Preparing ourselves for freedom

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Comrade Albie Sachs

Throughout our country, and throughout the whole world, the winds of change are blowing strong. Many of our old ideas are being swept away and new ideas are taking their place.

In this article, Albie Sachs — a member of the ANC’s Legal Department, gives his ideas about culture. Some of us may be surprised by the things he says. They are quite different to many of our old ideas about culture and the struggle. In fact, when Comrade Albie first gave these ideas to an ANC meeting in Lusaka recently, there were many raised eyebrows! He wants to challenge us so that we will question our old ideas openly and unselfishly.

The article is long, so we have divided it into two parts. Here is the first part. You will be able to read the second part in the next issue of Learn and Teach.

We have changed Comrade Albie’s words quite a lot to make them easier for us to read. We hope that we have kept the spirit of his thoughts alive.

PART 1

We all know where South Africa is, but we do not yet know what it is. Ours is the lucky generation that will make this discovery — if we open our eyes wide enough. The problem for us is to have enough imagination to see what riches there are in the united South Africa that we have done so much to build.

For many years we have had a political programme for the future — the Freedom Charter. More recently, the ANC released the Constitutional Guidelines which gave us a basic guide to a constitution for a free and equal society. But do we have a similar kind of thinking for art and culture in the new South Africa? Do we really understand the new country and the new people that is struggling to give birth to itself? Or are our minds still trapped in the ghettoes of apartheid?

In order to help us give new energy to our thinking about culture, I want to make a few suggestions which some comrades might find shocking.

‘BANNED!’
The first suggestion I make is that our members should be banned from saying that culture is a weapon of struggle. I suggest a period of, say, five years. I make this suggestion even though I am fully aware that the ANC is totally against censorship and for free speech.

I have been arguing for many years that art is a weapon of struggle. But now it seems to me that this statement doesn’t mean anything and in fact it is wrong and may even be harmful.

In the first place, it makes our art poorer. Instead of getting real criticism, we get solidarity criticism. People do not feel free to criticise the work of our artists because it would be wrong to criticise a weapon of struggle. Therefore our artists are not pushed to improve the quality of their work. We accept that they are politically correct and so we do not criticise their work fully and honestly. The more fists and spears and guns, the better! We limit ourselves so much in our work that we no longer consider what is funny, or strange or really tragic in the world. We pretend that life is clear cut — good and bad, black and white, beautiful and ugly. The only conflict that we show is between the old and the new, as if there is only bad in the past and only good in the future.

THE GOOD AND THE BAD

If one of us wrote a story about Natal, the main person in the story would not be a member of the UDF or COSATU but a member of Inkatha. Yes, Inkatha. He or she would be opposed to change — a reactionary — but at the same time would feel the oppression of apartheid. The person would be thrown this way and that way by the conflict of emotions. When we read the story we would see all the struggles, pain and joy that a person experiences in the struggle for a new South Africa.

But instead, in our poems, in our paintings and in our theatre plays, we line up all the good people on one side and the bad ones on the other side. Sometimes we allow people from the one side to pass to the other. But we never show that there can be bad things in the good people or, even more difficult, good things in the bad people. We can tell who the good people are because they are always handsome and they know how to recite sections of the Freedom Charter or Strategy and Tactics.

A real weapon of struggle is a straightforward thing. A gun is a gun is a gun. There is no question about it. It fires in only one direction. If it fired in lots of different directions it would be useless. But art and culture have a different kind of power. Art and culture can look in many different directions at once to show us things which are hidden, the many different things of life which are not clear cut at all. That is why we cannot say that art is a weapon in the same way that a gun is a weapon.

AND WHAT ABOUT LOVE?
And what about love? We have published so many poems and stories and articles in magazines but you can count those that talk about love on the fingers of one hand. Can it be that when we join the ANC we do not make love any more? When the comrades go to bed, do they discuss the role of the white working class? Surely even the comrades whose work in the struggle means that they do not have the possibility of enjoying a love life now, must remember their past loves and dream of the loves they will have in the future.

What are we fighting for if we are not fighting for the right to enjoy all the fruits of human life — including love, and fun and tenderness and the beauty of the world? The apartheid rulers would really like us to believe that because apartheid is ugly, the whole world must be ugly as well.

ANC members are full of fun and romanticism and dreams. We enjoy and wonder at the beauties of nature and the marvels of human creation.

But if you look at our art and our writing, you would think we are living in the greyest and darkest of all worlds, completely imprisoned by apartheid. The apartheid rulers seem to haunt all our paintings, stories, poems and songs like ghosts. Everything we paint or draw or write contains the oppressors. Nothing is about us and our new way of thinking and our new way of feeling. We do not express the new culture that we are building.

