South Africa

Thuma Mina: How Hugh Masekela, music and culture can help us shape a new zeitgeist and vision

By Marianne Thamm 19 February 2018

Hugh Masekela had hardly left this mortal coil when he returned to feature centre-stage as newly ensconced President Cyril Ramaphosa referenced, in his inaugural State of the Nation Address, Thuma Mina (Send Me), a song about solidarity, compassion and renewal, composed by Masekela, Sello Twala and gospel star Peter Mokoena. Bra Hugh was wary of politics and politicians and if we are in any way to celebrate this dearly departed colossus, it would be to honour the catalytic effect of his life, his work and the Afro-centric consciousness, healing and wisdom it offers. By MARIANNE THAMM.

Political rhetoric has been so debased globally that it has been reduced to covfefe and meandos. We live in a spiritually insolvent age in which a diet of sugar-candy populism and rote sloganeering corrodes mind, body and soul.

How fitting then that a medium that nourished the South African struggle for freedom – music and the song – should feature in newly minted President of the Republic of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa’s inaugural State of the Nation Address last week.

Who knows what Hugh Masekela would have thought of Ramaphosa’s reference to Thuma Mina, a song co-written with Sello Twala and gospel star Peter Mokoena. The president’s mention has since been universally read as a call for South Africans, deeply traumatised by the corrosive and self-serving Zuma era, to find new inspiration and hope in a common humanity, ubuntu, duty and service.

Send me – Thuma Mina.

The song is a variation of a well-known traditional Zulu hymn but with a secular twist. It is a call to “nation building” of the most merciful kind, not the “America First” brand of Donald Trump, the growing isolationism of Europe and the UK, or the muscular exclusionism of nationalism elsewhere in the world which threatens the very existence of those regarded as “other”.

More than 20 years after the notion of Mandela’s “rainbow nation”, this new “send me” era will require more than just superficial, kitsch slogans to find traction and to give it real effect and meaning.

It will require, for many, stepping out of a comfort zone and opting for the slog, the hard work of helping others, of participating in the rebuilding of the country, of sharing resources where possible.

If you are looking for inspiration then Masekela’s own life provides enough of a road map, away from the politics and driven by the whisperings of a decent heart. The man was free of ego and generous beyond measure. With his time, with his wisdom, offering practical and very real succour to those who needed it.

If you are looking for inspiration read Masekela’s biography Still Grazing – The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela by Hugh Masekela and D Michael Cheers. Listen to his vast body of work, look up his views on the value of history, culture, heritage and language.

Masekela was wary of politics and politicians which is why he preferred a discreet family funeral and not the pomp and ceremony of a state-funded send-off. Speaking to the Kenyan East African in 2016 Masekela said that while he didn’t hate politicians, he viewed them as opportunists.

They are there to rip the people off, dumb them down and have them vote for them. Especially in Africa, they are not there for the people. This is not a new thing, but I think it’s at its worst now,” he said.

Masekela’s extraordinary life and work is enduring, rooted in an Afro-jazz consciousness that transcends the boundaries of music. Masekela used music, language, culture and heritage to keep history alive and to find a path to healing. He sang about slavery and oppression, about colonialism and post-colonial Africa, about greed and brutality. He sang of the dismal lives of mineworkers, of the joys of the African market, the vitality and wounds of life.

Masekela turned the pain of exile into a triumph. Unable to live in his homeland he sang it to life (along with others), taking its traditions, beliefs and struggles to the stages of the world. His talent and exceptionalism saw him celebrated by anyone who was anyone in the 20th and 21st Century.

South Africans have survived an era of deep disappointment and distrust of political leadership.

If we are to find a new compass, if we need a tool to understand ourselves and our fellow citizens, then it must be, as Hugh Masekela understood, through arts and culture. It is here that we will come to celebrate our diversity and strength and plot a different, collective path.

If Ramaphosa is serious about renewal and healing then it is imperative that in this new era of looking outward towards others and not inwards towards oneself, arts and culture must take centre stage and not feature as an afterthought.

He could begin by appointing a minister deeply invested in the arts, culture, heritage and language.

A government that values its artists contributes to the spiritual and mental well-being of its citizens.

Asked by the East African why there is so little opportunity for musicians in South Africa, Masekela replied, “Not just in South Africa but in many African countries too, and it is because the governments feel they are more important than the arts, that arts are frivolous. But when they need you, they call you.”

Someone clever, it might have been British playwright David Hare, once wrote that there are four ways of making sense of the world – religion, politics, sport and the arts.

The first three, he concluded, were unreliable.

It is noteworthy that the movie blockbuster Black Panther has opened in South Africa to great enthusiasm and acclaim. Daily Maverick’s Nkateko Mabasa wrote of Wakanda, the film’s “afro-futuristic and technologically advanced country” infused with African culture and fashion, as “a place that has never known Western hegemonic cultural imperialism”.

The scenes are unlike anything we have seen in sci-fi or superhero movies. It attempts to inspire a new generation to consider what the continent might have looked like and could very well still look like without colonisation.”

Mabasa writes that audiences “were moved to tears by the respect and dedication and sensitivity with which Africa and its customs and its people were displayed”.

Bra Hugh would no doubt have approved.

It is an inexplicable feeling to sit in a cinema and watch a Hollywood big budget film and see yourself represented. There on screen, you see yourself as you have always known and not through the viewpoint of others,” wrote Mabasa.

Masekela offers everyone – including pale natives – a place of refuge, an anchor, a place of common humanity and decency, located in the history of this continent and the best it has to offer.

He was always a gentle rebel, the man who had the guts to say “send me” and who did not turn away from the task at hand. Honour him and say “send me”. DM

Photo: Hugh Masekela by PeterTea via Flickr.

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