Two Nations In Song

We therefore make bold to say that South Africa is a country of two nations.”[i]  ~ President Thabo Mbeki


On the eve of the seventh anniversary of his ousting as president of the republic, Bloemfontein reminded me of this in/famous (depending on which of the two nations you fall in) speech of Thabo Mbeki. The speech, delivered in May 1998, tore asunder the myth of the rainbow nation in its nascent days, and cast Mbeki out of the favour of the white media for which he was a darling for his liberal economic outlook. This was not ‘Thabo yoh yoh ngwana’a moAfrika[ii] who united the country under Africanness in 1996. We must remember that this was not the time of #Luister or #WitBokkeMustFall; Mandela was still pretty much dancing as we sang “South Africa we love you, our beautiful land” and Francois Pienaar was still playing rugby. Yet Mbeki did not mince his words in a scathing critique of the country he was poised to inherit. The sheer gall!


Almost two decades on, testament to his failure as a leader, “we are [still] not one nation, but two nations. And neither are we becoming one nation.”[iii] This two-nation notion is not only manifest in the socio-economic sphere that the speech alluded to but most palpably in the cultural sphere. For instance in sports the conservatives, having run fresh out of ideas, argue that rugby is a white sport and soccer a black sport. In defence of the #WitBokke, they go so far as to claim that Bafana Bafana is ‘untransformed’ – this despite overwhelming evidence that the national soccer team has fielded more white players than both the cricket and rugby teams have fielded black players.


This notion manifests in choral music as well. The two nations were, ‘separate but equal’, in song this past Saturday in Bloemfontein’s Makgraaf Street.

“One of these nations is white,” it gathered on time in stoic silence at the PACOFS’ Sand Du Plessis theatre in the evening for the Standard Bank Nasionalle Manne Koorfees (National Men’s Choir Festival).

“The second and larger nation…is black,” it gathered throughout the morning and early afternoon in raucous jubilation at the CUT’s Boet Troskie Hall for the Free State leg of the Old Mutual National Choir Festival. It is worth noting, for the indulgence of my afro-pessimist friends, that the former sponsor was selling wealth, and the latter was selling death.


Two national choir festivals on one street on the same day to a choral music lover is heaven on earth. However one must have the courage to ask “it’s beautiful, but what does it mean?” In asking this question I wrestle with two notions that plague this country: unity and diversity.


The Unity Dream Deferred


A week after the abovementioned speech, Mbeki delivered a follow up where he clarified some misconceptions and to some extent tried to appease the white media that had unleashed a full scale attack on him – one can almost imagine Tata calling his favourite son to order: “Zizi, that is taking it too far.” But Mbeki is the #Asjiki kinda darkie, he stuck to his guns: “Again, we must express our appreciation for the serious responses of the editors…But it is also necessary that we return to the reality of the South Africa of two nations to which we referred.”[iv] This clarification, bolstered by empirical evidence as opposed to rhetoric, earned him lesser friends in the media. The tag ‘racist’ still lingers around his name, despite the nostalgia of his rule in some quarters.


He quoted the work done by Germany to bring together East and West German nations to form the monolithic giant that is Germany – the redistribution of wealth (R13-trillion “of public funds were transferred from West Germany to East Germany to underwrite Germany’s project of national unity and reconciliation”[v]) – as an example South Africa should emulate. He however stuck to his predecessor’s perennially failing strategy of uniting South Africa’s two nations, “underwritten by the perpetuation of the racial, gender and spatial disparities born of a very long period of colonial and apartheid white minority domination”[vi], through song, dance and games.


Exactly eleven months before his ousting, we saw him being hoisted by the world rugby champions to match Madiba’s hoisting of the Webb Ellis trophy – yet Springboks are still lily white. He went a step further and secured the country rights to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup – Phillip left us as he found us. The Madiba dance didn’t do the trick, so Mbeki joined Solly Moholo for mokhuku (the dance of the Zion Christian Church) – hilarious, but didn’t work. The merging of the prayer of the dispossessed with that of the dispossessors to form the national anthem also went awry. But on that same path we continue…


So why didn’t the choral society of Free State make September the 19th a Mandela day and continue this legacy of social cohesion? Especially given that song is often muted as a great unifier. Surely the 15yo Bloemfontein Mannekoor (BMK), which hosted the first koorfees held this Saturday, knew about the National Choir Festival that is just two years shy of its ruby jubilee – why not contest on that platform? And why is it that in this invitational koorfees the BMK only white choirs were invited? There surely can’t be a lack of black male choirs in the country.


It is worth noting that the koorfees was largely Afrikaaner, as the name alludes, and to make this stick out even more was the conductor of the choir Men In Red who introduced his troupe as the English choir of the night there to provide some diversity, a false claim as all the choirs were quite diverse in their offerings – with the Port Elizabeth based Arbitrio Mannekoor majestically rendering the hymn ‘Ukuthula’ in a judicious blend of isiZulu and Afrikaans.


