In Capital’s Shadow

It was June 2000.  As the last rays of sun kissed us goodbye and the night lights of New York city took their places, my sister and I quickly found seats as part of an audience in the shadow of the World Trade Centre.  We were here to listen to Bra Hugh – Masekela.  It was one of the city’s legendary free summer concerts – out in the open night air, in a space cleared right in the heart of capital.  Emerging first as a speck amongst specks on a stage minisculed by the city’s towering skyscrapers, Bra Hugh soon loomed large, his tunes quickly overpowering their menacing scowls, softening their silhouettes and making them an apt backdrop for the music that made us laugh and cry that night, at ourselves and at our histories.  It was a great concert – thanks to Visa!!  There was no missing the fact that big corporate sponsorship had allowed this gig to happen.  Bra Hugh kept reminding us, giving huge praise to the sponsors between playing.  I felt a little sorry for him, obviously having agreed to punt Visa as part of his deal.  But part of me also resented the fact that I had to come to New York to experience a kick-ass FREE concert by someone from home.  Yes, I had heard Bra Hugh play in South Africa, but I had paid to do this.  Just as I had paid to listen to many other great musicians returning from exile in the early ’90s.  A performance that’s down in my books as one of the greatest was one given by Abdullah Ibrahim at the Market Theatre in 1992 – as a student, I had used almost three quarters of my monthly pocket money to buy a friend and me tickets to it (R300).  As rare as these concerts were, I would willingly, over the years, pay to listen to musicians I had been raised on, their records often serving as our lullabies as children.    

Over the years, I have seen many artists struggle to survive at home, many having to turn to other forms of employment or entrepreneurship just to eke out an existence, often having to rely on social networks (also slowly disintegrating under the regime of ‘the individual’) for survival.  Some of our greatest talents have not been able to bare the harshness of life, ending their lives prematurely.  Others have had the option of living abroad, away from familiar comforts and ways.  As the ANC government has come to prioritise the interests of global capital over those of a redistributive macro-economic programme in the interests of the majority of South Africans, its adoption of neoliberal policies has dealt harsh blows on various groups of people – artists not escaping their reach.  But little has been said about the ways in which the adoption of these policies has involved the marginalisation of the collective interests of artists in the interests of particular individuals and styles, in the remoulding of African and South African culture and talent towards particular notions and images of the continent and the country – images that are easy to package and sell, images that reinforce the preferred versions of Africa around the buying world.  In selling our music, I would imagine that different markets have been created and targeted with different genres and artists.  And artists, having to survive in a capitalist world, have to begin making time and space for their own unrestrained practice, production and performance through working for money in the projects and places assigned as ‘culturally valuable’ by the market in different parts of the world.  As glorious as our night listening to Bra Hugh in the shadow of the skyscrapers of New York was, we could not help but feel angry and sad that such great talent was able to be shared in the best way possible only as a result of the intervention of corporate capital.  Bra Hugh had been packaged and sold by Visa and we were thanking them for it! 

Reading Bra Hugh’s complaints about life in South Africa in the last week took me back to our night in New York.  I was pleased to hear him speak out.     

Funer(e)al

It had been a cold, grey, wet week. Not much fun for a young one accustomed to the pleasures of wide open spaces in the sun filled with surprises. Endless hours of rain watching and fantasising soon became boring, especially as I did not yet have sisters and cousins old enough to share these times with. When the phone call came that night to say that one of our family’s old friends had passed away, something in the air suggested adventure. Within a few minutes of my dad receiving the news, my uncle (his only brother) arrived at our home. There was no question that they would have to attend the funeral. This was an old friend of their father’s with whom the family had shared a business relationship. The ‘old man’ had also been a presence in my dad and uncle’s lives, someone with whom they had shared many experiences. But attending the funeral was not a simple exercise – it would be a whole day’s affair. The ‘old man’ had died in Izingolweni, a rural area some way outside of Port Shepstone.

