Vusi Mahlasela says his songs assume their own direction, but he has been a master of his own destiny all his life Nicky Blumenfeld If South Africa’s recent history were to be described in narrative form, then Vusi Mahlasela’s life story would provide fitting material. It is also appropriate that his latest album, Miyela Afrika, has been released just in time for this century’s first South African Music Week (August 28 to September 2). Rather than addressing the difficulties of our time, this album is a refreshing celebration of our achievements, both culturally and politically. In the early Nineties, at one of the country’s first ever rock festivals, I encountered the “voice of Mamelodi”. The crowd epitomised young white South Africa, spiced with undercover cops, the Hell’s Angels and your average Vaalie. At dusk one evening, amid braaivleis smoke and alcohol fumes, a lone figure on the large stage, barely visible in the fading light, began a lament of astonishing beauty. The small crowd moved close to the stage as Mahlasela’s voice rang sweeter, welcoming the revellers. He sang, “I wish it would rain…”, and the skies opened! >From this enchanting moment to the present day, through the evolution of a millennium, a decade, a country and a people, the sounds of Vusi Mahlasela have resonated and encapsulated these changes. At an early age Mahlasela and his family were among the statistics of forced removals, and his grandmother soon set up an illegal shebeen in the Pretoria township. As a child Mahlasela kept close watch, warning the business of approaching police, whereupon his granny would hide the stock and put out sweets, assuming the guise of a child’s birthday party. His first thirst for song came from this paradoxical environment – entranced by the customers who would perform the historical mbube, a cappella style. One of the regular patrons played an acoustic guitar, which inspired the young Mahlasela to build his own from fish nets, curtain holders and magogo (an atchar or cooking oil container). But it was at the age of eight that his inventiveness flourished – together with friends, an entire musical outfit was created from tennis balls, mattress springs and other paraphernalia. The result was a full band, aptly named The Pleasure Invaders by a neighbour working night shift. Among the rock and folk sounds of which he did cover versions, local performers such as Mahlatini and the Mahotella Queens, Philip Thabane and The Dark City Sisters remain his role models. Self-taught, Mahlasela soon invented his own chords, and though later he picked up the technicalities, he still retains what he refers to as his “touch”. As the political climate simmered, he began to attend festivals and rallies, and it was here that he was introduced to poetry. At first he responded with intrigue, not comprehending the actions of those who stood proud with verbal expression overlaying the beating of drums. A friend likened these performances to “recitations” done at school. Freed from the autocratic formalities, this point of reference attracted young Mahlasela. At the age of 15, seeking cover from the volatile political environment, he began a factory job at the Transvaal Knitting Works. It was here that he first became aware of his musical obsession and along with his increased interest in verse he discovered himself as a “musician who happens to be a poet”.
After the 1976 riots he joined a poetry group formed by the late Dr Fabian Ribeiro – his mentor of social consciousness. The group was often invited to perform at cultural gatherings and political rallies and members of the Congress of South African Writers soon invited him to join the organisation.
It was only when the “trouble” began that Mahlasela realised “what we were doing was important – why I had to be harassed by the police for playing my guitar and reciting”. It was about raising people’s consciousness, and for this the price was enforced silence. As the pressure mounted, Ribeiro made plans for some of the group to skip the country. Mahlasela was a mild epileptic – two days before the departure he had a seizure and he was medically advised to cancel his plans. But word had leaked out and those who had attempted to leave were soon tracked by the authorities and arrested along with Mahlasela. At this point his understanding of the system deepened and he realised the extent of the enemy’s information pool. He was tortured. One of the many forms employed by his tormentors was to lock him in a tiny, dark, restrictive room with his hands and legs tethered. For more than 10 hours at a stretch, a drop of water would incessantly fall on his head. This affected his health, but his strength and strategy pulled him through and the singing has healed him. In response he wrote his debut album, When You Come Back, in which he expresses gratitude that his “happy songs live in consistency”. It was an album of support for those who’d left and in prematurely welcoming them back, he gives gratitude for the fulfilment of his prediction: “I’ll be the one who’ll climb up the mountain reaching for the days of our African days.” Mahlasela has chosen to move forward – to forgive and release, sometimes even making fun of his sorrow and pain. He says: “It gives me the pleasurable human feeling, to know that I can forget, to not become like a bitter leaf that can be squashed or blown or taken by the wind – I am strong inside!” Memories of yesterday help him to “kiss the future” and he is where he is today from the creativity that the authorities tried to quash in him. His art has healed his heart.