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Miriam Makeba – “music of hope”

A COP-FREE WORLD
Listen, in contrast, to the music of Hugh Masekela, of Abdullah Ibrahim, of Jonas Gwangwa, of Miriam Makeba. Their music is full of life and human warmth and beauty. Their music tells of a cop-free world. The new and growing spirit of our people sings clearly through them. And yet if you look at our poems or books or paintings or woodcuts, all you can see is darkness.

No one ever told Hugh or Abdullah to write their music in this way or that. No one told them that they must be progressive or committed. No one told them that they must be funny or gay. No one told them to use a strong beat so that their music could be full of hope.

Their music has all these things not because they are following the rules of progressive culture but because their music comes from inside themselves, from their own person­alities and their own experiences. It comes from the people’s traditions and from the sounds of everyday life around them. Their music moves us because it tells us something lovely and lively about ourselves. Not because the words are about how to win a strike or how to blow up a petrol dump. It pushes apartheid away, it climbs above apartheid to a place much higher, a place free of apartheid.

Our writers and painters could do the same kind of thing. They could also break away from the pain and seriousness of apartheid. They could stop trying to follow the rules of anti-apartheid culture that people (including myself, Albie Sachs) have been forcing them to follow for so many years.

Dumile, perhaps the greatest of our painters, was once asked why he did not draw scenes like the one that was taking place in front of him. This was a scene of a long line of men being marched under arrest for not having their passes in order. At that moment, a hearse drove by and the men stood still and raised their hats. “That’s what I want to draw,” he said.

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Hugh Masekela – “his music pushes Apartheid away”

A STYLE OF OUR OWN
The narrow view of culture that we have had for so long has been damaging not only to culture but also to the struggle itself. Culture is not something separate from the struggle. It is not just something we can use from time to time to mobilise and unite the people, or to prove to the world that we are civilised. Culture is us, it is who we are, how we see ourselves and the vision we have of the world. When we make the culture of liberation, we make ourselves, and re-make ourselves.

The culture of liberation is not just a question of the discipline of our organisation and the relationships between the members of the organisation. All organisations have these things. But our movement has developed a style of its own, a way of doing things and of expressing itself, a particular ANC personality.

And this ANC personality is very rich. It includes African tradition, church tradition, revolutionary socialist tradition, liberal tradition, all the languages and ways and styles of all the many communities in our country. We have black consciousness, some red consciousness (some people would call it pink consciousness these days), even green consciousness (long before the Greens existed, we had green in our flag, representing the land).

Now, because our members have been spread all over the world, we also include the cultures of all humanity. Our comrades speak Swahili and Arabic and Spanish and Portuguese arid Russian and Swedish and French and German and Chinese. Not because of Bantu Education, but through ANC Education. We are even learning Japanese.

WE SING WHEN WE STRUGGLE
Our culture, the ANC culture, is not simply a collection of a lot of separate ethnic cultures lined up side by side, or mixed together in certain quantities, like the ingredients of a cake. It has a real and living character of its own. When we sing our anthem, a religious song, with our fists raised up, we are expressing the relationship that we have built together. We sing when we struggle and we struggle when we sing. This is perhaps the greatest cultural achievement that the ANC has made. We have made all South Africans, from very different backgrounds, feel comfortable in our ranks.

This does not mean that all differences and tensions disappear when you join the organisation. We bring with us our own particular way of seeing the world, our jealousies and our fixed ideas. But the goals and the comradeship of the struggle we have created allow us to deal with these differences. We have had debates about such things as whether to allow non-Africans onto the National Executive Committee, whether there should be corporal punishment at the Solomon Mahlangu College, and whether married women should do high kicks on stage. Today the question of women’s liberation is finally forcing itself into our thoughts and our actions, a very serious and important cultural change.

Culture is at the very centre of our movement. It is not something which we just bring out and put on the stage on ceremonial occasions and fund-raising events, or something which we use to entertain us at our meetings. If it was so, we would have no personality at other times. No, happily this is not the case. Culture is us, a.id we are people, not things waiting to be put into motion from time to time.

You can read the second part of Albie Sach’s paper in the next issue of Learn and Teach. If you would like to share your own thoughts on culture with other Learn and Teach readers, please write to us and we will try to print some of your letters.

NEW WORDS culture — art, music, poetry
censorship — control over what people say or write
conflict — struggle
reactionary — conservative, against change, clinging to the old ways
tenderness — gentleness, loving warmth
romanticism — ideas of love
consciousness — thinking and feeling
tensions — disagreements
National Executive Committee (NEC) — the highest decision making body in the ANC
Solomon Mahlangu College — the
ANC school in Tanzania
women’s liberation — the struggle of women for freedom from oppression and for equality with men

The JONAS GWANGWA story

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005One night 23 years ago, the black musicians of Johannesburg had a big party. They all met at Dorkay House in Eloff Street to say good bye to the members of King Kong – the famous stage show about life in Sophiatown. King Kong was going to London.

