Dashiki Dialogues: Jazzing up South Africa’s contradictions

2014-03-21 10:00

Few things are as beautiful as the contradictions and ironies that define South Africa.

I was sitting with friends at Joburg’s new jazz club, The Orbit in Braamfontein, when this realisation hit me.

For instance, opinion leaders often tell us that jazz is a “niche” musical genre. They say this against the only musical form that enjoys four international festivals in the country.

These are: the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, Joburg’s Joy of Jazz, the Standard Bank Jazz Festival in Grahamstown and Macufe in Mangaung.

Then there’s a host of regional festivals and monthly jazz stokvels held in almost every township from the Cape to Limpopo.

Further, surely a niche musical genre couldn’t account for at least nine prestigious music schools across the country dedicated to producing jazz musicians. This is surely incongruent with the meaning of niche.

Anyway, of all the ironies out there, none fascinates me more than the Afrikaans language. Consider that on June 16 1976, hundreds of black schoolchildren across the country marched against the government’s decree that Afrikaans was to be a medium of instruction.

Many died at the hands of the apartheid police during that protest.

Interestingly, much of the public conversation around the politics of that event omits how Afrikaans has always had more black speakers than white ones.

The language guarded by white supremacists as a nationalist symbol is more black than they wish it to be. To understand this, we must deracialise Afrikaans.

We must think of it not as a marker of culture or nationalist political ideology. Let’s remember that it was once called kitchen Dutch, a patois that mixed word streams from Cape Malay, Khoisan and other tongues. It also became the language of the coloured experience called Afrikaaps by Cape Town folk.

Since Sophiatown’s black cultural renaissance, it continues as a language of urban smarts among darkies. Consider the symbolism suggested by tsotsitaal.

Across many small Karoo towns like Beaufort West and Cradock, many black people of Xhosa birth access professional opportunities more comfortably in Afrikaans as their lingua franca of choice.

To them, it’s not a marker of identity but an instrument of access. It’s similar to the convenient dashiki that English has become the means of our dialogue with commerce today.

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