His second album, Wisdom of Forgiveness, was released shortly before the 1994 elections, inspired by Nelson Mandela’s appeal for reconciliation and healing. His award-winning third release, Silang Mabele, which means “grinding the wheat” in Tswana, encouraged the nation to get down to work. After welcoming the exiles, appealing for forgiveness and tolerance, he was inspired by President Thabo Mbeki’s call for practical action.
Mahlasela’s new release, Miyela Afrika, means “be still Africa”, reflecting the fulfilment of his first album’s prayers. In the midst of national cynicism he remains confident in the spirit of the “African renaissance”. He quotes the Kenyan poet, Ngugi Wa Thiongo: “Africa teach your children ancient songs that glorify the spirit of collective good.” He wishes the youth of Africa strength and awareness, calling for the correction of past mistakes and describing himself as a “controlled field burning unwanted things” in his quest for humanity’s health. Miyela Africa was produced by Mahlasela’s old friend, the exceptionally talented Louis Mhlanga. Mhlanga’s excellence is present throughout and this is magnified by the inclusion of an array of some of South Africa’s finest musicians. Each track has a magic element, a special feature. Whether it is the inclusion of Tsepo Tshola on the Aids song, Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse playing flute, or Mahlasela’s heart-warming duet with Faith Kekana, there was a conscious move to inventive collaboration. Themba Mkhize’s touch is a bonus, along with the glory of bassists Fana Zulu and Herbie Tsoaledi. Drummer Vusi Khumalo and steel pan-man Andy Narell shine alongside the all-star cast. Significantly, it is the spaces that have been left, the gaps for these inclusions and the remarkable arrangements, which elevate the project. This is only possible through Mahlasela’s belief that: “Music has to be sharing – it’s soul food!” He describes how “songs are sent to you”, explaining how they sit at the back of your head and assume their own direction.
Mahlasela’s voice has been likened to that of a bird or even an angel, but Nadine Gordimer’s description is perhaps most fitting: “Music was at the heart in the struggle for freedom; Vusi was there. Music is at the heart of reconstruction: Vusi’s music is here to stir and delight us. He is a national treasure.” Andr’ Brink’s new novel engages in a dialogue with JMCoetzee’s Disgrace, but goes in a different direction Antjie Krog ‘I had almost completed The Rights of Desire when Disgrace was published. Despite some problems I had with the book, I was in real awe! I knew that in many ways it would have a definitive influence on South African writing and was faced with a serious difficulty. I needed a violent action to break through the protective mould of my main character and had planned a rape scene. Then came Disgrace and I was forced to change the story. In a way it was a good thing, because my text gained a lot from the new direction.” In his latest book, Andr’ Brink chose to interact directly with JM Coetzee’s Disgrace. He takes as his theme Professor David Lurie’s defence after being accused of sexual misconduct with a student: “I rest my case on the rights of desire … on the god who makes even the small birds quiver.”
For many Afrikaans readers Brink has always been an enigma. When he emerged as one of the Sestigers (a literary movement of the 1960s) with outrageous ideas and razor-sharp attacks on the Afrikaner establishment, people were confused. On the face of it he was an “ordentlike man”, a Boereseun from a magistrate’s household; the eldest of four children, he obtained the highest matric marks in the Transvaal. It was also known that at the age of 12 he had submitted a novel for publication, patiently typed for him by his father. When he was 14 his first full-length “adult” novel was rejected because it was too erotic. “Ever since I was nine I knew that I would be a writer. I knew that I live through words.” He wandered about the garden at Jagersfontein talking to himself in English. “I could hardly speak English, but with hindsight I suppose it was a desire to find a kind of private space reachable only through a language which sounds different from everyday talk.”
