Collins Chabane: Bring me my harmonica

Jacob Zuma may have Umshini Wami (bring me my machine gun) and Julius Malema may be synonymous with Dubul’ ibhunu (shoot the boer), but neither can claim to have recorded two albums or shared a stage with greats such as Salif Keita, Oliver Mtukudzi, Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa.

Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane, however, can and he has even recorded the controversial Dubul’ ibhunu with his band Movement – in 1999 for their first album Seke vs Xikundu.

Chabane (50) studied music theory while imprisoned on Robben Island between 1985 and 1990 and it was there that he learned how to play the harmonica and the guitar.

In 1999 he met Zimbabwean Chimurenga musician, Thomas Mapfumo, who taught him to play the mbira and soon he had formed Movement with one of Mapfumo’s former band member, Basil Mukombe.

At an intimate gala evening at the Ranch Hotel in Polokwane last week hosted by the South African Music Rights Organisation (Samro) to honour Chabane’s musical journey, Chabane commented on the controversial song.

“Some of you may have heard Comrade Julius saying that he is being crucified for singing Dubul’ ibhunu when I have recorded it,” said Chabane to more than 200 guests, including some of South Africa’s music industry heavy hitters such as Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, Steve Kekana, Judith Sephuma, Selaelo Selota, Don Laka and Thomas Chauke. “It is true it is there on our first CD and we are proud of that.”

Earlier in the day during a brief interview after his soundcheck when the Mail & Guardian asked Chabane about the song and whether the band still performed it, he rebuffed the question, saying Movement had not performed for a very long time. Not since 2005 to be exact.

When asked if he would perform it later that evening at the gala dinner, he shook his head.

Understandably, Chabane — who excused himself from the ANC’s disciplinary hearing into Malema’s recent conduct this week — did not want to be associated with the song. He is a politician with a reputation for keeping his head down and with the controversy surrounding Malema and the song in the wake of Eugene Terre’Blanche’s death, he must have felt it prudent to play it safe.

“Politics has always been my frontline,” says Chabane. “Music is what I do second.”

So how does he feel about Samro’s decision to honour his “second” career? Chabane says, laughing: “It was quite a surprise for me to receive this honour, I didn’t even know that Samro knows me.

“We have played with some giants of SA music. Most of them didn’t know me; it was only later that they realised they were talking to a serious politician.”

Having joined the ANC underground at 17, Chabane was just 20 when he went into exile and joined Umkhonto weSiswe.

Four years later, in 1984, he was arrested and in 1985 he was sent to Robben Island at the same time as Tokyo Sexwale, Kgalema Motlanthe, Mosiuoa Lekota and Popo Molefe.

“The first time I played music in a serious way was on Robben Island; I learned how to play harmonica and I started to learn how to play guitar,” says Chabane.

He lists a number of comrades who were influential in his musical education, including Bafana Sithole, James Manganyi, Whitey Yengeni and David Mosie.

“Very few people went to Robben Island knowing how to play, but there were some guys who were advanced with regard to the theory of music and they would conduct and teach us,” he says.

“People were playing music for the love of music and it provided entertainment for the other prisoners, which for me was the most ­important part.

“Music became part of the prison life where prisoners could meet and share ideas and talk about something besides politics,” says Chabane. “You have got five years there in one place, so you know everything there, you have to do something else, studying, playing music, soccer, volleyball.

“In early December we would organise the Summer Games with teams competing in athletics, soccer and volleyball and then at night we would organise concerts in the hall there.”

But it wasn’t all sport and song. Chabane had other responsibilities on the island, chiefly taking charge of the political prisoners’ underground library of forbidden ­materials.

Yet, he did manage to study to be an aircraft technician and squeeze in a diploma in electrical engineering, even if he did have an ulterior motive for the latter — doctoring FM radios to receive foreign news broadcasts.

“I studied electronics to see if I could modify some of them so we could get Radio Freedom, which I did manage with one small radio.”

Chabane chuckles at the memory of how “in the evening I would go and listen with headphones and I would then transcribe the notes in the evening into news bulletins, which would then be distributed”.

In the intervening 20 years Chabane has knuckled down to his first “love”: politics.

He was a member of South Africa’s first democratically elected Parliament and went on to serve Limpopo as a member of the Limpopo provincial cabinet before being deployed to the presidency.

So with all the attention being heaped on Chabane the musician, it’s fitting that Gallo Records will be releasing a best of Movement CD in the coming weeks, featuring 10 of their finest songs. Polokwane means different things to different ANC members, but last Friday night it meant that for the first time in five years Chabane and Mukombe shared a stage, performing two mbira pieces for the guests.

For now Chabane’s focus remains on government — most pressingly to get Cabinet ministers to sign performance agreements with their boss, President Jacob Zuma, so that, like business executives, they can be held accountable for their decisions.

But the other Movement is always there in the background and, says Chabane, perhaps one day when he retires he may take up the ­harmonica again.

If you could have seen his face beaming from ear to ear as the guests danced to his songs on the makeshift dance floor of the Bushwillow room at the Ranch Hotel last weekend, you would know that nothing would make him happier.

But for now his duty lies with the South African government and the ANC.

Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye is a freelance journalist and one of the founders of The Con.

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