Sfiso Ncwane’s music, his ability to transcend the “world within a world”, competing with secular music for our hearts and minds and succeeding at it, reminded us of the ever-so-present and undeniable truth that secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.
They are wrong to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public debates and that to ask anyone to do so is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Christian tradition. That is why one of the most celebrated speeches by President Thabo Mbeki, his tribute to Nelson Mandela on the occasion of the 4th Nelson Mandela Lecture, sought to entrench this moral foundation of our policies that is embedded in our spirituality. “Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it,” said Mbeki, quoting the book of Proverbs. “Say not unto thy neighbour, Go, and come again, and tomorrow I will give; when thou hast it by thee.”
The spiritual upliftment that came from Sfiso’s music anchored millions of South Africans in their beliefs and value systems, which explains the outpouring of grief since the news of his untimely passing broke. Since Sfiso’s breakthrough in the music industry, his golden voice has continued to serenade millions of our people, heartwarming, motivational, and life-changing. The testimonies followed him, people who had reached the limits of their strength were touched by his grand award0winning songs, especially SAMA song of the year Kulungile Baba (It is Alright with me Father if it is your Will). And yet what made his sound so far-reaching was actually his life story behind his iconic music, a story of resilience, faith, fighting back against the hard odds of life, and he would motivate even more to emulate his rags-to-reaches story.
I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of gospel music, its edification of faith in people’s lives. South Africans are a religious people – 90% of us believe in God, 70% affiliate themselves with an organised religion, 60% call themselves committed Christians, and more people in South Africa believe in angels than they do in evolution.
This religious affinity is not simply the result of successful if not occasionally bizarre marketing by skilled preachers or the draw of popular mega-churches. It speaks to a hunger that’s deeper than that – a hunger that goes beyond any particular issue or cause. If we were ever to scrub language of all religious content, or succumb to the temptation that mocks the intelligence of the religious, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of our people understand both their personal morality and social justice.
After all, the problems of poverty and racism, the hungry and the unemployed, are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect 9-point plan. They are rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness – in the imperfections of man. Solving these problems will require changes in government policy, but it will also require changes in hearts and minds.
Given this outpouring of emotion with the passing of Sfiso, I think it’s time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy. There are just human needs – that the government alone cannot fix. Sfiso’s life was full proof that faith and guidance can help fortify a young man’s sense of self, a young woman’s sense of responsibility, and a sense of reverence that all young people should have for all their actions, including the act of sexual intimacy.
Sfiso’s music did that for many of us. It reminded us of the glorious burden of youth, our responsibilities to our partners, to our families, and ultimately, to God. Sfiso, those close to you, and who ache with your passing, your family, your wife, your kids, remember you by all the other titles you held outside your craft: A responsible Father. A Brother. A great Husband. A much loved Son. Uncle to his younger nieces and nephews, and yet many knew you as a mentor, and above all, a friend. It became immediately clear that the spirit of resilience and good humour, that smile, would see you through more pain and tragedy than most of us will ever know.
Given your recurring health challenges and near-death experiences, it would have been easy for you to let yourself become bitter and hardened; to surrender to self-pity and regret; to retreat from public life and live out your years in peaceful quiet. No one would have blamed him for that.
Sfiso, William Wordsworth could have had you in mind when he wrote:
As tempted more; more able to endure,
As more exposed to suffering and distress;
Thence, also, more alive to tenderness.
Through your own suffering, you became more alive to the pain and suffering of others.
But you dared not run away from your gift and its transformative role and contribution to the new nation that we have become.
Sfiso, you have an incredible story to tell when you reach the Pearly Gates. Tell them that you transcended, that your own success mirrored that of your country, our country, South Africa. Tell them, we are a nation built on hope and music; your music has been a major part of sustaining that hope. Tell them that we are a country that maintains our sights on the kind of South Africa we want, while looking squarely at South Africa as it is, that we have acknowledged the sins of our past and the challenges of the present, without being trapped in cynicism or despair. Tell them of the profound shift in class relations you have witnessed in your lifetime. Things have got much better, I hope you will tell them; tell them, still, that better isn’t good enough.
But you, you were good enough for us. You’ve written in our hearts, leaving us with memories that will last forever.
Sfiso, I hope that with these words I have paid you a tribute of respect and regard, as a remarkable and venerable South African who has been taken from us, so sudden, so young; Sfiso Ncwane: I hope I have described with this tribute just how much I mourn your passing. DM
Yonela Diko is currently the Spokesperson of the African National Congress (ANC) in the Western Cape. Prior to assuming his role in the ANC, he worked in various companies in the private sector. Between 2007-2009 he worked for one of the Leading Retirement Fund Companies, NBC Holdings as an Employee Benefits Consultant. After that he joined the Corporate Strategy and Industrial Development (CSID), an Economic Research Unit housed under the School of Economics at Wits University. He did his BCom degree at the University of Cape Town majoring in Economics.
"I know of a cure for everything: salt water...in one way or the other. Sweat or tears or the salt sea." ~ Karen Blixen