The Brinks were a family of voracious readers. “Whenever we met after being apart for a year or so we would greet and talk, happy to be together. But within half an hour each of us would be alone in a quiet spot, reading.” Brink’s mother published books for children; his sister, Elsab’ Steenberg, was a prominent author of books for teenagers. “But my father could have been a writer. On long winter evenings I would declare a match between my parents, give them a theme, and they’d have to come up with a story. Time and again my father astounded us.” The story of The Rights of Desire (Donkermaan is the Afrikaans title) announced itself one night on a flight between London and South Africa. “I was hyper-conscious that I was near my retiring year and that things were becoming countable [telbaar]. A writer seldom writes after the age of 80 and it was a terrible thought: fewer books perhaps left to write than I have fingers on my hand. I went into a complete panic about being old and redundant and useless. That night everything crystallised.” Since Die Ambassadeur, the book which put Brink on the Afrikaans map as a writer of remarkable calibre, he had wanted to explore the relationship between an older man and a much younger woman. For this he needed a lot more maturity. On the plane he knew the time had come. And then there was Antje of Bengal, a ghost haunting the Paapenboom Road house in The Rights of Desire. Brink is known for using suppressed parts of South African history in his work, from slave rebellions to the life of Bram Fischer. When he first wrote about Fischer in Gerugte van Re?n, the imprisoned communist could not be quoted, but through that novel readers became familiar with his background. After initially wanting to stay in France (“I was ashamed of South Africa, I was embarrassed by the Afrikaner”), he returned here and wrote his infamous Kennis van die Aand (Looking on Darkness), one of the first Afrikaans books to be banned in South Africa. In an act as courageous as it was politically incorrect, Brink made his main character and narrator a coloured man. I remember that in Kroonstad my mother was the only person who already had a copy when it was banned. The dominees of the dorp decided they had to read the book in order to guide their flock, so my mother was phoned. I have it in my possession, still in the brown paper cover used to disguise it.
In my personal experience this is one book of which black and white Afrikaans readers have said that it changed their lives in a fundamental way. Afrikaners found themselves for the first time identifying with someone of another colour. Black people said: When I read this book I realised that whites are beatable, that we could force them to accept that we are like them.
Brink also introduced a specifically African magic realism (distinct from the Latin-American variety) into Afrikaans. His favourite authors in this regard are Zakes Mda and Amos Tutuola – especially the latter’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and The Palm-Wine Drinkard. “We are so fortunate in South Africa … the stories I heard from the Basotho woman who raised me, the Hottentot cosmology, the whole stream of Afrikaans ‘spookstories en go?lery’. I’d say that the important difference between African magic realism and that of other continents is that it has this link with the forefathers, it directly influences how we live with one another.”