With the above question arises another: why weren’t there any white choristers or choirs at the NCF Free State Regionals? Two considerations, each equally frightening, arise:

  1. White choristers/choirs don’t want to participate
  2. White choristers/choirs don’t qualify, i.e. they aren’t good enough

These considerations find an eerie resonance with the reasons the conservatives offer for the #WitBokke.


As we do with the question of black rugby players, we must dismiss a priori the notion that there are no white choristers in the Free State. Which lands on the question of why they aren’t participating in the biggest choir festival in the sub-continent. Could it be because the festival, founded by Prof Khabi Mngoma in 1978, is a ‘black thing’?

Pundit after pundit, analysts from the left to the right of the political circus, all seem to be in agreement that the black nation has stretched itself sore extending an olive branch to the white nation, but the latter just kept sipping its tea minding its own business. The frustration this causes has led to contemporary thought leaders like Panashe Chigumadzi and Mbe Mbhele refusing white friendship and telling white people to f*** off.

Are white people really, as Khalid Muhammad charged, disagreeable to getting along with? No it cannot be.


The second consideration concerns itself with the question of meritocracy. Are white Free State choristers simply not good enough to qualify for this prestigious event?

In the late seventies, the black National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) merged with the white National Football League to form the inter-racial NPSL, hardly a decade later the majority non-racial teams formed a splinter National Soccer League, the white teams retained the NPSL but soon went under and eventually folded into the non-racial black dominated PSL. Moral of the story; on merit, black players ran riot over their white counterparts.

Is this the fate of all black-white mergers in SA? Is this what the conservatives are scared will happen to the economy and to rugby – hence the gatekeeping? Is this what white choirs are avoiding?


But Aime Cesaire done taught us that no race has a monopoly on beauty – it would be foolhardy to argue that blacks are somehow innately better singers than whites. We must however admit that centuries of anti-black racism undergird by the notion of the innate supremacy of whites, and how this fantasy played itself out on the material plane with the elevation of all white everything and deliberate stunting of black development, have created in the white psyche fertile ground for cognitive dissonance at the very thought of not being better than blacks. As Fanon said, one only need not be a nigger. Mbeki speaks to this when he quotes US psychologists James Statman and Amy Ansell:


“Particularly for those who had for so long set the terms of the dominant South African political and social discourse, those used to determining the ‘public transcript’, that such power came to be experienced as the natural order of things, this stark assertion of other realities and other’s power threatened to erode a coherent sense of social, psychological and perhaps most fundamentally of ontological security.” [vii]


This also manifests itself, although in the opposite direction, in the psyche of blacks: victory over (the superior) whites is that much more sweeter. So to protect the imago of supremacy, the whites disengage and have their own thing on the side where they declare each other the best South Africa has to offer without ever coming into competition with 90% of its population. While on the other hand the black clamours for an opportunity to ‘show them’ as it were – hence the forever growing olive branch.


So between white refusal to get along or white inferiority complex, which evil is lesser? We must refuse to choose!




South Africa’s selling point is its diversity of cultures that live side by side peacefully and, as the SABC heritage month adverts implore, learn from each other. We need not have one choral festival, and in fact we do not. They exist side by side without any hassle, as they did on Makgraaf Street on Saturday. They cater to different performers and audiences.


The koorfees offered a wide variety of songs and styles. It incorporated drums, an accordion, a flute and even windpipes – of course the choir’s best friend, the piano, was there. The Grey College Primary School opened with the classic ‘Libera’, although coming short of the great boy-choirs such as the St. Phillips Boys’ Choir and the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir, they carried it through well enough to deserve an applause. They also attempted the Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’, but it lacked that soul that Gladys Knight and the Pips infused into it. I reached for the stereotypical short-hand ‘white people ain’t got soul’ to explain my disappointment away. Words I immediately swallowed when the Arbitrio Mannekoor rendered ‘Ukuthula’. The soloist led with isiZulu, the choir followed in Afrikaans, I joined silently in my native Setswana – I was transmigrated to infancy; snoozing on my mother’s back as she sang the hymn along with the women at the Thursday women’s prayer. It had that much soul!


The Randburg Mannekoor was next to ascend the stage, dressed simply in baby blue shirts and black pants, they were a jolly and playful bunch. Their harmonies intimated a level of friendship between them, which is always a good thing even if it is just a fantasy. They danced and gestured quite a lot, making their performance the liveliest of the evening. The crescendo of their performance was the song ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ – each chorister was singing it for their bae, the smiles on their faces gave them away. It made one regret not dragging his along.


Another notable performance came from Men In Red, who closed with the witty tune ‘There’s Nothing Like A Dame’, seeing one of their members prancing about on stage in a blonde curly wig and pink feather scarf to the controlled chuckle of the audience and the hooting admiration of the fellas exalting the uniqueness of dames. This performance deserved a rousing standing ovation, but for the reserved audience.


