South Africa is a country known for its music. It is, after all, the birthplace of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a multiple Grammy award winning group for a musical genre that was bred out of the migrant labour system in South Africa.
The Zulus who travelled from the province of Kwa-Zulu to work in the mines of Johannesburg were forced to live in hostels were not only were women, dancing and singing were banned. This was suppressive especially for Zulus whose dances are known to shake the ground and at one point even scared the British army when they first encountered the nation. Scatamiya, the musical genre made famous by Ladysmith Black Mambazo was bred out of defiance. Music was and always has been a coping mechanism in a pre and post democratic South Africa.
When the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, took over from Jacob Zuma, he opened parliament with a speech beginning with the lyrics of Hugh Masekela, a prominent jazz artist and apartheid activist. “Thuma mina” which means “send me” were the words the President began with and the country was swept away in euphoria or what media termed “Ramaphoria”.
President Ramaphosa could not sing as well as the defunct former president, Jacob Zuma, but his choice of lyrics to start his presidency were apt for a country that had lost trust in the political leadership of the country.
The decade long presidential rule under Zuma began with stains of rape allegations and arms deals shenanigans but the man had a voice that could put an ogre to sleep. His honey voice dripped over the blemishes of his tenure and proved that the South African population prefer musical melodies over proficient policies; since colonisation, since apartheid, music has always been the first choice of a coping mechanism and it seems Zuma knew this.
The first two presidents did not sing, Mandela danced but he did not sing. Thabo Mbeki, an intellectual whose tenure distanced his humanity from himself and the country he was leading, neither danced or sang, instead he was a wordsmith and ruthless economist, as such he was lost on the masses of the population and was ruthlessly unseated.
I remember in my first year of university, students were protesting high fees and accommodation. I was seated at the front of the idle bus and the students had blocked the entrance. The bus driver, a man of Arabic origin, turned back to me and asked me why they were singing and dancing. I was shocked that he did not understand that they were protesting because to him, it looked like my fellow students were having a good time and had decided to block the gate just for fun.
I have recently started using the train. In South Africa the train is the last resort mode of transport as it is always late, breaks down and is known for thugs who rob passengers while on their way to their destinations but it is also the cheapest mode and so, invariably, the most used. Trains can be late by one or two hours and this can be stressful. It means one has to plan their day four hours in advance in order to mitigate the train being late or breaking down.
The last time I used a train I was a child going to school and I missed out on a lot of observations which on my return made me wish for the resurgence of my innocence.
The trains in the morning are always packed: my face could be stuck in a man’s armpit while I’m cheekbone to cheekbone with a woman and a child clutching onto my leg. This is all forgotten once a woman or man starts a song, usually a Christian song, and the whole coach packed like sardines sings as if in an expensive theatre.
In approximately eighty minutes of the train’s journey, song after song after song are sung perfectly by strangers whose voices echo unity and an indelible human spirit. Sometimes men stomp their feet or hit the sides of the train in tempo with the songs and then afterwards wipe their sweaty brows with the sleeves of their shirts. Women put away their cellphones used for their reflections and add inflections to the songs. When the train comes to a final stop at the final destination, the song sometimes turns into a hum or final stomp, and then just like that we become strangers again, off to our various destinations to earn our pittances.
I never knew I could sing; alone I really cannot, not even in the shower but in a stuffy train, where the windows refuse to open my voice does. My mouth curves up into a smile underpinned by discomfort and the realisation that I take myself too seriously sometimes. When the song starts and reverberates from chest to chest, across highways, in the fields, over wetlands and rocky plains, in stillness when we don’t know why the train has stopped, our voices don’t.
The relentless need to sing in the face of strife has been perverted by politicians who have taken advantage of this beautiful attribute of black South Africans. Singing in strife does not mean that it is enjoyed or that strife has no impact, it is rather a defiance, a coping mechanism in the face of a political nightmare where the rat race is the only promise kept and monies for effective policies are pilfered.
Music that sounds like a whisper moved the nation and others overseas because defiance is universally understood. The need to cope in a scarcity driven global community means priceless internal resources are tapped into, the voice of the human spirit sprouts out and overflows. Coping never sounded so good.