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Massed voices of Regina Mundi spirit me back to dreadful days of 1984

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Hamilton Wende is a South African writer and journalist who has worked on a number of television projects and films for National Geographic, CNN, BBC, ZDF & ARD, among others. He has published nine books based on his travels as a war correspondent in Africa and the Middle East, and two children’s books. His latest thriller, Red Air, reflects his experiences with the US Marines in Afghanistan.

I am grateful for the deep joy that Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika still evokes in me. I cannot help getting tears in my eyes when we sing our national anthem, a reminder that despite our present problems — and they are serious — not all is failure.

The sound of the massed voices rises into the warm summer morning air. The intricate harmonies of “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” intermingle with each other under the vast triangular roof of the cathedral, like currents flowing in a calm, deep-water bay.

It is Sunday morning Mass at the church of Regina Mundi in Soweto, in early January this year. I’m not religious, but there is something profoundly spiritual about this place and the faith that echoes through its tall interior.

I find myself slipping into an unexpected personal space of peaceful, quiet reverie. On one level, I’ve spent weeks setting up a filming opportunity here and I am anxious that all goes according to plan, but somehow that apprehension fades, and I am taken into the heart of this moment of human reverence for the ineffable awareness that few of us can agree on about its real nature across the globe, but which so many of us are open to sensing — often at the most unexpected of times.

And so, this morning, I find myself shifting into that space of both shared, and intensely private, mystery. In the quieter, prayer-filled respites between the hymns, I hear the sharp, clear call of birds singing outside.

My mind follows the natural harmonies of the birds out of the open church doors into confused, but traumatically powerful, never-forgotten memories.

It was sometime in the second half of 1984. I was a young soundman working freelance for one of the international TV news networks and we were filming a gathering in this church. I’m not sure exactly anymore which event it was; there were so many in those years of the 1980s, but it might have been the commemoration service for the seventh anniversary of the brutal death in detention of Steve Biko. It certainly was around that time, September 1984.

I was a callow, totally inexperienced TV sound technician and journalist at the time, frightened and overwhelmed by what was happening all around me. It was not my first time encountering the violence of the apartheid state, but it was still a bewildering, disorientating experience.

I was frightened about what was happening in front of me, and I was already accumulating powerful currents of PTSD from witnessing and filming the violence that was convulsing our land, so the fear resonated through my mind and my body at a number of different levels. It filled my chest, clenched around my heart, and made me feel dizzy, uncertain, even on the edge of nausea.

I clearly remember turning off what was then called “the Old Potch Road” (Now Chris Hani Road) into a dusty area of ragged veld with the angular bulk of Regina Mundi looming against the sky. The outer edges of this patch of land were surrounded by yellow police vehicles — casspirs and vans mostly. Hundreds of black people were gathered in and around the church, swarming in and out, while the police advanced in their thin, ragged ranks.

The cameraman and I had arrived late and found ourselves moving rapidly into the angry midst of the developing melee. Red dust from hundreds of feet was kicked up around the front of the church as people sang protest songs and chanted political slogans.

Nervously, we made our breathless way through the crowd. It struck me then so powerfully that the crowd was not hostile towards us, two white journalists sweating and pushing and deliberately gently shoving our way towards the entrance of the church.

I don’t mean to overemphasise any role I might personally have played, but it is true that we, our cameras, and our reports, were part of the Struggle. The people recognised that and respected it. This legacy is something that still survives in our country and is one of our greatest strengths.

Slowly, we were half-forced, half-ushered into the interior of the church. I remember the roar of sound, of harmonious singing that throbbed and echoed all around me.

The sweat of rage and exhaustion from the marching and the running from the police mingled with the smell of fear. They were angry songs, deeply formidable, filled with uncompromising rage, and as yet then, a still very far distant hope for freedom.

Power of solidarity

A new emotion swept through me, mingling with the distress. It was somewhat inchoate; I was swept along with the rousing sense of human solidarity that this powerfully cadenced outrage was literally giving voice to. I had never experienced anything like it in my life before. I understood the world in a completely different way from that moment on. I learned then that there is a strength in hope that cannot be expressed only in words.

At some point inside that church the singing segued into that supremely beautiful hymn Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. It was the first time I had ever heard it and I was transfixed. With turmoil swirling all around, I simply allowed the beauty of it to wash over me, adding yet another layer to the complex emotions I was feeling.

