Noel Ignatiev's Blog

Letter from South Africa

By Noel Ignatiev

My daughter, Memphis, and I have been here in Durban, South Africa for almost a year now, and I am on the eve of completing the school year here at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Today is the centennial of the 1913 Natives Lands Act, the law that put 90% of the South African population on 10% of the land, and not the most arable or mineral rich land either. Decades before the Nationalist party completely formalized and instituted Apartheid (with help from studying the Jim Crow laws of the United States and the Nazi laws of Germany), 1913 decree set in motion many of the social problems that we are still dealing with in the present, including the monopoly of farming by whites, systematic deterioration in black family life, especially with the traditional roles of fathers etc, etc. 

A group of Khoisan people have occupied District Six in Cape Town in rebellion against their genocidal displacement and with all the resonances that genocide has with the Native Lands Act. The term Khoisan amalgamates the names of the KhoeKhoe and the San, the aboriginal peoples of South Africa, who were called by Europeans Hottentots and Bushmen (one still hears South Africans referring to the indigenous people here as Bushmen). The act is not only courageous it is quite symbolic, as District Six was one of the mixed race neighborhoods evacuated by the apartheid government to allow whites a residential monopoly in the areas they deemed desirable. District, Six in Cape Town, Cato Manor in Durban, Sophiatown in Johannesburg (thanks to Drum magazine and other publications, Sophiatown is easily the most famous of these storied neighborhoods), and many others throughout the land have similar stories.

Again, this land is not a place where people take things lying down, and by now the whole world knows about the massacre that occurred during the mining strikes at Mariakana. This atrocity besides being truly horrific, is important for the way in which it highlights so much of what is dysfunctional or even down right wrong with the “new South Africa”–the continued ravages of unfettered capital, the racialized history of labour, the collusion between the government and the captains of industry, the about face betrayal of some labour unions and their leaders (in the case of teh massacre, union leaders had stock in the mines!), and so much more. The criminality of the police involved in the massacre is still being handled by the courts, though recently two of the policemen involved committed suicide…On the other hand, even though the president himself has issued warnings to all to keep the strikes to a minimum there are several going on now, in the mining and farming sectors. When you hear about the paltry sums that are being demanded one wonders how the capitalists can keep claiming not to be able to afford the hikes, and then one has to wonder about the bigger picture constraining all the players…

At the same time I must confess that there are so many delightful things that i am discovering as I make my way here in eThekwini (The Zulu name for Durban. Durban is in Zulu land). Aside form the intelligence and soulfulness of the people, the physical land (for instance, people here in Durban are so used to perfect weather that if it dips as much as five degrees from perfection they are not cold, but rather “very cold”; five degrees above perfect and they are complaining about how hot it is). So now it is winter time, and though people are still wearing sandals and shorts (despite other people’s insistence upon coats and vests) it is “cold”. I could get used to this!

We are blessed to be in a land of great singers and musicians. I have begun working with the Durban Music Center which is an institution that is in service to the community and does a fantastic job of giving musical skills and opportunities to the youth of Durban, including those from the townships (a term, along with “location” that refers to black or coloured or Indian neighborhoods, distinguished from “suburbs” which is the term for the lily white neighborhoods of the city, though of course these are much more integrated since the beginning of the democracy, still just a baby at 19 years old). On one trip to Mauritius with the school’s big band (where there were delegations in competition from Mpumulanga and KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, the island nations of Rodriguez and Mauritius, and Zambia) I had a revelatory experience during our down time. These young men when not playing formally decided, as they often did and do, to sing and dance. You have to understand that in Africa singing and dancing is much more of a way of life than in the west. I am still intrigued to see politicians from the president on down, dancing and singing at formal meetings, for instance. And to see the toyi toyi dance and song that accompanies strikers (this nation has more strikes than any other nation in the world–there is even an informal “strike season”), sometimes along with spears, machetes, and clubs, is an awe inspiring spectacle. At school this year, for example, there was a strike as some students were living without the provisions for lodging and board that they had paid for. Only one person was hospitalized, but there was much intimidation and also property damage, as students were striking for the most basic of rights. Interestingly enough, it was not until the striking bloomed that the university made a written response. but they reneged on the time table and the students shut the school down, and we all had our vacation a week early.

