On the eve of something in South Africa

Dan Jacobson

The last time I had visited the Newtown Market in Johannesburg was during my final year at the local university. I went to the market as a member of a group collecting food for the families of African strikers; others in the party included a man who is now a professor of sociology at an English university (he was the one of us who had a motor-car), and a girl with a wonderfully clear, fine brow for whose sake I had become involved in the whole undertaking. Amid the usual disorder of porters, hawkers and shoppers, of crates and wood-shavings from crates, of spoiled fruit and the smell of spoiled fruit, we went from stall to stall, soliciting contributions. Many of the stallholders were Indians; they were not noticeably more responsive to our requests than their white competitors. We managed to get together a few bags of potatoes, a sack of oranges and a basket or two of cabbages, which we carried back to the car. Later, we delivered the stuff to a piece of wasteland behind a corrugated-iron fence, grandiosely entitled the Bantu Athletic Club, where some sporting and educational activities, and much illegal drinking, used to take place.

Thirty years later the market in Newtown no longer houses any stallholders. The long, be-knobbed building has undergone the fate of similar markets in other cities, and has become a kind of arts centre: it now contains two theatres, a museum and open spaces for the hanging of pictures. The revolution which we vaguely expected to take place before we had grown as old as we are now has still not happened. But there have been some changes. Thirty years ago, the only theatre in town to which black, Coloured and Indian spectators were admitted was the Great Hall of the Witwatersrand University: now several theatres, including those in the market, are open to them, and blacks made up 90 per cent of the audience for the performance I had come to see. Thirty years ago, it was impossible for a black man or woman to drink spirits lawfully: now he does not have to frequent a shebeen to do so. Thirty years ago (or even three years ago), it was not possible to hear a black theatrical group singing songs and reciting poems about the revolution which is for ever just-about-to-happen: yet that was what we had come to hear. As to whether such singing and reciting will actually bring the mirage-like revolution nearer or not, heaven knows; I don’t. It could be argued – and the explosions of the last week or two would certainly confirm the suggestion – that the revolution has already begun: it is any other view of the country’s condition, then, that is really mirage-like.

The troupe consisted of nine men and boys, whose ages ranged from about 15 to 35. Between them they must have played two dozen instruments of various kinds: waist-high African drums, an electric guitar, a jew’s harp, bunches of seed-pods, a Mchopi xylophone, a bow and string with gourd resonator, whistles (police and referee), tambourines, mouth organs, animal horns. All the performers sang solo or chorally, in addition to performing on their instruments; all took part in the passages of recitation and sprachgesang. The originality of the orchestrations; the intricacy of the ever-changing rhythmic schemes, and the affecting melodies woven within and around them; the subtle use of dying chords and of minor-keyed soliloquising voices singing themselves into silence, as it were; the non-stop inventiveness with which one number followed directly on another, and the cunning contrasts in mood between each – all these were evidence of a high degree of professionalism and self-assurance. However, there was a striking contrast between the music and the words: not only because the music was so accomplished and the words were often so inept (sometimes to the point of nonsensicality), but because the music was melancholy and intimate in tone, while the words were all as strident as they could be.

Well, perhaps not quite. There were no direct attacks on whites, as whites; no explicit incitement of violence against them. ‘I came out of the womb/Into the tomb/Of oppression....’ ‘Native, Bantu, Kaffir, Plural, Operative – what am I? ... ’ ‘The ghetto where we exist/Chained in manacles so that we cannot resist....’ ‘Tears, spears, blood....’ ‘Revolution will not be televised/It will not be broadcast on SABC/It will not be announced on Radio Bantu....’ ‘Black theology needs a guru/I am the guru’ (this was sung to a particularly catchy tune rather than recited or chanted, like most of the others) ... ‘We have lost the rights to navigation....’ ‘Think revolution/Whisper revolution/Speak revolution/Shout revolution/Shit revolution ...’

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