Not the kind of child to be left out of anything, and seeing my escape from the boredom of wet weather, I insisted that I be allowed to go with. I had seen the glint in the eyes of my dad and uncle when they spoke about the trip. I had seen it very seldom before, and knew that this was probably something i would not want to miss. In spite of my mum’s protestations, I nagged and sulked enough to be made part of the whole deal. For my dad, it became ‘a way for the child to learn’. And the next morning, bundled up ‘like an eskimo’, I settled into the backseat of my dad’s BMW, content to listen to the easy exchanges that would flow between the brothers. With niggling business related issues out of the way, the talk soon turned to boyish matters – stories of their childhood, and car escapades. In the few hours on the way to the funeral, I would be schooled in the many ways in which to enjoy your car on a wet and muddy road. My uncle behind the wheel, and the weather presenting quite a few challenges for driving, much of the talk focused on the best ways to negotiate curves in the mist at high speed. There were no pranks played yet, though lots of talk of skids and 360 degree turns. For now, I would have to rely on my imagination and the colour of their words, their daredevil speak tempered in action by the need to get to the funeral unfrazzled and the severity of the mist and rain. From my backseat perch, the hills and valleys on the way to Izingolweni became alive with promise and a strangely comfortable fear – a fear that comes with needing to discover the unknown, to explore in uncertainty, with the comfort of knowing you’re not alone.

As signs of life began emerging through the mist, my dad warned me to respect things that I saw that might be different to what I was used to. And not to ask too many questions. As I got out of the car and looked down on the kraal and huts with their fires burning, the wail of women’s voices in the background, I quietly slipped my hand into my uncle’s. There were warm hugs for my dad and uncle from the sons of the late friend, who had come up the hill to meet us, and slightly amused handshakes for me – the ‘young Naidoo’, the ‘young dokotela’. As we walked down the hill, the brothers shared their grief and concerns about their father’s death with us. This was not just some duty call that my uncle and dad were paying; these were people they were genuinely close to. I was secretly glad – we were not just coming to allow the family to say that the doctor of the town had come to pay his respects.

Shivering in spite of my ‘eskimo’ skin, I was most grateful for the roaring fire that we were immediately taken to. Its warmth had drawn all the men of the place. I wondered whether the wailing women ‘s place of gathering was just as warm. My dad and uncle introduced and welcomed, it was my turn – ‘son of the doctor’ came the words in zulu. I immediately turned to my dad, waiting for his correction. Instead, he just raised his eyebrows at me and smiled. I knew to be quiet and play along. As soon as the conversation started up, he would lean over and whisper to me – ‘Do you want to go and sit with the ladies? No, so just let them think you’re a boy. Ok?’ off course it was ok with me. I had no intention of being separated from my dad and uncle. Over the next few hours I listened to the stories of old men who had shared the life of the late friend, stories in which my uncle and dad featured as young boys, stories that had us all laughing as we celebrated the life of the ‘old man’. There wasn’t the usual air of sadness and solemnity that my young mind had come to associate with funerals. Instead, the community elder’s death had occasioned the roasting of freshly slaughtered meat on an open fire and the sharing of umqombothi especially brewed by the women of the place. Soon men would begin to dance and the stories would become more animated, with two to three people relating the same story. I watched in awe as my dad and uncle joined the ceremony of drinking, feasting, and story-telling that the men made amongst themselves that day in the middle of nowhere. Watching them be happy, I was happy too.

The drive home was a lot more edgy. Warmed by umqombothi and fired up by the memories of past adventures, my dad and uncle took turns behind the wheel, popping what I now know to be wheelies and playing dare with the curves in the mist. My fear again tempered by the comfort of their playful, carefree approach to the drive, I quickly settled into my own flurry of questions that I had been storing up all day – why were the men and women separated? Why did they slaughter animals? Why was it only the men who drank the beer when the women made it? Where were the women? Where was the body of the dead man? Off course, each answer set off a whole new lot of questions. As the bends became fewer and the lights of Margate bade farewell for us to the quiet and eerie splendour of the hills, I’d become much quieter, preparing all my stories to tell my mum. As we approached Port Shepstone, the mood in the car slowly became more serious, less easy. It was as if with each metre driven, my dad and uncle were leaving behind another bit of their freedom, their carelessness, their desire to live uncertainly, and picking up another bit of responsibility, duty, and obligation. ‘Don’t tell mummy about our driving, ok?’ my dad ventured, almost as if he were reading my thoughts. I nodded – the funeral was enough meat for my stories. My silence about the skids was little to pay for the secrets I’d been let into that day. Secrets I would cherish forever. Secret spaces I would desire forever.