On another note…The harmonies that black South Africans use in their communal singing!! Something to hear before you transcend this plane. For one thing, the depth of the men’s voices is notable. I find myself thinking, how do these little guys have such deep voices? Memphis once pointed out to me that often Zulu men and boys have deeper voices when speaking their language than when speaking English. I hadn’t noticed it before, but have been witnessing it since she pointed it out. The notions of manliness and toughness are still very evident in modern Zulu culture I believe. Even in the expressions of courtesy and manners one sees the vestiges of the warrior culture. Shaka, the reigning imperialist of the region, until the onslaught of the Dutch and the sun-don’t-set-on-the-union-jack English colonialists came on the scene, effected his victories in part with the innovation of the short stabbing spear as a weapon of warfare. Today, when people accept money or food or whatever, be it a waitress, cashier, or a friend at a braai (SA version of barbecue), the person giving will hand over the cash, food, or whatever with the right hand and touch the inside of the right elbow with the left hand, symbolizing that there is no weapon hid up his or her sleeve, and that the gesture is benign. Mad gangsta at first glance, until one realizes the scope and depth of violence that has been visited upon the peoples of this nation…

Anyway, the fluidity of harmonic motion and the beautiful transitions of songs, genre and style when these young people were singing lifted my spirit in the most magnificent way. In fact, I must confess that all of my life I have considered Afro American singing to be the most sophisticated in the world, by which I meant the most soulful and the most modern, and the most encompassing of the human spirit and condition. While one can argue that the standard of Afro American singing has been lowered of late, the fact of the matter is that the communal singing of black South Africans (not so much their imitations of Afro American or European singing) most certainly rivals what black America has produced. And what is fascinating is that they have done so for the same reasons that Afro America did. But perhaps they have an added layer of complexity and hence understanding, through what musician/musicologist Sazi Dlamini refers to as triple consciousness (building and transcending DuBois’ concept of double consciousness as it refers to blacks in the so-called New World). With triple consciousness, blacks are not only modern subjects in the social/economic sense, but add to the cultural hybridity of peoples such as Afro Americans, specific knowledge and practices of their own cultural history, not stamped out by colonialism. So in addition to their language, there are songs, dances, proverbs, socialization rituals accompanying major developmental and social transitions, and so forth. These guys could sing the choral works taught to them in mission schools, the Salvation Army, church, and seamlessly transform whatever was being sung into the popular mbaqanga format, just as easily slide into Louis Armstrong style singing and scatting, and on and on, literally for hours. These transitions can be signaled through dance as easily as through song. And not just the leader, but even accompanist can alter the direction of the music. there were spots for solos, and even for a dance improvisation. So much fun. Since then I have had my ears more open and have heard school buses going by with vigorous singing. I felt like a witness to the 19th-century practices of signification whereby American slaves would critique or perhaps cajole their masters through singing and signifying. One day one talented trumpeter delighted us during the several hour trip back to the mess hall when the driver crept along at a snail’s pace, with songs with altered lyrics about how hungry we were, how late we would be to dinner and how simple it would be to just apply more pressure to the accelerator and so forth. The description pales before the creativity and the joy of the actual music. (I suppose that is always the case, though.)

Madiba, President Mandela, the symbolic father of the democracy here, is the lead story most days as at 95+ he is again under hospital care. It is something to realize the care and affection the nation has for this man. The Mandela name is revered, though that did not stop some of his children and grandchildren from fighting over his money. But all pettiness and greed aside, his soon coming birthday next month will no doubt be another moment of pride. On Mandela’s birthday everyone must spend a certain amount of minutes in public service. i forget the exact number, but it is one minute for every year that Mandela was in the struggle first as head of Umkhonto Sizwe and then as imprisoned political prisoner. What a cool way to celebrate the president’s birthday. And it is heartwarming to hear of all the things that ordinary citizens engaged in as a result of this practice. No doubt people will outdo themselves this year.



June 20, 2013

Back to Noel Ignatiev’s Author Page