Last year, one of my favourite South African jazz musicians, trombonist and composer Jonas Gwangwa, was laid to rest – a giant not only in the music industry but also in the struggle for the liberation of our people and country.
As I write this I am inspired by one of his beautifully haunting songs, Freedom for Some, with the lyrics “Freedom for some is freedom for none, the whole world united will fight! Till all are free…” This song featured prominently in my life as a child and now into adulthood.
Born in Orlando, Soweto in 1937, at the time of the passing of the Representation of Natives Act, which removed black people to a separate voters’ roll and blocked their right to run for office, the Native Trust and Land Act, which prohibited the buying of land by Africans from whites in urban areas except by permission from the government, Gwangwa was no stranger to repression.
Gwangwa also found himself in exile – a further infringement on his freedom to live in his country as a result of his political belief that the country needed to be liberated from an oppressive system. His collaboration on the score for Cry Freedom, the movie about Steve Biko, was no coincidence.
What I have always found beautiful and rousing and stirring is the fact that key moments in South Africa’s struggle towards the realisation of democracy have often been punctuated by song. Whether it be the staccato a cappella of chants, acoustic strumming of melodies or emotive symphony, all of these have brought shade and colour to minister to the troubles of our people, always with a communal thread at their heart, reinforcing that a people united will always triumph over division and strife.
There is indeed something very raw and honest about art in its various forms, especially music, and particularly when used in the pursuit of liberation, that unites people across ideological and physical divides.
However, this culture of song has started to wane and fade now, as the trappings of greed, poverty, individuality and lack of compassion have our country in a chokehold.
April marks Freedom Month in South Africa and I refuse to believe that humans were put on this Earth to effectively snuff one another out by enslaving one another and denying one another the freedoms we so desperately yearn for.
This month places an obligation on us to mindfully and consciously seek to loosen the shackles that keep us apart. It must not and cannot be the responsibility of only a few.
Our Constitution’s preamble states, “We, the people of South Africa, Recognise the injustices of our past; Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land”, and the words of Gwangwa’s freedom song are instructive in that they urge us to examine critically what we feel to be our guaranteed freedom and seek to understand why others do not enjoy this freedom, while reflecting on our own roles.
On 27 April 1994, there was a spirit of solidarity as we determinedly marched towards a more inclusive nation. This inclusive nation was once again visible when the initial Covid-19 lockdown happened and we realised that we needed to rely on the solidarity of a social compact if we were to make it through the pandemic. We even established a Solidarity Fund and thousands of people donated chunks of their income to people’s continued survival. That seems to have been short-lived, but the fact that it happened means that we are capable of being better when called on to do so.
Speaking at the Freedom Day celebrations in Cape Town on 27 April 2008, Thabo Mbeki, the president at the time, said: “We all still carry the scars that remind us that our freedom, that is at times taken for granted, was never free.” This echoed the preamble but also called on us to honour the gains and take forward the aspirations of those who gave their lives.
It also bears noting that this April marks 28 years since the Rwandan genocide, when the ethnic majority Hutu people brutally killed an estimated 800,000 mainly ethnic minority Tutsi people in just three months, displacing two million people, who became refugees as a result of fleeing the violence. This was a result of tensions that were stoked by former colonial master Belgium which fanned the flames of one ethnic group oppressing the other. This is a cautionary tale of what happens when people decide to revolt in the pursuit of sovereignty.
Gwangwa’s song ends in an echoing “We will be free, we will be free, we will be free…”, underscoring that the pursuit of freedom is one that is intrinsic and that anything less will always lead to an uprising from the oppressed, even a violent one, as people fight to be self-determining. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.