political in favor of the personal. The spoken word artists were the first to seize on this release and their mostly spoken word performances were littered with references to desire, sex and broken hearts. But as they were to quickly discover, even the seemingly personal can become deeply political. The disease AIDS brought to the intimacy of the bedroom the political squabbles of the day.
Beyond that, while the term ‘protest literature’ may have provided the critic with a reliable literary pillar, it was always likely to include works that differed considerably, and paradoxically, leave out works that had a lot in common. With the passage of time, it is clear that what was then seen as a lost literary opportunity reflected the expectations of the interpreters, fed as they had been on a literary canon that favored introspection over action and the inner life over the outer life. But more importantly, it was inevitable that South Africa’s literary output would reflect the struggles and the war for control that raged on the political front. The ‘literary canon’ of the day reflected the contradictions of the colonial experience. Most of the novels and poetry and even fashionable theory were imported from abroad. The ‘classics’ as they were known, were supposed to contain ‘Universal truths’ and young students had to ignore any doubts about the appropriateness of these foreign books.
Of course on closer reading it became abundantly clear that many of these classics that were supposed to be above temporal political concerns were deeply political. I often wondered if they had they been written in SA, would they have been considered protest literature. Novelists like John Steinbeck were in the canon, but their writings were deeply subversive.
Perhaps the writer Zakes Mda’s words provide a useful post Apartheid perspective on how the political situation may have created narratives with clearly delineated parameters. “It was easier to write about the past… because the past created ready-made stories. There was a very clear line of demarcation between good and evil, you see? Black was good; white was bad. Your conflict was there”
Mda suggests that this polarization in real life translated to a literature that sacrificed nuance for clarity. He adds. “There were no gray areas…. We no longer have that. In this new situation, black is not necessarily good. There are many black culprits; there are many good white people. We have become normal. It’s very painful to become normal”
It is fascinating to see how there is now a new movement towards literary exile, fuelled in some cases by writers with a strong desire to avoid any mention of Apartheid, even two decades after its official dismantling. What this shows is that there will always be many responses to writing the politics of the day in literature. But the past offers no clean break either, and writers and critics have to accept that meaning and significance in literature is always negotiable and never fixed.
It tells us something about Nadine Gordimer that Raks Morakabe Seakhoa, the untiring champion of South African letters, used to call her ‘Comrade Nadine’. In her country, where identity is everything, that Gordimer was comfortable with a word viewed with skepticism in high literary circles is significant.
Her death brings to an end a remarkable literary career, and coming so soon after the deaths of Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there’s a sense that this is the end of a literary era. These writers did not shy away from addressing what they believed ailed their societies, even as they held onto notions of literature as romance.
Gordimer relished language. Her fiction and non-fiction alike rewards the reader with passages of exquisitely written prose. She used language as a surgeon uses a scalpel, delicately opening her characters to reveal what contradictions they contained.
“To a writer no one is ordinary,” she once said – one of many gems delivered almost as asides by way of explanation.
Nadine wrote in one of her short but important essays, “Five Years Into Freedom,” “Again and again, when I’m interviewed or find myself in encounters with other people abroad, the burning question is ‘What is happening to whites?’ And again and again, my genuinely surprised response is: ‘What about blacks? Don’t you believe there are challenges to be met in their new lives?’”
Gordimer’s ability to weave lyrical, even magical, prose into her writing, as she tackled the most prosaic human shortcomings, says something about her commitment to social justice. “There are some who still have this sense, suffer it, I would say, and unnecessarily, so it becomes a form of self flagellation. I don’t posit this in any assertion of smug superiority; I should just wish to prod them into freedom from self confinement.”
“Five Years” explores very directly, and with Nadine’s typical courage, the subject of what it means to be South African, to declare oneself as such. If the topic was a complex one five years after South Africans gained their freedom, it has only increased in complexity since. When Gordimer writes, “A city in transition is always full of contradictions,” she may well have been referring to the entire country and all who live in it.
Gordimer did not yield to the nomadic impulses that claim so many of our writers. She lived here, in South Africa, a South African, defiant against apartheid and also against the titters of the so-called genteel set, the liberals who found fault with her uncompromising stance. She was a home-grown revolutionary – but it is worth remembering that Gordimer also cherished the bonds that link writers across borders.
Reflecting on fellow Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, she said “He has done something Camus despaired of seeing any activist achieve: lived the drama of his time and been equal to the writing of it.” But Gordimer’s assessment of Soyinka provides a clue to her own status as a writer. Her fiction never shied away from drawing from the freshest pages of history. Luckily for us, she was equal to the task of writing it. If Mbeki and Zuma received literal attention from the likes of the Reverend Frank Chikane and his book Eight Days in September, Gordimer’s last novel, No Time Like The Present, placed a kind of literary focus on the two leaders that seemed almost impertinent in its immediateness.
Even as she wrote alongside history that was only few years old, however, it was her ability to leave moments of silence in her fiction that spoke most eloquently, daringly and damningly. It is her unflinching focus on how individuals wrestle with personal responsibility, even as they face political, social and family pressure, that has been the source of her literary strength across the vivid decades of South Africa’s recent past.
If the notorious immorality act once forbade mention, let alone practice of sexual relations across race frontiers, the present has rendered invisible some of the contradictions of a society that was once constructed around race. Thus, in No Time Like the Present, Jabulile and Steve have come back to establish their careers, like other returnees from exile. It is fascinating to observe the delicate balance they have to strike as they attempt to communicate across the vast cultural gulfs that separate their two families.
But the complications are never simply binary, and beyond any racial and cultural minefields that they have to negotiate, Steve has also to content with the demands and expectations of his father and the deference to his Jewish mother’s claims on him.
One of my favourite sentences from No Time Like The Present is, “There was no space for meaning in personal achievement. Climb Mt Everest or get rich, all cop outs from reality, indecent signs of being on the side of no change.” Indeed.
To cut to the quick, observations like that serve as a reminder, if one were still needed, that Nadine Gordimer belongs in that very special club, the great world writer. Her voice will be missed, but lucky for us, in her writing it will never be lost.