”If the past has nothing to say to the present, history may go on sleeping undisturbed in the closet where the system keeps its old disguises.” — Eduardo Galeano
Even though the dawn of a truly democratic South Africa was still unimaginable in 1989, given the repression of the day, there was a sense that something huge and ineffable — and irreversible — had happened to the wiring of the world as we knew it. From the Âvantage point of the ANC office in London, we watched the unprecedented unfolding. But even from that distance, we could still sing the songs and evolve a common language with those manning the barricades.
First there was the rumbling in Beijing when protesters massed at Tiananmen Square, resulting in the army killing upwards of 3 000 student demonstrators.
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia after a presence of almost 11 years, which coincided with a similar withdrawal by the Soviet Union from Afghanistan after a decade of fighting with Afghan mujahideen.
But it was the unravelling of communist rule in Eastern Europe with the fall of the Berlin Wall in early November that proved the most dramatic, dwarfing other events and spelling an end to an era. The clanging of hammers against masonry as the wall came down almost drowned the clamour of ecstatic crowds that cheered as Vaclav Havel, a respected playwright and one of the leading Czech dissidents, was elected president of Czechoslovakia.
As most of the events were televised live, it was around this time that Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian leader, was deposed, tried and executed within days, the only former communist leader of Eastern Europe to meet such a fate.
For us, though, a most salubrious development was taking place in Angola. The war between the government and Unita rebels (who were backed by Pretoria), which had raged on for decades, was halted by a ceasefire. There was an emotional moment in the history of conflict and solidarity in Southern Africa when there was a valedictory salute for departing Cuban troops by three flag-bearing runners hoisting the colours of the ANC, the MPLA and Cuba along the Primeiro de Maio plaza in Luanda.
It was during this period that South Africa was in the grip of protests and defiance that involved almost all sectors of society.
Internationally, the anti-apartheid movement sought to complement the struggles in South Africa.
It was during a state of emergency that the defiance campaign of the mass democratic movement, a coalition of oppositional forces inside the country, gathered momentum. The protests saw doctors joining detainees on hunger strike — and, in time, the regime in Pretoria announced the release from Robben Island of Walter Sisulu and other long-term political prisoners.
Even before Mandela was released, when the anti-apartheid movement and the world solidarity movement launched an onslaught against Pretoria, the legitimacy of apartheid had been eroded.
Cultural formations sprouted in Britain in such localities as Brixton, Herne Hill, Camberwell or Moss Side, poets and singers united in their loathing for Pretoria’s racist policies.
It was not surprising then, with the release of Mandela in 1990, that the whole world’s attention was glued to the television set to view the historic music concert in Wembley Stadium.
The songs that were sung in those hard years of struggle have changed somewhat, to accommodate the different emphases and needs of a democratic South Africa. But they still bear the traces of the salt in the wound, the pain and loss that stalked the people of this country from coast to coast. Here and there the songs castigate the police, who are bulked by their bulletproof vests and whose guns — and poses — are reminiscent of the attitude of their predecessors who fired at children not so long ago. In the main, though, the songs accompany a resolve of a people to consolidate the gains of the struggle.
This new entity, colloquially called the New South Africa, owes a debt of gratitude to all those men and women who manned the barricades and raised their voices to howl against injustice.
We live in a teenage country, seeing that this kid was born 15 years ago. And like most adolescents — especially those unsure of the pedigree of their parents — the country suffers from the impatience of youth; its face is pockmarked with acne and its blood bursts with hormonal confusion. And protest will continue. It’s in the blood.
Mandla Langa spoke at the Goethe-Institut’s conference Exceeding the Limits: Art Strategies against the Establishment. This is a shortened version of his speech. Langa is a distinguished writer and chairs several boards of institutions, including the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, the Foundation for Global Dialogue and Business and Arts South Africa