At the Boet Troskie Hall there were no such reservations. The master of ceremonies most used phrase must have been ‘please be quite’, also known as shut up – as the Hymphatic Thabs would have us believe. He however, understanding that his people have zero chill, never lost patience with the crowd. And they respected him for it; when it was really needed the hall did turn into Homo Naledi’s crib. With few exceptions such as when the soloist of the large category winners Bel Canto Voices hit a few notes and sent ripples of energy through the crowd; or when the baritone section of the Free State Choristers breathed through the compositions like a centuries old forest. The audience welcomed every choir with shouts and whistling, and each time a conductor took the traditional bow they again erupted.


The eruptions that gave live to the festival were those in song.

In his seminal critique of art, Decolonising The Mind, Ngugi wa Thiong’o tells the story of a production of his and Ngugi wa Mirii’s play I Will Marry When I Want in the Kenyan village of Kamiriithu. He tells how the intended audience, the villagers, shaped the story, form and language of the play. That in the end they dictated what they wanted to see staged by the actors, thereby refusing to abdicate the power of telling the story to the directors. In the end, because every one contributed to the production, the house was packed when the play was staged. The audience owned it. Ngugi emphasises that what happened there was not extra-ordinary. Africans, he claims, are not just consumers of culture but also its producers – throwing by the wayside the artist-audience dichotomy. We produce culture to consume, and consume to produce. When we watch dancers on stage, they move us to dance – we give as much as we get.

The Boet Troskie Hall, all of it, was turned into a stage. Whenever there was a minute to spare, the audience – most of them choristers – broke into song. This was practically every time a choir walked off stage and another ascended. Unlike the choirs who were limited to two songs of the prescribed nine, the audience had an endless catalogue open to it. They showed bias towards the church catalogue. During one of the longer intermissions, as we moved from the standard to large category, there was a ten to fifteen minute medley of choruses the hottest hits of the different church denominations. The seamless changeover from one chorus to the next, led by different sections of the audience, was pure joy to hear and see – the rhythmic swaying that accompanied the songs added to the beauty.


On these occasions the MC did not ask the audience to quieten down when he needed to proceed with the official business of the day, he used his majestic tenor to join the song and skilfully led it to a harmonious hiatus.


Contrary to Ngugi’s experiences; there was a thick wall between the choirs and audience – arguably in the name of decorum and order. The music from the stage did not in any way reflect the music from the floor. The NCF requires each choir in the regional stages to sing a Western and African song. The western songs are European compositions by the likes of Giuseppe Verdi, and obviously have no resonance with the songs coming from the floor. The African songs also are shockingly not reflective of Africa and her urchins – they are basically Verdi caricatures written by Africans in an African language. The audience here fails to shape the content and form of what it consumes.


!ke e: /xarra //ke : TOWARDS A SYNTHESIS


From the exposition of the differences above, one can safely assume that the masses that gathered at the Sand Du Plessis would feel quite out of place at the Boet Troskie. And similarly the audience of the NCF would suffocate in the straightjacket of the koorfees.


I cannot but recall the out of rhythm clapping of the white toddler at the Boet Troskie Hall who didn’t have a care in the world for decorum and was moved to join the jubilant masses in song – there’s hope! Let’s christen her Nothemba, our ambassador for change.


This hope is to see unity in this diversity. Of course a hundred flowers should bloom, and thousands of choral festivals and competitions should contest every week – this is the dream! But there can only be one “national” festival. How to achieve this? By taking the best of both nations, and gooing a mean poitjiekos. Let me illustrate with Saturday’s festivities:


Firstly, an African festival must be lively. The stoic sombreness of Sand Du Plessis must be done away with, and replaced wholly with the jubilant spirit of Boet Troskie. This can be achieved through simple socialisation; Nothemba is already leading the way.


Secondly, and most importantly, the colonised caricature that ascended the Boet Troskie stage must disappear from the face of Africa completely, and be replaced by the free and confident boys of the koorfees who are as worldly as their rooted in their culture. This can be achieved through an accelerated programme of decolonisation: return of the land, equitable redistribution of resources and reparations (even if it’s just symbolic; a goat per family to appease the ancestors maybe?), ‘to heal the divisions of the past’ and ‘to achieve peaceful coexistence of all our people.’[viii]


“Consequently, also, the objective of national reconciliation [will be] realised” [ix] and diverse people shall unite as equals.


This done, we can all sing, as one nation, without any sense of irony or naivety:

“Let’s show the whole world, we can bring peace in our land.”

[i] Thabo Mbeki: “National Assembly Opening Statement – Reconciliation and Nation Building”, 29 May 1998.

[ii] Bayete and Jabu Khanyile: “Thabo”, Mmalo-We, Island Records, 1993.

[iii] Thabo Mbeki: “National Assembly Opening Statement – Reconciliation and Nation Building”, 29 May 1998.

[iv] Thabo Mbeki: “Debate on the Budget Vote of the Office of the Deputy President”, 03 June 1998.

[v] Thabo Mbeki: “National Assembly Opening Statement – Reconciliation and Nation Building”, 29 May 1998.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Thabo Mbeki: “Debate on the Budget Vote of the Office of the Deputy President”, 03 June 1998.

[viii] Preamble to the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 198 of 1996

[ix] Thabo Mbeki: “National Assembly Opening Statement – Reconciliation and Nation Building”, 29 May 1998.

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