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Dorothy Masuka and the problem of the state

Following the death of legendary singer-songwriter Dorothy Masuka at 83, Stan Mushava reflects on how she was denied a place both in Rhodesia and South Africa. Similar post-colonial experiences of artists, journalists and activists support the argument that ultimately it must be the role of the African Union and sub-regional bodies to protect free expression, because individual states have narrower minds and temporary interests.



Dorothy Masuka, the grand dame of African music, eventually basked in state recognition for her anti-apartheid work, but her beginnings were not similarly celebrated. Barely in her twenties, the Bulawayo-born singer-songwriter irritated apartheid enforcers with her songs. However, escaping South Africa to Rhodesia could not have been less advantageous, as the minority government to the north would soon render her a girl without a country.

It is not just her regional political sensibility – she famously chanted down apartheid laws and the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in a US-Belgian geopolitical conspiracy – but also the circumstances of her birth and upbringing that made Masuka a Pan-African cultural figure. Born in Southern Rhodesia to a Northern Rhodesian father and a South African mother in 1935, Masuka moved to South Africa in 1954, where her music career took off. However, for Aunt Dot, as for other subversive African voices, having a claim to different countries almost meant having a claim to none at all.

Her song “Dr Malan” condemned the apartheid government’s oppressive laws, including the prohibition of interracial marriage, while “Mhlaba” addressed the African’s colonial burden. “It was in me. I wanted to know why uDr Malan unomthetho onzima.” (Dr Malan has difficult laws). It was like I am telling you about Dr Malan so that when I sang some people saw the wrongs that Dr Malan truly used to do,” said an elderly Aunt Dot, reliving her first prophetic experience in an interview on Kaya FM radio.

In 1958, the South African Special Branch made a hostile visit to Troubadour Records, the label that the stridently inquisitive Miss Mzilikazi (1953) was a signee of, and confiscated the “Dr Malan” record. “The one man was saying we must arrest this woman – because to him I was a woman – and then the other guy was saying: ‘Oh my God, that girl is too small to put in jail or anything like that,’” Masuka recalled.

Dorothy Masuku composed and recorded close to 30 singles, several of which achieved major hit status. Madelene Cronje/ Mail & Guardian

Because the state actors had made known their intention to pick her up in two days, Masuka’s label had no choice but to facilitate her escape to Rhodesia, from where their talent scouts had taken her four years earlier. She arrived to the distinction of addressing the first press conference ever called by an African, according to music historian Joyce Jenje Makwenda.

But the adulation did not last long. Her reckless pen dragged the “Hamba Nontsokolo singer into more trouble.

In 1961, media were awash with reports of Pan-Africanist firebrand Patrice Lumumba’s disappearance. The short-lived Congolese president had been on the John F. Kennedy administration’s hit list, seen as an inconvenient catalyst of socialist ferment in a liberated Africa. More recently, Nas, back from the rap dungeons with Jay Z’s lifeless body in Stillmatic, took time to pay homage : “To Patrice Lumumba, just trying to fight for what’s real but destroyed by his own country.”

Lumumba salutes the photographers as he leaves the Idlewild airport 02 August 1960, to go to his hotel in New York. Leader of the Congolese national movement, he became the first Prime Minister (1960) of the new state Democratic Republic of the Congo, former Belgian Congo, renamed Zaïre in 1971. Photo: ANP

When Aunt Dot beat him to it, channelling her Pan-Africanist wokeness in mid-century Africa, the outcome was alienating. “You mean, this girl continues asking questions like this?” Masuka recalled the system’s incensed reaction to her Lumumba song. While South Africa was busy destroying the record, Rhodesia was not willing to let her stay.

Thankfully, her father’s newly independent Zambia was more welcoming. The artist, who penned monster classics like “Pata Pata” had to endure “the years that the locust ate”, splitting a long exile between a few countries and working as an air hostess till Zimbabwe and, subsequently, South Africa won majority rule.

Masuka, born Masuku but stuck with the name that was easier on the colonial tongue since her first recording, lived to be celebrated with various honours in an independent South Africa, including the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver. The recognition, accorded in 2004 by President Thabo Mbeki, is a national honour bestowed on artists in South Africa.

States should not be able to judge artists

An enemy to the earlier state, Masuka was a darling to the subsequent one. Her cause could not have been criminal after all, as no artist’s should be just because a state says so. The Pan-Africanist passport, which has been mooted as a step towards greater unification, should also be seen as one of the potentially protective mechanisms for artists who sometimes find themselves threatened by elite-serving state actors.

History shows that it cannot be left to the state to judge an artist, who is, after all, the last hope for a voice of conscience outside institutional control.


