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South Africa: Sleeping Among Giants

As I watched and listened to a string of poets and performers and musicians, young and old, well known, lesser known and unknown, during an intimate memorial at the Market Theatre for Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile, the identity of my […]
As I watched and listened to a string of poets and performers and musicians, young and old, well known, lesser known and unknown, during an intimate memorial at the Market Theatre for Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile, the identity of my county was banging in my ears, demanding attention.
 For a relatively small country, South Africa has a large population of giants. They come in several “species”: artists, musicians, men of faith, liberation heroes. It’s easy to think of those who have died recently and become extinct. Their names jump quickly to our lips. OR Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Albertina and Walter Sisulu, Miriam Makeba, Ray Phiri, Basil D’Oliveira, Ruth First and many others.

However, such is our attitude to history and culture that there are many other giants of our land whose lives we do not take the trouble to excavate and do not know. Occasionally a book will appear about one of them, Charlotte Maxeke or Rick Turner for example, before they disappear back into the shrouds of the past.

And, of those that remain, many of them live unseen, as if they are already relics of a bygone age. We tend only to notice them and start to understand their behaviour once they have died. We sleep among them while they live, ignoring what their lives can tell us of our past, present and future.

These thoughts came to me forcefully while grieving the recent deaths of our poet laureate Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile, and shortly after him our trumpet-major Hugh Masekela.

I missed the official government sponsored memorial for Bra Willie but I was fortunate enough to attend a smaller, more intimate memorial at the Market Theatre two days later. As I watched and listened to a string of poets and performers and musicians, young and old, well known, lesser known and unknown, the identity of my county was banging in my ears, demanding attention. I was struck by the fusion of resistance and morals and politics, and its expression in trombone and trumpet and poem; the plethora of languages and how naked I felt in not knowing any but one of them. The power and mission of the personalities.

By Mark Heywood

Read the full story on the Daily Maverick website
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