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National Heritage Council: Criminalizing struggle songs is inconsiderate

Statement by Advocate S. Mancotywa – Chief Executive Officer: National Heritage Council

There are liberation songs that are simply sacred at rituals, be it a funeral or a memorial activity. One such song goes thus: Hamba Kahle Mkhonto, thina bantu bamnyama siz’ misele ukuwabulala wona lama bhulu. It’s not unexpected that such a song would have been sung at a commemoration of the death of an MK cadre.

The brouhaha around the banning of a liberation song, for allegedly inciting black hatred against whites, is unlikely to abate anytime soon. A gathering at the Tshwane township of Mamelodi on 06th April 2010, to commemorate the hanging of a military combatant of Umkhonto Wesizwe (MK), Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu, spontaneously and repeatedly broke out into that song. Unprompted by the organizers, they simply sang the song with such passion, gusto and wouldn’t be quietened down. They were probably conscious of the recent legal order banning such songs, but were intent on defying it.

This is precisely the problem with the banning of such songs. It’s a legal instrument, forcing people to change the way they remember their dead. There are liberation songs that are simply sacred at rituals, be it a funeral or a memorial activity. One such song goes thus: Hamba Kahle Mkhonto, thina bantu bamnyama siz’ misele ukuwabulala wona lama bhulu. It’s not unexpected that such a song would have been sung at a commemoration of the death of an MK cadre. Mahlangu, hanged in 1979, is a legend in the history of military resistance. This is because his military engagement in 1977, with the apartheid police, was amongst the first of its kind since the guerilla attacks of the 1960s. His was essentially an announcement of the revival of military resistance, led by the 1976 generation, against apartheid brutality.

The afore-mentioned song was composed and indeed represented the age of armed resistance. It was sung at every (political) funeral as a renewed commitment to continue anti-apartheid resistance. Every epoch of the anti-apartheid struggle is represented in song. Some capture the struggle of black women in the 1950s against the carrying of passes, and others register the protest of black residents against exorbitant bus-fares. Just listening to those songs one is taken through a journey of the long history of liberation struggle, through all its twists and turns.     

Songs are a repository of our history. Some evoke uncomfortable memories. This is inevitable. Our history is full of horrors. This is precisely why we needn’t forget our history. We need those memories to deter us from ever repeating such horrible acts against each other.  The National Heritage Council has taken a similar stance on the apartheid monuments. Apartheid history should be preserved alongside anti-apartheid history. After all, these histories are dialectically linked. You cannot talk of one without reference to the other. To present one without the other is an attempt at erasing history. Then our democratic republic would be no different to the apartheid order. Pre-1994 governments littered our public spaces with monuments that celebrated and memorialized the history of whites. One would have thought blacks were not part of this country, or had no history of their own at all.

History not only has to be preserved, but must be remembered. These songs, however, uncomfortable, are our defense against forgetting. Hence, I wish to register my disagreement with the banning of the liberation songs. For, banning such songs, especially for commemorative activities, suggests that it is bad of black people to remember their past. Of course, cognizant that it could be threatening to fellow South Africans, especially when sang within certain contexts. Some amongst us sing such songs with the intent to incite fear into their opponents. And, predictably, the intended targets become fearful and reduce such songs to a representation of white hatred.

It is worthwhile to note that at no time were such songs a call to murder white people. In fact, MK, which inspired such songs, was a non-racial body, when its mother-body, the ANC, still barred membership to whites. White guerillas and activists were never threatened by such songs and sang them with similar passion as their black comrades. They knew, as most ordinary whites that cared to listen to black people, that it was never the whites that the anti-apartheid struggle was against. It was the system of white supremacy that accorded privileges to individuals of European ancestry. Many accounts tell us that the late Oliver Tambo, president of the ANC for most of its exile life, and a staunch Christian, abhorred the very idea of violence, let alone targeting whites for violent attacks. Such attacks were strictly forbidden by the MK command.

We must never imbibe interpretation of anti-apartheid songs, tainted by prejudice, as factual accounts of history. Remember some of those peddling these distortions have been predicting racial war since 1994. They had even piled-up foodstuff, just before the 1994 elections, and went on hide-outs apparently running away from hordes of black ‘savages’ yearning to ‘savage whites’. That never happened and will not happen in future because our democratic republic is borne of a long, tradition of non-racialism. We certainly must not be insensitive to our fellow citizens, but it is foolhardy to ban liberation songs that remind us of an uncomfortable past. New songs will emerge as we create new memories that capture both the travails and celebrations of our democratic republic. Ours must be a constant battle against forgetfulness.   

Source: National Heritage Council

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  • Mancotywa’s posting hits the point. The issue of Liberation Struggle songs is being debated or contested by people who feel directly threatened by the history of the liberation. It is also unfortunate that people who have been spearheading this issue have very little understanding of the struggle politics and its ethics. In fact it has been mainly those who were on the opposite side of the struggle and now disguise under the protection of freedom without realising that their shield is very same product of the struggle songs! Just to point out this, when “...thina bafana boMkhonto sizimisel ukuwabulala wona laMaBhunu…’ was sung, it was not the policy of MK to endanger the lives of civilians. In many instances we witness the commemoration of historical tradition by certain regiments (in some case these were also performed after the defeat of Africans during the 19 century’s wars of dispossessions) but although these remind us of our forefather who were butchered by during the colonial wars, we remain silent. These activities takes place without a single complain. While building a South African we must cautious that we do not want to build a country that is oblivious about its history. Struggle songs are part of our history! Struggle songs are as important as the arrival of van Riebeeck in the Cape

    By Mxolisi Dlamuka on 12/05/2010
  • That addresses several of my conecnrs actually.

    By Yancy on 22/06/2011