Nobel Laureate Prof Wole Soyinka addressing the 8th Commonwealth Conference for Heads and urging for the arrest of corrupt leaders. Photo: Facebook/WoleSoyinka

History shows that it cannot be left to the state to judge an artist, who is, after all, the last hope for a voice of conscience outside institutional control. Remember Wole Soyinka negotiating before dawn for a boat out of Nigeria, with a price on his head? As far as Nigeria’s military dictatorship was concerned, the shaggy playwright’s prophecies were unworthy of daylight – but we are wiser in retrospect. 

Remember Wole Soyinka negotiating before dawn for a boat out of Nigeria, with a price on his head?

A problem in post-colonial Africa too

One is likely to dismiss Masuka’s condition as a prophetess without a country as simply the colonial order of things. But it is also an independent Africa problem. Bill Saidi, the great Zimbabwean journalist known for his bare-knuckled approach to his trade, was born in Southern Rhodesia to a Nyasaland father. Saidi rose to editorial prominence in Zambia.

Having been denied a passport by Rhodesia for being alien, Saidi was barred from his father’s liberated Malawi for his journalistic inquisitiveness, while Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda, increasingly riled by Saidi’s fierce independence, inquired, “Why doesn’t this man go back to his own country?” and sent him back to newly independent Zimbabwe, where he did not exactly experience the most democratic of working environments.

Africa has never had a shortage of governments that label artistic or journalistic scrutiny as treason, while enjoying the complicit bromance of their regional counterparts. To have a place in a country can be a problem for conscientious artists, journalists and activists because the state that is mandated with protecting their free expression is not too enthusiastic about that role when it finds itself the target of their criticism.

Read: Dorothy Masuku: Africa has lost a singer, composer and a hero of the struggle

Prophetic figures in conditions that would allow them to claim a Pan-Africanist identity, such as Masuka and Saidi, have found their sprawling roots a curse rather than a blessing when not one but many states conspire to crunch their art into their own parochial definitions of crime.

Individual states have narrower and more temporary minds than regional bodies. It should be a fire in the bones of the AU, SADC and other bodies to look into insulating artists from state repression, whatever the circumstances of history.

After all, artists we lose to the West sometimes become questionable as advocates of our collective cause. Thomas Mapfumo’s dubious refrain “Everything is big in America” would have been an insult to Eric Killmonger. Writers in the West, because they have been denied prophetic space at home, have sometimes softened into eager accessories to the Western narrative.

African-American rapper Mos Def has never been the most obedient nephew of Uncle Sam, from his force-feeding Abu Ghraib video to his socially aware catalogue that places him in the same anti-establishment category as Talib Kweli, Public Enemy, Common, Lupe Fiasco and the more mainstream Kendrick Lamar and Nas. For Mos Def, protesting in an industry micro-managed by corporates who are anything but politically innocent came at a high cost, resulting in obscurity, retirement even.


Mos Def performing at the 2012 Ilosaarirock Festival in Joensuu, Finland. Photo: Wiki CC BY-SA 3.0/Tuomas Vitikainen

He retraced his roots to Africa, the spiritual home of woke artists, but this too did not pan out well. South African authorities found his travel documents questionable and made it clear that the woke spitter was no longer welcome in that country. Yet another African country denied him entry for the same reason. Several of his European shows did not go ahead as his papers were not in order.

Throughout all his misadventures, Mos Def idealistically claimed to be in possession of a world passport, a document issued by a US-based pacifist non-profit organisation. The borderless utopia is a notion to be explored, at least on a Pan-African basis, particularly in recognition of the thankless position that artists drive themselves into as spokespersons of repressed populations.

The problem of the state and the activist in investigative journalism

The problem of the state and the activist is particularly pronounced on the high-tech front of investigative journalism. Anas Aremeyaw Anas, the legendary Ghanaian undercover journalist, has unusually enjoyed the cooperation of the state in his “name, shame and jail” mission. But the state is a fickle thing. It is hippopotamus rather than a rock, to put it in the sacred words of TS Eliot.

Anas Aremeyaw

Ghanaian undercover journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas has played a critical role in exposing corruption in Ghana, stopping human traffickers and jailing corrupt judges. Photo: Facebook/AnasAremeyaw

The control of the state routinely shifts from progressive elements to Trojan horses straight out of the criminal underworld. Whereas Anas has worked with police to haul criminals into judicial scrutiny, he has found his work increasingly threatened as it targets powerful politicians, in addition to judges themselves.

He may live to partner a hostile government, like the stateless Julian Assange, unwanted by his native Australia for “playing outside the rules” and now a “stone in the shoe” of Ecuador, following the coming in of a right-leaning government that is willing to make it up to Washington, London and Madrid and is apologetic about hosting the man who is smoke in its benefactors’ nostrils.

Jesus said a prophet is not without honour except among his own people. These days, a prophet can be equally not without a country except among his own people. It would not hurt for the African Union and SADC to work out an arrangement that would enable those troubled creatures to lay their heads anywhere without a care.