I understand now that I was standing inside that church amidst the powerful singing that afternoon at a moment of personal revelation from which there could be no further illusions about what was happening in our country. I was held, within the limits of my own weaknesses, staring into the core of my own moral awareness, standing at the impossibly distant still point of the eternal conflict between power and justice.

The singing ended and shortly afterwards chaos erupted. Teargas was fired, the police charged, and people scattered. Trying to stay calm within the panic, we found ourselves standing on top of a clump of large boulders in front of the distinctive triangular entrance while people hurled rocks at the police, and the police fired back with teargas and shotguns. Soon, the meeting descended into fleeing youths and a few arrests.

Today, the red dust veld is well-tended lawn. The clump of boulders is fenced off as a memorial. Birds sing where once there was the tearing sound of shotgun ammunition and the loud pops of teargas launchers.

My mind is drawn back into the peaceful Sunday service. My memories have traversed 40 years — nearly half a century, and I am grateful for them. Not for the pain, for the killing, for the jailings without trial, for the deaths in detention, not for the bitter litany of racial oppression that goes back centuries in our country. Not for that at all.

I am grateful for the deep joy that Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika still evokes in me. I cannot help getting tears in my eyes when we sing our national anthem. That moment in the church so long ago is with me to this day, a reminder that despite our present problems — and they are serious — not all is failure.

The struggle between power and justice still goes on, in different ways. We have entered a new moral era, where the clear certainty of the Struggle has dissipated. We still need courage to navigate between compassion and the fury that comes from inequality to create a better society.

But we are a long way from the near civil war that raged when I first stood inside this church. The peace of this Sunday morning in 2024 is not an illusion. It was hard fought for.

We should remind ourselves that despite the corruption and broken promises in our society and the cruelty that underlies that betrayal, we are closer to that elusive still point where power and justice are equally balanced than both we, ourselves, and the world at large, ever thought we would reach. Even if we often disagree about how to achieve this, as we should.

However, resonating within the peace of this church and of so many other places like it across our country is a truth we share, one that seemed so impossible to imagine then: we see each other now as fellow citizens, not as enemies across a yawning racial, and political divide.

Our sense of shared identity is still emerging, raw and fragile, but we do believe now that we can create a society which looks beyond race. In a global world that is rapidly, and terrifyingly, fracturing along racial and cultural lines, that is an achievement of which we can rightly be proud. DM

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  • Cheryl Bailiff says:

    A marvellous and heartfelt account of two worlds far apart. Thank you for reminding us of the horrors of apartheid so vividly, and also poignantly. I lived and wept through those dreadful times too.
    The shared identity you speak of, and that we strive so hard for, seems so far away when we listen to the politicians today, spouting whatever they think will win them power. But, when we are with the people, all we are doing is living together as peacefully as possible, trying to survive in a turbulent world and struggling to make sense of it all.
    I, too, love our anthem. I love to hear it sung in stadiums, schools and churches… anywhere. It is passionate and hopeful, resounding and gentle. It inspires spiritus mundi. We have come far in our new world in many ways. We will continue to believe in our home and country. We will hope for the ‘memorial boulders and bird song’. We must continue the fight.

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    one does not have to be “religious” to appreciate the spirit within you which comes from a higher power. one does not live a life driven by ‘ME’ and “me “alone. accept there is a Higher Authority who must be heartsore at what people on earth have and are doing to His people. remember He gave us a free will and wow have we messed it up! so religion or religious or not, accept that spirit within that is there to guide us if we let him and sometimes even if we do not let him. Think about it!

  • Jill Gribble says:

    Thank you for a wonderful evocation of terrible times, and for a reminder of our oneness as the people of South Africa, no matter how great the challenges.

    • Fiona Ronquest-Ross Ronquest-Ross says:

      I second Jill’s thoughts. Your description took me right there and I teared up immediately.
      What pain, what shared trauma and yet our voices carry forth the strength of our spirit. The spirit of South Africa is indomitable and tenacious. One candle lights a room. Keep hope alive.

  • Arthur Lilford says:

    Amazingly governments give journalist mountains of “ammo” to sprout knowledgeable comments – Previous Apartheid government – is a common attack to show all the “disgust” etc – well the “present Apartheid government” should be given as must “disgust” in your journalistic prowess – all are suffering under the “present apartheid regime” and they should be labeled that

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