Credo: Vision that inspired a modern classic
The road to Pretoria is lined with landmarks. There are old things one would rather forget, or ignore, and new things that give one a sense of pride in progress.
The starkest reminder of the past is the army base of Thaba Tshwane, previously known as Voortrekkerhoogte. These days the military barracks are announced by gigantic, high-tech khaki surveillance dishes about three storeys high. Years ago, hundreds of thousands of white boys spent years of national conscription duty there. These days the soldiers are mainly black and part of the permanent force.
Further down the Pretoria highway, like a shot in a movie, one sees the imposing Voortrekker Monument getting bigger as one nears it. At the junction leading to the monument one finds the gardens and flagpoles of Freedom Park.
The new heritage site is an obvious attempt to counter the old Voortrekker narrative as much as it is a memorial to those who gave their lives in the fight for a democratic South Africa.
About a year ago I took an overseas visitor to the two historical places where we noticed that, while the Voortrekker Monument was full of foreign tourists arriving in busloads, sadly, none of them visited the adjoining Freedom Park afterwards.
Another new addition to the landscape on the side of the highway is the Gautrain track, a pride of the nation as the first high-speed railway in Africa.
Arriving in Pretoria one sees, across a valley and spread across Muckleneuk Ridge, the impressive sight of the angular, streamlined University of South Africa. In the early 1970s, when Unisa looked radical and new, people said that the main campus buildings, with their combination of parallel and diagonal lines, were designed to look like an aeroplane — and it’s hard not to see the body and tail of a 1970s jet when one looks at the campus from afar.
These days, the old brutalism looks quite sleek and cool, but many architectural critics have commented how the building’s arrival was a part of the Afrikaner Broederbond’s patronage of its architect Brian Alan Theodore Sandrock in its creation of the apartheid infrastructure.
Within the building itself, one finds the ZK Matthews Great Hall, and it is here where the university celebrated its 140th birthday this week. After a number of coincidences, the hall played host to a significant event that lends meaning to the celebration.
The name of the hall is indicative of the changes that local institutions experience as the country evolves. The renamed ZK Matthews Great Hall is situated in the Theo van Wijk building and I’ll bet that today very few people know who Van Wijk was (he was a former Unisa principal), while many more now know of Matthews than knew of him under apartheid.
Matthews was an academic and Treason Trialist who, together with activists Rusty Bernstein and Alan Lipman, compiled the Freedom Charter of the Congress of the People back in 1955.
The coincidence, here, concerns a piece of modern classical music, an oratorio titled Credo, which is a celebration of the Freedom Charter and which will be performed in the ZK Matthews Great Hall this weekend.
By the time you read this, Credo will have premiered on July 18, Mandela Day, at a gala attended by President Jacob Zuma.
The two principal artists behind the work are musical composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen and writer Brent Meersman.
Together, they share a passion for the Freedom Charter as a founding document, a precursor of the Constitution of the country today.
“I don’t care much about politics really — politicians bore me,” Ndodana-Breen told me on Monday in Johannesburg, a day after I had travelled to Pretoria to watch a rehearsal of his piece.
“But I do care about my country very much. And I am doing this project because I believe in this wonderful vision that is behind this document,” he said.
“Some people might think that it is a pipe dream, but I think it is one of the most uplifting, inspirational texts I have read.
“All the things that it says are extraordinary: that this country belongs to all who live in it, that the doors of learning and culture shall be open to all, that there shall be housing and the elimination of poverty. To me it is a very humanist kind of message.”
The essence of the Freedom Charter
Ndodana-Breen found this message explored in a poem by Meersman, coincidentally left on a table when he visited the writer some years ago. “I was staying at Brent’s house as a guest when I came back from Canada,” said Ndodana-Breen, who has lived and worked abroad.
“I found this poem called Credo on his desk. I was intrigued and I thought it sounded familiar. And I realised he had distilled the essence of the Freedom Charter with this wonderful poem.
“I think he may have had musical aspirations. He called the thing Credo and, as you may know, the Creed in the Latin Mass is a very substantive piece of music.”
From the rehearsal I gathered that Credo is a sweeping, uplifting declaration of how ordinary South Africans would like the country to be. A choir sings the opening words of the charter: “We the People of South Africa/ declare for all our country/ and the world to know/ that the world belongs to all who live in it/ by right not will.”
Soloists Sibongile Khumalo, Otto Maidi and Monika Wassung make bold, sung statements about the purpose of work, about the equitable distribution of resources and about the need for food and healthcare.
In the performance, the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra will be under the baton of visiting German conductor Jonas Alber. In 2011, Alber visited South Africa to conduct the world premiere of Winnie the Opera, also composed by Ndodana-Breen.
For Credo, images projected on to a panoramic screen will be animated live by video jockey Andrew Black. These include portraits of ordinary people, historical moments from the struggle archive, and artworks including the signature image of the oratorio — Mary Sibande’s sculpture of her alter ego Sophie, in a huge Victorian gown conducting an imaginary orchestra.
But how does Ndodana-Breen feel about the discrepancy between the idealism expressed in the Freedom Charter and the unrealised dreams and disappointments of democracy that we experience today?
He quotes John F Kennedy’s Rice Stadium Moon Speech: “Kennedy said — and I love this — ‘we choose to go to the moon, and all these things, not because they’re easy but because they are hard’. And I think we as a nation should keep on dreaming that South Africa can be a better place.
“I think, for me, the Freedom Charter is saying this place can be better. We need to keep on dreaming and we need to dream big.”
I ask him whether music can be a conduit to those dreams.
“Yes, this is not new,” he replies. “I mean, look at what Beethoven means to the Germans. And look at what Edward Elgar did with Land of Hope and Glory.”
Credo runs at the ZK Matthews Great Hall on the Unisa campus in Muckleneuk, Pretoria, until July 21