Umshini Wami echoes through SA

Some call it brainless, others inappropriate in the post-apartheid era but Jacob Zuma, the new leader of the African National Congress, is in no mood to stop singing his signature Umshini Wami.

“If you erase the songs, you erase the record of history,” said Zuma of the anthem which has become a familiar accompaniment to his rollercoaster ride from court to the presidency of the party.

Umshini Wami (Bring Me My Machinegun) was first popularised by members of the ANC’s Umkhonto weSizwe during the struggle against the apartheid regime.

But 13 years on from the ANC’s triumph in the first multiracial elections, it is not only the white minority who feel the song should be confined to the archives.

“The song has military character used during the struggle against apartheid and its no longer relevant today,” said Andrew Mlangeni, a former ANC combatant.

“It basically says: ‘Give me my weapon, I am going to fight apartheid’. Who are you fighting? Your own people? The fight is over and that song must no longer be sung,” added Mlangeni who, like Zuma, served time on Robben Island.

In an attempt to forge a new sense of unity in the post-apartheid era, South Africa adopted a hybrid national anthem which includes verses in five different languages -‒ isiZulu, isiXhosa, Afrikaans, Sesotho and English.

But while the national anthem was sung by delegates at last week’s ANC conference in Polokwane, the atmosphere was electrified when Zuma supporters began singing Umshini Wami.

Critics of the song not only feel uneasy about the lyrics but also that Zulus, South Africa’s largest ethnic group, have embraced it as their unofficial anthem in a country where tribalism is frowned upon.

Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota, who has also criticised Zuma supporters for wearing T-shirts with the words “100% Zulu-Boy”, sparked fury in some quarters for calling those who sang the song “brainless”.

However, Cabinet colleague Pallo Jordan said it was wrong to see the song as being divisive.

“In any revolution one of the mobilising tools is culture and music .... Why should we abandon it?” said Jordan, the Minister of Arts and Culture.

The row over the song echoes a similar controversy over the success of singer Bok Van Blerk’s De La Rey about a general from the Boer War.

Zuma, who has been going out of his way recently to build bridges with the Afrikaans community, said both songs celebrated the different communities’ heritage.

“You’ve heard me defend De La Rey.
That was one of the greatest generals South Africa has ever produced. Afrikaners, if they did not sing about De La Rey, who else would they sing about?,” Zuma said in a recent interview.

As well as being sung at the conference, it was also chanted by supporters during a 2006 trial when Zuma was ultimately cleared of rape and at other court appearances in connection with a corruption inquiry.

Zola Skweyiya, a former Umkhonto weSizwe cadre and who now also sits in Mbeki’s Cabinet, said the song was first designed to forge solidarity among fighters in their camps in exile in the 1960s, and it is “still about solidarity”.

“The song is about solidarity, togetherness for a common goal. It is part and parcel of our history and we can’t wipe it out,” he said.

“Just like in church, everyone had his favourite song. The ANC is a broad church.” - AFP

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