The stories behind the songs

2010-08-18 00:00

“Take it from me, someday we will all be free.” These lyrics from a negro spiritual song became synonymous with the African-American struggle against slavery and for civil liberties in the United States.

That the U.S. today has a president of African origin was not an overnight achievement. It was the culmination of a protracted political struggle that was inspired by songs like the one above and numerous other freedom songs.

Songs and chants also played a hugely significant role in the struggle for social justice here in South Africa, and it would be very unfortunate if these songs became irrelevant just because the struggle for political emancipation has been won.

As a country we missed an opportunity to debate fully on the role of struggle songs during Julius Malema’s woes following his singing of the song dubuli’ bhunu. We missed this opportunity because in South Africa once a debate seems to be about race, it is dismissed as being divisive, hence we have never had a frank discourse on race in the entire life of South Africa’s democracy.

It is a no-brainer that in giving struggle songs their rightful place in contemporary South Africa, we can’t continue to sing songs that are demeaning to other people, but it is not in our interests to let these songs go to waste.

African people are known for their penchant for oral tradition. The age-old practice of sitting by the fireplace or forming a circle and having an adult telling stories of a bygone era needs to be revived using especially our struggle songs.

Take the song, Senzeni Na? (what have we done?). This song posed a question to the government of the time: what have we done as African people to deserve such inhumane treatment in the land of our birth? This song was always sung at mass funerals, which became the common feature of black people’s lives during apartheid. Telling the story behind this song to young people will not only give them a sense of where they come from, it will also inculcate a sense of responsibility and purposeful citizenship. It will serve as a reminder that the civil liberties that some people take for granted came at a very high cost — that people sacrificed their lives for this freedom.

These struggle songs can also play a significant role in political education, especially among young people, and can deal decisively with the challenge of political apathy among the so-called born frees.

There is one song that always evokes intense emotions in me to the point of shedding tears at times. The song goes, “Ngvulele mama wami noma sengifile (open for me mother even though I am dead).” This song talks about young people leaving home for exile to fight for liberation only to come back home in coffins, having been killed by the enemy. It’s a freedom fighter’s plea for acceptance by family even though he is dead. This is because in many instances, young people didn’t tell their folks when they left for exile. Now imagine the pain that would be felt by parents only to see the remains of their children after many years away from home. This is the kind of history and nuances that as a people we can’t afford to lose and these struggle songs can become able conduits of our rich and sometimes painful history.

These songs are part of our heritage. They are part of who we are and what we have become as a society. To hold a view that these songs belong to the dustbin of history would be very unfortunate and myopic in my view. Struggle songs played a huge role in giving hope, giving strength and inspiring, and they contributed to the steadfastness of many who were waging a just struggle against fierce opposition.

As for me I am going to continue to sing Kulamahlath’ amnyama (in those black forests), Hamba kahle mkhonto (farewell spear of the nation), Thula mntanami silwela lelizwe (hush my child, we are fighting for this land) and many other struggle songs. If for nothing else, I am going to sing so that I don’t lose the spirit of patriotism.

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