There will come a day when simply celebrating indigenous music in South Africa will be an apolitical affair, perhaps like German men wearing lederhosen in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps or Japanese women dancing in silky kimonos in Tokyo’s iridescent streets. But today is not that day.
The mere fact of singers assembling to recount the history of some of the earliest inhabitants of the Eastern Cape is an act of political redress, especially when the singers mention as a mere after-thought that the first Europeans arrived in 1652.
The entire production is a subtle rebuke of white/Western narratives that omit so much of the story. In this account, however, an effort is made to honour every nation that has called this land home: from the Khoi San, through to the Swazi, Basotho and Xhosa people – including, incidentally, the Afrikaans, who get a chance to shine with a version of the beloved sokkie [a traditional dance style] hit, “Loslappie”.
The show is made up of musical and dance contributions from the various groups, with a special focus on the AbaThembu and AmaMpondo nations. Each is rich and energetic, often with dense four- or five-part harmonies that fill the auditorium with such beauty that it is almost possible to forget where the production is taking place: Grahamstown’s 1820 Settlers Monument, a building whose very existence is testament to the Eastern Cape’s contested history.
The life story of a leader
Overt attention is given to politics as the narrator explores the life story of former ANC president Oliver Tambo. We hear that Tambo, who was president of the organisation between 1967 and 1991, was a champion of women’s rights, for instance, and that he died in 1993, which means that he did not live to see Nelson Mandela become the first black president of South Africa. The two men are held up as examples of the best that the Eastern Cape has produced.
Tambo also serves as a means to introduce the theme of deferred hope as the narrator steps back from the simplistic “rainbow nation” message that is preached in the first half. “We need healing,” she says at one point. “The struggle continues,” she announces at another, almost as rallying cry. Sighs and groans of agreement spill over from the audience.
The subsequent musical pieces are imbued with a sense of urgency and agitation as we are reminded that song has never been just a soundtrack to the struggle in South Africa; it is a weapon in the arsenal against oppression. It is not just a soothing balm on an aching wound; it is a fiery chariot on which soldiers advance to war.
It feels as if all the words are sung in the present tense as the nation grapples with the news that the economy has now officially slumped into a recession. Like Tambo himself, many can identify with the idea of deferred hope, as the promises of the 23-year-old democracy continue to tarry for many citizens.
Given that the production is funded and endorsed by the province of the Eastern Cape it is no surprise that a conciliatory tone is struck throughout. Underneath the surface, however, each note resonates with a present need. There will come a day when this kind of show will be apolitical; a time when inequality has been banished to the ash heap of history. But that day is not today.