Opinionista Mark Heywood 6 February 2018

Sleeping among Giants

As I watched and listened to a string of poets and performers and musicians, young and old, well known, lesser known and unknown, during an intimate memorial at the Market Theatre for Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile, the identity of my county was banging in my ears, demanding attention.

For a relatively small country, South Africa has a large population of giants. They come in several “species”: artists, musicians, men of faith, liberation heroes. It’s easy to think of those who have died recently and become extinct. Their names jump quickly to our lips. OR Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Albertina and Walter Sisulu, Miriam Makeba, Ray Phiri, Basil D’Oliveira, Ruth First and many others.

However, such is our attitude to history and culture that there are many other giants of our land whose lives we do not take the trouble to excavate and do not know. Occasionally a book will appear about one of them, Charlotte Maxeke or Rick Turner for example, before they disappear back into the shrouds of the past.

And, of those that remain, many of them live unseen, as if they are already relics of a bygone age. We tend only to notice them and start to understand their behaviour once they have died. We sleep among them while they live, ignoring what their lives can tell us of our past, present and future.

These thoughts came to me forcefully while grieving the recent deaths of our poet laureate Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile, and shortly after him our trumpet-major Hugh Masekela.

I missed the official government sponsored memorial for Bra Willie but I was fortunate enough to attend a smaller, more intimate memorial at the Market Theatre two days later. As I watched and listened to a string of poets and performers and musicians, young and old, well known, lesser known and unknown, the identity of my county was banging in my ears, demanding attention. I was struck by the fusion of resistance and morals and politics, and its expression in trombone and trumpet and poem; the plethora of languages and how naked I felt in not knowing any but one of them. The power and mission of the personalities.

Bra Willie’s memorial was a political rally, but the language was different. It was unpredictable, it was about love and loss and suffering and dreams and power and anger. And. And. And.

It was not the rehearsed clichés of the politician, there were no vulgar Amandlas to fill the void of real things to say. No one wore fake fatigues of a fatigued revolution that the incumbents have rubbed shit upon.

I thought to myself, this – not Esidimeni nor Zuma nor the squalour that surrounds us – is the real South Africa; this is what we should be shaping our present around; this is what we should be teaching in our schools; this is a bursting river of pride and power, a wellspring for inspiration and imagination; this is the country our Constitution promised social justice to. This is the foundation on which we can build a house to weather the worst of 21st century storms.

Sadly, I had to leave a little early. As I hurried out I bumped into the great writer and moralist, Njabulo Ndebele. Case in point. A giant walking freely in our midst, of direct lineage with the likes of Eskia Mphahlele. “Who’s he?” many of our children will ask.

Shame on us that they don’t know.

Hardly a week after Bra Willie’s memorial came the news that Bra Hugh had died. Many of us knew Hugh’s music, but not many know the life of the man who made it. Music comes from the soul, but the soul is shaped by the tempests of mortal life. The soul builds the life-rafts that we forge for ourselves to cling to.

The tribute to Bra Hugh took place in Soweto. This time I had to watch remotely, on a TV news channel. As the afternoon unfolded a succession of giants of the standing of Jonas Gwanga I was transfixed; as I listened to the beats of their music, their voices, the languages, the instruments, that gave expression to it. I felt I was hearing the beat of our nation, a swirling cauldron of innovation, imagination, ideas, resistance, revolution and endurance.

From my front row seat in front of the television I saw Sheila Sisulu, a giant I have come to know, sitting back, letting the memories flow through her, eddies of disappointment that those who gave so much ended up witnesses to a government so at odds with their vision. I spotted David Makhura, a good man I want to believe, Esidimeni etched on his face. I switched off the TV temporarily when the cynical incumbent of the captured Ministry of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, took the stage. But despite being so much out of sync with the soul of the event, he couldn’t spoil it. The afternoon swallowed him up. He was so irrelevant he didn’t even need spitting out.

Again, I thought to myself, this – not Esidimeni nor Zuma nor the squalour that surrounds us – is the real South Africa. This is what we should build our country from.

We are taught that time is linear. It is not. The fact that a person is old in years does not make their experience and morals irrelevant to the young people of today. We are taught that politics and the societies on which it plays out only moves forward. It does not. Politics has been stuck for a long time. On the great human questions of equality, peace, and now – as a result – our very sustainability as a species, society has been at an impasse for a long time.

Therefore, it’s not too late to wake up and notice the giants. There are still some moving among us, but many are ageing and fading; Desmond and Leah Tutu still live, so do George Bizos, Ronnie Kasrils, Barbara Masekela, Caiphus Semenya. There are others beside them and in the generations below them. These are not old people, other than in their bodies. They are sources for renewal and reinvention.

They can teach us about love, solidarity and the morality needed by a nation founded on social justice. They can sculpt the cornerstones on which leagues of technical experts, mathematicians, accountants and assorted professionals can build a truly inclusive economy and a public service that delivers on people’s rights to basic education and health.

We would do well not to continue to be asleep while they remain among us.

We would do well too to look for giants that can follow them. One thing I do know: they don’t travel with blue lights. DM

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