Both The Rights of Desire and Disgrace deal with an ageing white man within a fast-changing South Africa. Each is introduced to this new world by a white woman. Each finds the situation in which he has to live unbearable. Yet the two protagonists differ widely. Brink’s character experiences his redundancy together with the formidable coloured woman who works for him; in many ways the two of them represent the most threatened of groups: white men and coloured women. Moreover Brink’s character has a struggle history, as he and his wife Magrieta resisted the District Six removals. While Coetzee’s Professor Lurie is trying to write an opera on Byron, Brink’s Ruben is looking for memory in the remains of the slave woman. One might say that Brink’s book represents an Afrikaner take on the new South Africa, while Coetzee’s character functions more in an English South African milieu. Brink has never been as popular among members of the Afrikaans literary establishment as one might think. Each time he applied for an Afrikaans professorship he was turned down in favour of a lesser candidate but a better Broeder. So he was always teaching Afrikaans at English universities. He is notable among the Sestigers for having received hardly any literary recognition for his novels. Despite international acclaim and prizes, he has yet to gain the Hertzog Prize for prose. By comparison fellow Afrikaner establishment-basher Breyten Breytenbach has been profusely honoured in Afrikaans. Add to this the fact that no other figure in Afrikaans literature has been quite so prolific in so many genres. Apart from his 20-odd novels (of which Lobola vir die Lewe and Orgie brought about a radical stylistic shift in Afrikaans writing during the 1960s), Brink has written some 10 plays and translated even more, all of them successfully performed, as well as a range of travel books. His extensive reading has enabled him to explain every new direction in Afrikaans literature, through articles, letters, essays, reviews or lectures. He was prominent in the fight against censorship. His firm grasp of world literature meant that for decades he helped steer Afrikaans writing on an interesting and healthy course by way of reviews in the Afrikaans Sunday newspapers. He is the author of books on brandy and dessert wine. He used to write a weekly humor column, and has translated countless classics from the several languages he speaks, among them works for children such as The Little Prince and King Arthur. Brink’s main character ponders on the “rights of desire”: “If I claim desire as my right and its nature lies in motion, its motion towards the other, does not my right to desire invoke the right of other to refuse me? But only if ‘I am’ in this equation becomes wholly conditional upon ‘You are’. And where does that leave desire?” Brink himself says of Ruben that he “becomes conscious of a country full of people with desires on many different levels. In the course of the story he learns that desire isn’t all about fulfilment. It has a broader context. Desire consists not in being in possession of the other, but in an awareness of others, in a humane way of behaving towards others. Through his desire he has developed a conscience.” I ask him about what for me is the most beautiful part in the book: the discovery of the remains of the slave woman under the house. Brink looks at me: “I was so surprised when that happened! It was so unexpected that I was initially dumbfounded.”
Now it is my turn to be amazed: “But you wrote the book! How could you be surprised?” He smiles, somewhat embarrassed. “This is why one writes. For that moment that no planning, no structure, no skill can foresee … That moment when one looks in utter astonishment at what one has written.” Brink confesses to being an obsessive planner and notekeeper. He makes notes of things he reads, hears and thinks, even while working on a particular book, in order to be able to return to sub-themes later. A story usually begins with an incident or a place. Then he plans the whole narrative – every character, every detail – on the tacit understanding that he may not stick to it at all. “If by the end of the first chapter I am still with my original plan, then I am worried.” When he is into a story he writes morning, noon and night. Since he started to translate Kennis van die Aand in an attempt to bypass the ban on the book, Brink works in both Afrikaans and English. (Word has it that he once had to sign a divorce settlement barring him from publishing in Afrikaans anything dealing with the break-up of his marriage or his relationship with a younger woman. The subsequent book appeared only in English). “Working in two languages means I write a novel twice. Usually I write in Afrikaans and afterwards find, while translating, that it takes a different route because I notice other things, so I go back and work it into the Afrikaans … sometimes things are such that they only work in one language. For instance, Magrieta can only exist fully in Afrikaans. Also Tessa uses a specific English-cluttered Afrikaans” (a kind of crossover language that opens up the possibility of her leaving the protagonist for a young black man). With The Rights of Desire, Brink started in English. “The main character was so close to myself that I deliberately used English to get him on his feet as an entity, before I could allow him into Afrikaans.” To what extent is this novel part of a new kind of South African bandwagon? Stories about crime, affirmative action, black thugs and fearful whites, which do well precisely because they play on the Afro-pessimism of many readers? “I would say that my book ends very positively. Living here has taught Ruben to live responsibly with others.” The story has less to do with race than with the fear of remaining selfish, becoming old and redundant. Although intensely private and always charmingly ordentlik, there are at times wonderful Brink tales in circulation. Like the one about him and his wife Marisa raising a little black girl. One day Brink takes her to the crSche and, as they enter hand in hand, her friend asks: “Is this your daddy?” Emphatically the child replies: “No, he’s not my daddy, he’s my nanny!” The Rights of Desire is published by Random House. Donkermaan is published by Human & Rousseau