It was beautiful – but what did Ramaphosa’s SONA jazz solo mean?

Culture as it is lived: Kippie Moeketsi makes music from, with and for the people of South Africa  – artwork by Thami Mnyele

There have been times when ANC Presidents have very publicly admired the immediate, visceral, power of critical art-making. The late OR Tambo, attending the London theatre debut of the Amandla Cultural Ensemble, acknowledged: “It took [them] two hours to address what we have been trying to address for 20 years.”

The past nine years have not been among those times.

Certainly, some energetic workers in the Department of Arts and Culture have ensured regular (if sometimes formulaic), correct and timely acknowledgments of artists who fought apartheid and brought joy in previous eras. Honours have been awarded to those still living; eulogies offered for those who have passed. Yet others – sometimes highly-placed – have used arts and culture in the same way the fiefdoms of other departments have been used: as vehicles for individual self-enrichment and the distortion of the liberation narrative.

For art and artists working now, offering immediate and angry responses to the patriarchy, commodification, silencing and corruption that have deformed public life, that last has been the dominant response. Lawsuits have been launched (then quietly dropped) against cartoonists and satirical works, and there have been strident calls for censorship, along with the metonymic invocation of “culture”.

“Culture” (and this is a confusion that infested the first, though not the most recent, version of our not-yet-finalised arts and culture White Paper) has been invoked to stand for the past, for ‘legends’ only, for the art that was made, for the outlawing of debate around social understandings shaped in earlier eras, and for the reinvention of tribalism. This was the kind of static conceptualisation of culture that permitted Khwezi’s rape accused to justify his action as “entering isibhaya sika bab’wakhe (her father’s kraal)”: erasing the attacked woman’s existence as a person, acknowledging only the man entering and the father owning.

Within this framework, of course, the vibrancy, syncretism and constant iconoclastic discourse of African urban culture has come in for particular opprobrium, perhaps best crystallised in attacks in 2012 on “blacks…who become too clever.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa

But that was then. Two days ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa concluded his State of the Nation Address (SONA) with a quote not from some colonialist poet, or even a laureate of our own such as Keorapetse Kgositsile, but from the recently departed jazz trumpeter, Bra’ Hugh Ramapolo Masekela and the song Thuma Mina ( “I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around/…Send me”

And, in that context, the quote signified a great deal more than simply a well deserved tribute to a distinguished jazzman recently passed.

Jazz, and Bra’ Hugh, grew up in Sophiatown: beloved of the klevahs who inhabited that epicentre of iconoclasm under apartheid. It was the syncretic music of non-tribal – and often explicitly anti-tribalist – black workers, whose acknowledgment of their shared South African-ness fuelled their struggles to transform the country in the interests of all. In citing it, Ramaphosa signalled the end of an era of narrow regional favouritism.

The lyrics matter too. As all art with real power does, Masekela’s song – first recorded in

The late Hugh Ramapolo Masekela

2006 and updated on every subsequent live outing – pays respect to heritage via a long-established Zulu hymn, but creates a unique new song about the issues we face now. Poverty has not yet ended; the war against AIDS is not won, gender oppression and violence have received dog-whistles of encouragement over the past nine years through the statements and actions of powerful men in public life. The speech, and the song, promise energy to deal with these issues.

“I wanna lend a hand/ I wanna be there for the victims of violence and abuse…Send me”, the song says. It is the song of a deployee, deployed not merely by one party but by all those desperately needing change.

Despite what some academics would assert, of course, practice is harder than theory. Laying out the broad principles for change is easier than making effective implementation happen, and we’ll still need the critical citizens – and artists – to help in the process and sound loud alarm bells if it goes off-track.

Arts and culture did not feature in SONA apart from that magnificent song. They could have fitted well into Ramaphosa’s discourse, because what has happened to the cultural space has not been immune from the rot, and what will be done about it will be one barometer of the reality of any new dawn. Culture is a living manifestation of society; we shape it with our own hands and actions as we live. We need from government an environment that does not dictate what culture should do, but genuinely enables access for those who create with brushes, notes or words, and those who participate in creation by dancing, viewing, reading and offering feedback. We need that White Paper finalised (with more popular debate processes as necessary to get it right). We need tangible support for the creation and consumption of the arts. And we also need a minister who can bring the sector some joy and inspiration…

Yet, despite those gaps, there was powerful beauty in that Thuma Mina moment because it signalled that we may now have a President who understands and respects that ‘culture’ includes the new songs and art (and, in the wake of Inxeba, new films too) that we are making now, about the things we experience now. A president who will not mock, or attempt to censor, the diversity of voices in the contested space that arts and culture must always be. And who will, perhaps, carry on listening and actually hearing what we say.



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