Award-winning singer prayed through Braamfontein Orbit mayhem

2016-10-17 07:55
Singer Sibongile Khumalo performing in concert. (Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images North America/AFP)

Singer Sibongile Khumalo performing in concert. (Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images North America/AFP)

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Johannesburg – While the front doors of The Orbit jazz club in Braamfontein were being smashed on Friday night, award-winning singer Sibongile Khumalo did not feel afraid.

Instead, she closed her eyes in front of her microphone and started praying.

"The first response that kicked in, was 'let's pray'," Khumalo told News24 by phone on Saturday.

"The whole room stood up. We all prayed together," said Khumalo who recently released a new album, Breath of Life, after a long hiatus.

"I actually didn't see anything for a while because my eyes were closed for prayer."

Hailing from Orlando West in Soweto, the daughter of a nurse and music professor laughed when she said, "The first thing you are going to ask me is if I was scared.

"But I was not scared," said Khumalo, whose actions may have prevented a stampede and tragedy.

"I recognised that things happen the way they need to happen.

"I didn't want people to run, because that would have been more dangerous," explained the recipient of the silver Order of Ikhamanga for her work in the arts – one of South Africa's highest national awards.

"Even my daughter was on her knees, praying. In the Orbit."

Apartheid flashbacks

A previous generation may remember Khumalo as one of a movement of singers and performers who helped assuage apartheid's horrors through music and gave like-minded people a chance to gather together, often in violation of strict laws forbidding racial integration.

And on Friday night, she could have been forgiven for thinking she was having flashbacks.

The burning SABC truck reminded her of how during apartheid, sales reps' cars were torched because they were seen as the face of white business, which activists at the time wanted to disrupt.

After her prayer, captured by eNCA reporter Jody Jacobs, she began singing one of the deep stanzas of Enoch Sontonga and Samuel Mqhayi's hymn, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, while outside police chased arsonists and looters and fired stun grenades.

"Everybody sang. We did not sing it as the national anthem, but as the way I remember singing it as a child."

Khumalo said she was surprised by how intense the feelings over the struggle for education were among the protesters.

She was saddened that libraries were burnt, and performance bases such as The Orbit damaged, as people grappled with differing ideas of what needed to be done in the struggle for education.

"There is no standing by anymore. We need to get involved on some level."

Safely evacuated

But in spite of the unrest, the club will stay put and will not move.

Late on Friday night, a distressed staffer who answered the phone while a hosepipe was being positioned to put out a nearby fire could only say over and over, "Everything is fucked".

By Saturday, the club issued a statement and tweets thanking people for the support it had received.

"Last night The Orbit was attacked by a small group of people who smashed the front doors," a tweet read.

"We had a full house for Sibongile Khumalo's performance. Thankfully the musicians and all our guests were safely evacuated."

They would be closed on Saturday and Sunday night but were working on opening next week.

"We opened our doors with a social mission in mind: a belief in the city of Johannesburg and the positive contribution that jazz makes to lives of people and to the arts. Nothing has changed, Braamfontein remains the home of the Home of Jazz," the statement said.

Four students were among the nine people arrested over the arson and looting and will appear in the Hillbrow Magistrate's Court.

Read more on:    johannesburg  |  university fees  |  university protests  |  fires

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