Opinionista Michael le Cordeur 28 September 2020

Jerusalema: A catalyst for a better life in South Africa

From school grounds in the Western Cape to office blocks in Limpopo, from the informal settlements of Durban to the streets of Kimberley, from the classrooms of Angola to the beaches of Miami to the soccer fields of Portugal: Jerusalema fever has spread around the world like a feel-good virus.

Michael le Cordeur

Professor Michael le Cordeur is the head of the Department of Curriculum Studies at the University of Stellenbosch.

Jerusalema has been downloaded from YouTube or listened to 120 million times.  The mega soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, with more than 230 million social media followers, recently shared the song and dance on his website during a family gathering. More than 44 million of his followers subsequently listened to or downloaded the song on their phones.

International fame

The gospel-inspired song was released in November 2019. After a positive reception on online platforms, a music video followed on 21 December. Thanks to a remix by the Nigerian-born Burna Boy in June, the song made the leap to the USA hit parade.

The Jerusalema dance is in the popular dance style of the Zezuru Shona people of Zimbabwe. Angolan youths were the first to dance Jerusalema in July 2020. The rest is history.

Jerusalema virtually became famous overnight thanks to the #JerusalemaChallenge: individuals, groups, workers, schools and even politicians challenged one another to record themselves doing the Jerusalema and distribute it on social networks. Even our jovial finance minister Tito Mboweni got into the spirit of things with his two sons and put his efforts on social media. 

The song spent two weeks at the top of the United Kingdom hit parade and has made the charts in France, Switzerland, Romania, Portugal and Italy. It has already been on the American hit parade for nine weeks and is now in sixth position.

Fame can be rare in one’s own country

So who are the artists behind the most successful song ever to come out of South Africa? Jerusalema was written by South African deejay Master KG (Kgaogelo Moagi of Limpopo). The voice is that of Nomcebo Zikode, originally from Hammarsdale in Kwazulu-Natal, where she won an Ukhozi FM talent competition in 2003 when she was nine years old.  The 26-year-old singer now lives and works in Johannesburg.

A prophet, however, is seldom honoured in his own land: it is sad that the song, which is a showcase worldwide for the positive side of our country, was ignored by the South African Music Awards (SAMAs). And you ask yourself, how is it possible that two young artists who have captured the imagination of the world, and who have been appointed as music ambassadors by the minister of arts and culture, are not fully acknowledged in their home country?

City of peace

Jerusalem is the holy city of the Jews, Christians and Muslims: the capital of the ancient kingdom of Judah and the modern state of Israel. The name literally means “city of peace” – it’s often called Zion, with reference to Mount Zion on which the city was built. The city is honoured in various songs, including in the hymn Jerusalem, the unofficial English anthem written by CH Parry and William Blake.

Here, where I sit on my stoep, the song echoes over the neighbourhood: someone is playing it at top volume. The pulsating rhythm takes over your feet. But it is the lyrics which fascinate me. 

The isiZulu version:

Jerusalema ikhaya lami

Ngilondoloze

Uhambe name

Zungangishiyi lana

Jerusalema ikhaya lami

Ngilondoloze

Uhambe name

Zungangishiyi lana

Ngilondoloze

Ngilondoloze

The English version:

Jerusalem is my home

Save me

Take me with you

Do not leave me here

Jerusalem is my home

Save me

My place is not here

My kingdom is not here

Save me

Guide me

My Afrikaans version:

Jerusalem is my tuiste

Red my

Neem my saam met jou

Moet my nie hier los nie

Jerusalem is my tuiste

Red my

My woning is nie hier nie

My koninkryk is nie hier nie

Red my

Behoed my

Like the Afrikaans poet, Totius, the songwriter emphasises that “the world is not our home”. Although slavery was abolished two centuries ago, many people worldwide still live like prisoners, caught up in senseless wars, natural disasters, famine and disease. 

The lyrics of Jerusalema point to the longing for a better life, a new future. At a time when South Africans’ morale is at a low ebb due to lockdown, this truly homegrown production has become the theme song of the Covid-19 pandemic, helping to raise the spirits of millions of people.

Hope for a better life

An example of a song with a similar theme is Rivers Of Babylon popularised by the German group Boney M. It achieved platinum status in 1978. It originated as a Rastafarian song written by Trevor McNaughton and Brent Dowe of the Jamaican reggae group The Melodians. The lyrics are an adapted version of Psalm 137. I quote just a few verses: 

Rivers of Babylon

By the rivers of Babylon, 

there we sat down
Ye-eah we wept, 

when we remembered Zion
When the wicked
Carried us away in captivity
Required from us a song
Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land

Psalm 137

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. 

3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land? 

5 I (will not) forget you, Jerusalem …/

The song refers to the people of Jamaica who were forced into slavery four centuries ago. Here they would live in exile until the abolition of slavery in 1834, when they were set free. The writers use the metaphor of the people of Israel who lived in exile and often sat weeping next to the river of Babylon, as they longed for Zion, their city of peace.

When their oppressors urged them to sing a Zion song, they would respond: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” The idea of freedom songs is as old as the Bible.

When I look out over the garden, I see a pair of finches building a nest. The prospect of raising a family seems to fill the birds with the joys of spring. And yet their cheerful song fills me with an anxious feeling of déjà vu. 

When I talk to my children and my students, I come to the shocking realisation that many of the youth no longer see South Africa as the place where they want to raise their children. One only has to see the growing number of young people who are moving abroad. Some of them admit openly that their future is not here. This is at the heart of Jerusalema’s appeal: “Take me with you. Don’t leave me here. Save me.”

Millions of South Africans put their faith in a better life with the coming of democracy in 1994. But the continuing violence against women, children and farmers; spiralling unemployment and the poverty associated with it; and large-scale corruption still hold South Africans prisoner. For many of us, the hope of a better life is fading. Citizens long for their Jerusalem: a place where they can live in safety and raise their children and grandchildren free of fear.

The government has the responsibility to provide its citizens with the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. Right now, the Cabinet does not inspire much confidence, despite the president’s honest efforts.  

That is why it is the duty of every South African who loves their country, and who cherishes our heritage, to call the government to account. South Africa is, after all, our home – and this is where we would like to stay.

Prof Michael Le Cordeur is a member of the Faculty of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. 

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  • It’ll take more than a song/dance to right governance wrong in our chronic state of impoverishment. Jerusalem’s is a lament not a prophesy. We the people are fast losing patience with being treated like foreigners in our own lands.

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