Struggle Songs: The Uplifting Language of the Oppressed
By Vusi Kweyama
Thursday, January 3, 2013
I’m told that back in the days of struggle, deep in the intestines of the earth where miners dug up mineral resources, survival motivation and strategy originated from songs. If you visit South African prisons, you’d quickly see what it is that allows offenders to cope with their captivity: They sing to let out their daily frustrations. One popular prisoner song is “Wayengikhuza mama ethi mtanami mtanami yekela manje ukuhamba embusuku” (“My child, my child stop your night activities”). Such songs serve to project regret while envisaging hope for change upon release. However, after their release, they go back to the same material conditions that caused their criminal behavior in the first place. But let me leave the politics of prison for another article, as I now want to focus on the role of songs in South African politics.
I’m sure that even in Robben Island Prison, where Mandela was incarcerated for many years, what kept prisoners going was their singing, which addressed their personal situation and the struggles of the masses. I imagine that when Mandela and others worked every day in the prison’s quarry during and after full-day shift, one of the things that lifted up their spirits was the singing about what lied ahead for them and their hope for liberation.
I’m also told that in America, jazz music served the very same purpose for those living in pockets of discriminated southern blacks. It’s clear to me that music has become a powerful language of the oppressed.
You don’t learn that language in school but from the street and other situational struggles for survival. Survival politics of the oppressed emanates from a longing for freedom from hardship. If you’ve never experienced oppression, I don’t care how many academic degrees you have or how well you speak the Queen’s English: You’ll never gain the trust of the oppressed.
Jacob Zuma, currently serving as president of the African National Congress (ANC) and South Africa, understands this very well; it’s one of the reasons why he controls the helm of South African politics, regardless of moral questions asked of him.
Academics is not one of his strengths. But President Zuma is doing quite well for a man of his educational level; this is one of the many reasons why those South Africans who are a byproduct of Bantu education (an education system designed for blacks in apartheid South Africa) embrace him. The President’s political prowess stems from his ability to understand South African society, and the struggles of the masses.
President Zuma’s understanding of the powerful language of the marginalised was once again validated during the most recent ANC national conference in Mangaung when he sang a fitting song addressing current South African reality: “Washo Mandela kubalandeli bakhe wathi yinde lendlela esiyihambayo siyodibana nge — Freedom Day” (Mandela said to his followers, “This road we’ve embarked on is long; we’ll meet on Freedom Day”). Behind the safe havens of luxurious lives, we comment and judge; we do a bit of what we think is right for the underprivileged, yet our hearts remain unchanged. This song that Zuma sang resonated not only with those on his side but the many who appreciate the struggles of the previously disadvantaged.
My hope and prayer is that, in this new year, we’ll all be brought closer to that which we celebrate on Freedom Day: real freedom. However, for us to successfully attain real freedom, we must deliberately avoid corruption while exerting ourselves to insist on distributive justice, guarding against anything that seeks to manipulate and compromise the struggle for real freedom.
One of the reasons why it would take another fifty years for the Democratic Alliance (the opposition party) to pose a serious threat to the ANC is its lack of understanding the languages of the oppressed. It doesn’t matter how many black faces they have, so long as those faces aren’t shaped by the shared experiences of the majority of South Africans; their efforts would be in vein.
Disenfranchised black South Africans understand little about book politics. They have become, however, masters of real-life-experience politics. Liking autobiographies and preferring nonfiction over fiction, their struggle for survival is a real one.
“Washo Mandela kubalandeli bakhe wathi yinde lendlela esiyihambayo siyodibana nge — Freedom Day” (“This road we’ve embarked on is long; we’ll meet on Freedom Day” — Nelson Mandela).