Thank you, Tata: Johnny Clegg sings for Nelson Mandela

2013-04-09 05:05

Sunday evening, 7 April. Mist rolls over Table Mountain, rain threatens. We’ve staked our claim in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, on a patch of damp grass. We’re at least a kilometre back from the stage. ‘Is this the closest you could get?’ scolds hubby. ‘Look around you, dude,’ I snap, ‘check out how many fans there are!’

The crowd has gathered for a Sunset Concert featuring Johnny Clegg. But the only thing resembling a sunset is the colour of Johnny’s jacket as he bounds onto the stage. I’ve already decided if it rains I’ll simply stick it out. What’s a downpour when I have the opportunity to hear Johnny sing “Asimbonanga”, his song of tribute to Nelson Mandela? The speakers are covered in plastic bags, I sip wine to numb the chill. I’m tweeting, facebooking, clicking pics with my cell phone. I'm loving the music. I'm in my element.

I’m expecting my song and Johnny doesn't disappoint. For this last number the crowd is on its feet trampling the remnants of picnic fare as he and his band sing:

Asimbonanga (We have not seen him)

Asimbonang' uMandela thina (We have not seen Mandela)

Laph'ekhona (In the place where he is)

Laph'ehleli khona (In the place where he is kept)

We are all islands till comes the day

We cross the burning water....

Tribute songs, some might call them struggle songs, by home-grown and international artists kept Mandela fresh in the imagination for years as he was confined to Robben Island. Brenda Fassie’s upbeat “Black President” tells the story from imprisonment to release: ‘The year 1963... the people’s president was taken away... the spirit was never broken, oh no my black president... now in 1990 the people’s president came out from jail... let us rejoice, let us pray, let us sing for the president’. Vusi Mahlasela, Hugh Masekela, Santana, u2, Youssou N’Dour, are but a handful of the artists who stood up to sing for Mandela and by so doing campaigned for the demise of apartheid.

Indeed, one of Madiba’s favourite songs is purported to be Labi Siffre’s “Something Inside So Strong” penned by Siffre in 1987 after he was moved to tears by a documentary on apartheid. It is one of those truly inspirational songs, the spirit lifts and soars as Siffre starts: ‘The higher you build your barriers, the taller I become… The more you refuse to hear my voice, the louder I will sing... You can deny me, no matter... there’s something inside so strong....’

But it’s still “Asimbonanga”, written by Clegg in 1986 when South Africa was in a state of emergency, which touches me most, and I enjoy watching the recording of a 1999 live performance which shows Nelson Mandela joining Johnny Clegg on stage. Already an elderly man back in 1999, Mandela struts his stuff, smiling as if it’s his first time in the limelight. After the audience has quietened down, Mandela takes the mike and looks out over the crowd and says, ‘It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world, and at peace with myself!’ (He goes on to gently chastise the mostly suburban audience standing enthralled and stokstil: ‘But I don’t see too much moving back there!’) It’s a clip of sheer pleasure which captures Madiba’s ability to appreciate the moment. Johnny says, ‘Thank you, God bless you,’ as Nelson leaves the stage.

Of course, even though he is comfortably home, everyone wonders when Madiba will take his final bow. It’s a national, indeed an international preoccupation at present. When will the curtain fall? How will we respond? How engulfing will be the collective grief as his story ends? How will we continue to celebrate the life of this worthy leader?

Who can blame us for having Madiba on our minds?

It’s worth referring to Mandela’s first televised interview in 1961, with ITN reporter Brian Widlake, recorded while Verwoerd was in power. Mandela said, ‘South Africa is a country of many races, there is room for all.’ He emphasised that no matter anyone’s level of education, what he wanted for South Africans was fundamental human rights; he stressed that every human has aspirations that cannot be ignored. Widlake talks of the 'bombshell' interview as a veiled call to arms as Mandela said:‘There are many people who feel that it is useless and futile for us to keep on talking peace and non-violence against a government whose reply is only savage attacks on an unarmed and defenseless people….’

He was arrested shortly after.

Decades later, in 2012, Barack Obama toasted Mandela - now an icon of humility and magnanimity - on his ninety-fourth birthday: ‘You gave a gift to the world… the fundamental belief that we don’t have to accept the world as it is, that we can remake the world as it should be. That’s what led you to take your long walk to freedom, that’s what led you and people in the United States like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King to tear down the barriers of prejudice and misunderstanding they saw around them and build a world that was more free, more equal and more just.’

In the simple words of Desmond Tutu, "Mr Mandela taught us to love ourselves, to love one another and to love our country. He laid the table so that all South Africans could eat."

Whether Nelson Mandela, in the days of his public outreach, was stretching out his hand to a statesman or a musician, or to an orphan or to a gogo, whether people found themselves thrilled in his physical presence, or were (and continue to be) inspired from afar, there seemed always, a palpable gratitude for the opportunity he had to connect with citizens of the world from every walk of life.

Another classic Johnny Clegg song which he sang at Kirstenbosch (the rain stayed off) is “The Crossing (Osiyeza)” with the poignant line: ‘Oh it’s funny how those ones so close ....and now gone, still so affect our lives…’

You, Tata, Khulu, you are one ‘so close’. You will live on as we continue to look to your extraordinary example of humanity and of generosity of spirit.

Thank you, Tata. God bless you.

Find more songs of tribute at: Songs for Nelson Mandela, compiled by Sean Jacobs

http://africasacountry.com/2010/02/11/songs-for-nelson-mandela/

I’m on twitter @JoanneHichens

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