The night was long and wild. Ntemi Piliso was the leader of the band. And the famous Sol Klaaste was also there – playing the piano like never before. Everyone sang, drank and danced until the sun came up.

In the morning the whole party drove to the airport. They all sang Nkosi Sikelela and waved good-bye to the members of King Kong. King Kong was off to London in an aeroplane full of babalas and sore heads.

Jonas on the day he left for England

Jonas on the day he left for England

Some of the men and women from King Kong never came home. When the show in London ended many of them stayed overseas. They wanted to study music or to make records.

One of these people was a young man called Jonas Gwangwa – the trombone player in the King Kong show. After the show he went to America. He studied at famous music schools in New York. He played jazz with big time American jazz men. He made many records and lots of money.

Jonas Gwangwa became famous – a homeboy who made good. He lived in America for 15 years. And those years were not wasted. He met a lot of people, he played a lot of music and he learned a lot. Jonas was doing well – but he was not really happy.

He began to feel alone – like a man floating at sea, cut off from his people.

Jonas in England

Jonas in England

But Jonas couldn’t come home. He couldn’t come home because of his politics. He spent a lot of time in America fighting apartheid. He knew the government in South Africa was not his best friend.

So he did the next best thing. He flew to Gaborone in Botswana to be close by. And that’s where he lives and works today – still making the music that people love so much.

Learn and Teach went to Gaborone to talk to Jonas Gwangwa. We wanted to ask him some questions – like why does a man leave an easy life in America for a not so easy life in Botswana?

He spoke in a quiet way. And his words were full of deep feeling for his country, his people, their history and their music.

“Life in the U.S.A, was good,” says Jonas. “I played trombone with some of the best jazz musicians in the world. I also made a lot of music with South Africans like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba.

“One time I made a record with Miriam and Harry Belafonte – the great American blues singer. Most of the songs were in Zulu. So I had to teach Harry the words.

“It was great”, says Jonas. “Every time I went to Harry’s place he was sleeping. But I didn’t mind. He was paying me 15 dollars an hour. So I let him sleep. But soon he learnt some Zulu and we made the record. I learned a lot from that man.”

He learned a lot in America. But he never forgot his first lessons – the lessons he learned in the dusty streets of Sophiatown.

He remembered his days at Madibane High. He thought of his family and hard times. Jonas’ father was not so rich – like most black people in Sophiatown. The family could only pay for his sister to go to music lessons. So Jonas had to wait for a long time before he could play the music that was in his blood.

“I grabbed the first chance I got,” says Jonas. “From Madibane I went to St. Peters College in Rosettenville. Father Huddleston was the priest there. He got some old instruments and told us to play.

“I went to the first meeting. wanted to play the clarinet. But I didn’t know the name of the damn thing. So I asked for the first instrument I could think of – a trombone! I was shocked to see how big it was. But I was too shy to say anything. So that’s how I came to play the trombone.”

The boys at St. Peters started their own band and . called it the “Huddleston Jazz Band”. That’s where Jonas met people like Gwigwi Mrebi and Hugh Masekela – also great South African musicians.

Then Jonas joined the famous’ Union of South African Artists. This was a group of musicians who met on the top floor of Dorkay House in Eloff Street. Some of our best musicians played music there – people like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Sol Klaaste, Kippie Moeketsi and Dollar Brand.

And Jonas never forgot the band called the Jazz Epistles. He played in this band with men like Kippie Moeketsi and Dollar Brand. He also remembered playing in big bands like the Jazz Maniacs. And Jonas remembered the last night in Johannesburg when Ntemi Piliso played all night and everyone got sore heads.

“I knew then that I didn’t make it on my own,” says Jonas. “I needed the help of my friends at home ­ people like Kippie Moeketsi, Mackay Davashe, Ntemi Piliso and so many others.”

Jonas also believes that people can’t make music out of thin air. “Music comes from the history of people and from the places they live in,” says Jonas. He believes music comes from the way people suffer and from the way they fight to stay alive.

And in the U.S.A. Jonas was six thousand miles away from his people – the people that helped him make his music. So he had no choice. He had to be nearer home.

Today Jonas still makes music. He plays. with a young group of musicians in Gaborone. They call their band Shakawe — the name of a small village in the north of Botswana. He also works with a group called “Amandla” – musicians from South Africa who sing about their fight for freedom.

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005Jonas will never forget the old days and h is old friends. He is very sad that he did not meet his friend Kippie Moeketsi before he died.

His biggest wish is for Ntemi Piliso to come to Botswana. He dreams about drinking a cold beer and sharing memories with his old friend.

And one day Jonas Gwangwa hopes to come home to meet everyone else. Until then he waits with his best friend – the trombone. And until then, he will carry on making music about his people and for his people.