8.50pm on December 5 2013 – that was the time that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela died. As President Jacob Zuma announced it just before midnight last Thursday night, I wondered what I was doing three hours earlier.
I had been watching the Proteas whip India in the first one-day game of their tour of South Africa. India were the first team South Africa played in 1991 when we were welcomed back into international cricket after Mandela’s release from prison the year before. I had the volume down, because at the same time I was listening to the new album from Johannesburg art collective The Brother Moves On. It is titled A New Myth and was released on the same day Mandela passed. Kind of like Bob Dylan releasing Love & Theft on September 11, 2001.
I was reading the liner notes as I listened and I remembered getting stuck on the lyrics for the band’s first single, PARTY@PARKTOWNMANSIONS. A protest song with lyrics like “Believe in this revolution and not this party”, it naturally piqued my interest. This band loves to play with the personal and the political in their music.
”I’m eating sushi in paradise with whoever /And loaded cause it don’t last forever / The chivalry of whisky on her lips / She’s lost in the cars it’s the sound of her hips,” sings Siya Mthembu.
It’s a song mainlined straight from the corrupted soul of our country staggering towards 20 years of “democrazy” as the band calls it in the liner notes, referencing Fela Kuti, of course. The band explains that the song is not “anti-ANC” – that’s “so 1998”. What follows is their explanation. Bear in mind when the band wrote the liner notes, Madiba had not passed.
It speaks to the ideals of the liberation movement and asks what we fought for if this is it. With no clear party to vote for, we’re inundated with so-called “apathetic voters”. The song is sung in the voice of such an apathetic voter who wants to vote and wants to get involved in the political process but understands that the caliber of our parties declines with every election – either that or we as citizens have not come to understand our value in this free and democratic country. Our country celebrates 20 years of democrazy next year, and in the very same year we exercise the democratic right for which our elders fought. The difference this time is that the party that has been running the country is in trouble. The youth’s leadership (Julius Malema and co) are themselves seen to be part of the same ruling elite that has undermined the momentum of this dream set in action by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the release of Nelson Mandela. This song speaks of the condition of being the kids of the transition – the born frees – who are asking the ruling party and all partyies involved to clean up their act as #thereisnoparty.
Friday morning, December 6, and the country seemed to be in shock; television and radio stations were wall-to-wall Mandela. But, trawling bars from Hyde Park to Braamfontein on that evening for after-work drinks, it seemed like South Africa was just going about business as usual. We hit Melville at about 9pm to catch The Brother Moves On. The band members were wearing their by now customary tights and were crammed along a wall in the cramped space of The Lighthouse. They had just returned from a tour of Cape Town.
“No matter how hard hearted you are with a certain old man and his choices,” says Siyabonga Mthembu, the band’s front man, “today we get to mourn.”
The Brother Moves On recently lost a founding band member, Nkululeko Mthembu, who died a few weeks ago at the age of 27. Mourning is something they are intimately familiar with at the moment. I found Mthembu’s tone interesting; in the past he had openly vented his frustration at the negotiated settlement that resulted in South Africa finding itself where it is in 2013. The fact that the majority of the economy and the country’s land is still in white hands lies at the heart of the failure of Mandela’s vision for a rainbow nation.
But politics aside, the band is killing it. They are tight; they are well-oiled machine. The dual guitar attack from Zelizwe Mthembu and Raytheon Moorvan urges the band onwards as the rhythm section of Ayanda Zalekile on bass and Simphiwe Tshabalala on drums holds down some thick funk grooves.
A bit later in the gig, Mthembu gets into a more abrasive frame of mind, openly talking politics between songs. The crowd encourages him. He talks about the politics of the unrecognised comrades who fought in the struggle only to be left high and dry when the transition happened. He talks about his parents and their role in the fight against apartheid. He talks about the fact that there really appears to be no one to vote for in next year’s election. He talks about the fact that millions of black South Africans are still living in abject poverty.
“We were told to take back the power. We chickened out,” spits Mthembu.
As the country is numbed into submission with wall-to-wall anecdotes about how everyone who met Madiba thought it was just a wonderful experience, this gig felt like a sanctuary, a place devoid of reductionist thinking that turns Mandela into the man who saved whites from black vengeance. No wonder Mthembu is poking fun at the Night of the Long Knives.
“There is a white family out there fucking out [on fear],” he sneers. “This song is dedicated to ‘die Nag van die Lang Messe’,” says Mthembu. “We are sharpening our pangas, and those who do not have pangas are sharpening their rocks… We are organising this logistically through BBM (Blackberry Messenger).”
The crowd is in hysterics; it’s great to laugh in this sad time. The fact that there are South Africans out there who believe in the Night of the Long Knives, just shows you what a crazy fucked up country we call home. But I can’t help wondering perhaps this band has a message for all of us, especially at this time.
Perhaps the death of Mandela is a time for us as a country to write ourselves a new myth. Perhaps we need to discard Mandela’s Rainbow Nation ideal because it has failed. For how many years now have South Africans been talking about the “stillborn” Rainbow Nation? Perhaps we need to stop looking backwards and start looking forward. We need to face up to the crisis of leadership the country faces, move on from booing Jacob Zuma to actually voting him out of power or placing enough pressure on the ANC to do the right thing and recall him. If the ANC will not listen to the public, then we must make them listen. The status quo cannot continue because the land, shares and money are still largely owned by a minority of white South Africans.
US President Barack Obama, speaking the day after Mandela’s passing, said South Africa was a country “at peace with itself”. He referred to this as Mandela’s legacy. I wondered which country he had visited. Oh, wasn’t he in Cape Town last time he was here?
Below are some photos from The Con’s recent event – The Brother Moves Con taken by Ts’eliso Monaheng