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South African musicians in the eye of party political storm

In a track called Bring it Back Home, Hugh Masekela bemoans the tendency by politicians, who after ascending to power, discard the people who helped them get there. Andrea De Silva/Reuters

The dawn of a democratic order in South Africa necessitated a switch from liberation politics to multiparty politics. This change affected almost all spheres of South African life, including the music scene.

In the past, the primary goal of political activities was to dislodge the common enemy that was apartheid. Music was integral to the liberation effort.

The message was clear. Legends such as Miriam Makeba and Jonas Gwangwa vociferously spoke out against apartheid while in exile. South African greats such as Stimela, Chicco Thwala and Brenda Fassie’s music contained covert anti-apartheid sentiments. It clearly was “the people” against an evil and deplorable system. Against this background, the phrase “my people” carried some relevance.

But when politics inevitably led to intra-party politics, the mismanagement of the process of shifting focus to internal party matters gave rise to splinter camps. The “my people” phrase gradually metamorphosed into referring only to political cadres. Cadre deployment became the unashamed policy of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC).

The music fraternity suddenly realised that the government, through the many functions it hosts, was becoming one of the biggest promoters of live music performances. This was also guided by government’s generally stated commitment to the promotion of local musicians in the face of diminishing performance spaces.

Its financial support for major music festivals such as the Joy of Jazz, or its role in staging free concerts during important calendar days, has established its role as one of the primary sources of performance opportunities. By extension, it provided a livelihood for musicians whose income depended more on live performances because of the stagnation of the record industry.

Conditional contracts

But what began as a genuine opportunity gradually became the bane of the music industry. Events companies, which previously enjoyed some autonomy, began to compete for government contracts. Often these contracts came with alleged tacit or underhand conditions devised by some government officials who dictate which musicians are desirable to perform at what event.

The act of prescribing musicians for government events was not as straightforward since all African musicians were ANC-aligned until proven otherwise. The coming into existence of splinter political parties revealed the musicscape muddied by party politics.

Musicians harbouring different opinions about political developments in the country, irrespective of their apolitical intentions, are sidelined. Political patronage in the music industry has thus been encouraged. The fear harboured by musicians in the face of economic exclusion in this time and age is real and understandable.

In an open letter to L’vovo Derrango, DJ Merlon and DJ Shimza published by national newspaper the Sowetan, Zuma wa EFF, a social commentator, highlights the dilemma of mixing politics with party politics. Zuma wa EFF suggests that artists forget that their popularity is not linked to their political affiliation, but their God-given talent.

What is noteworthy is that the seemingly apathetic attitude of the “born frees” to politics, plays itself out in music as well. The disc jockey (DJ) phenomenon has taken over. House music, unlike rap in the US, is largely devoid of political commentary. The DJs rather choose to sing about apolitical life experiences or personal relationships. In short, the notion of resistance or protest music has all but subsided.

The alleged role played by a company called the Creative Collective in staging the inauguration of Thabo Mbeki for his second term as president at the Union Buildings in 2005 was a sign of the times. It left many sidelined artists worried. The collective included musicians such as Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Caiphus Semenya and Sibongile Khumalo.

Also, during the Mbeki era, Solly Moholo appeared at most of the ANC’s rallies. The trend continued with Chomee known for her gyrating moves at ANC events into President Jacob Zuma’s reign.

But things came to a head during the 2009 general elections when some artists, including Thandiswa Mazwai, her poet sister Ntsiki and Ringo Madlingozi refused to compose and sing ANC campaign songs. Madlingozi – and others who supposedly refused to be associated with that particular campaign – were allegedly blacklisted by the ruling party.

In a track called Bring it Back Home from his 2009 album titled Phola, Hugh Masekela eloquently bemoans the prevalent tendency by politicians, who after ascending to positions of power, discard the very people who helped their course. It is ironic that Masekela himself was an alleged beneficiary of contracts during the Mbeki era as a member of the Creative Collective.

For all intents and purposes musicians today have become timid. Not for fear of persecution as it was the case in the past, but for fear of economic exclusion. Avenues that used to support the music that expresses the anguish of “the people” no longer exist. The notions of “freedom of expression” and “poetic license” ring hollow today.

Only the internationally acclaimed artists can still afford to have their contending views about such unfortunate happenstances known. But, it is worth noting that Thomas Mapfumo, dubbed “the father of Chimurenga music”, has not returned to his motherland, Zimbabwe. Those who returned, but maintained their apolitical stance, have witnessed their stars waning and eventually fading into obscurity.

Be that as it may, it takes the courage of conviction from enlightened artists such as Ringo Mdlingozi, Ntsiki and Thandiswa Mazwai to protect artistic independence even against the ruthlessness of the ruling party. Whereas I sympathise with the ideals of the current political dispensation, it remains my contention that erosion of artistic freedom is diabolical.

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