Bushfire ignites boycott calls

Soaking in the crowd singing the chorus to his hit Neria at Swaziland’s Bushfire festival on Saturday night, Zimbabwean artist Oliver Mtukudzi paused.

As the sing-along slowly abated, he leaned into his microphone: “As Africans, we sometimes use songs to help us, to lift us up when we are down,” he said before reflecting on the role of music on a “troubled” continent and its people. Then his band broke into the uplifting Hear Me Lord.

It was neither a strident call to arms nor an amnesiastic “jol”.
It was, rather, a recognition that human circumstance - political, economic and social—inevitably leads to situations in which ordinary people feel as though they are living in the long-drop of hegemony. It was a recognition, also, of the role of the arts, and music especially, in humanising, connecting and conscientising—music as both salve and razor.

Mtukudzi was implying that Swazis—economically battered, ravaged by Aids and experiencing the tensions between monarchists and pro-democracy reformists—were not alone. It was the defining moment of a festival that in the weeks building up to it had experienced calls for it to be boycotted. Although the Swaziland Democracy Campaign backtracked on the call after meeting festival organisers, the South African-based Swaziland Solidarity Network did not.

This year’s Bush Fire festival in Swaziland drew a crowd of over 15 000 people and included acts from around Africa and abroad. See the photos.
The network’s Lucky Lukhele said it was not aimed specifically at the Bushfire festival but was rather a call for a blanket ban on any cultural interactions with Swaziland. The call itself divided people—and artists in particular. South Africa’s Caiphus Semenya pulled out of the event but ARTerial, a network of African cultural activists and producers, condemned the call and said that “cultural workers and their representative structures” in Swaziland should be “consulted and integrated into the formulation and implementation of the strategy”.

It was evident that many Swazi artists who performed at the festival were not consulted. Muzi Ngwenya (aka Mozaik), part of hip-hop outfit Siyincaba, described the boycott as “pointless and misunderstood. We have the platform to work with South Africans and hopefully spread outside the Swazi market and grow in South Africa and also get better at what we do,” he said.

Lukhele said the cultural boycott would be used to “launch and kickstart a campaign to have economic and political sanctions imposed on Swaziland. We will be engaging with Business South Africa and South African businesses to pull out of Swaziland. This is an ongoing campaign.”

He said the aim was to effect a regime change similar to the one that saw apartheid South Africa eventually buckle under the strain of sanctions.

But South Africa in the 1980s was very different to contemporary Swaziland. There is no vocal disinvestment movement outside Swaziland or political and economic sanctions.

Speaking to Swazis you find reformists, monarchists and people who are both pro-King Mswati III and pro-democracy and whose issue is that the current system of government does not allow elections or accountability. This is a far cry from the fiery local situation in the 1980s when the United Democratic Front was stoking the fires of civil unrest. Neither is Mswati a global pariah ostracised by international organisations such as the United Nations or the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The network’s advocacy work with these bodies is patently lacking. Lukhele admitted that letters to SADC or the African Union “go unanswered” and that he had to “deal with these organisations first, before we can take it to the United Nations”.

This is a far cry from apartheid South Africa’s consistent appearance on the UN agenda from the 1960s onwards or the support its opponents received from some countries, including Sweden and Cuba.

There is a sense that the network’s approach is haphazard and that a boycott of Bushfire, or a cultural boycott, is an easier score than getting South African firms to pull out of Africa’s last absolute monarchy or to convince countries such as South Africa to take a tougher stance on Mswati’s regime.

A cultural boycott may be the “start”, as Lukhele said, but whether it is the right starting point hung heavily over Bushfire. Another Siyincaba member, Thamsanqa Sibandze (aka KRTC) said: “If South African artists don’t come to Bushfire then Swazis have more of an opportunity to perform, but there is a flipside. We have a Siswati saying, ‘Indlela ibutwa kulabasembili’, which means, ‘You ask directions from those in front of you, or [from those who] have been where you want to go’. I think we as musicians can only learn from successful artists from the rest of the world.”

And therein lies the rub. Contemporary Swazi music avoids the political. Young urban artists are generally proponents of hip-hop or gospel. Would a cultural boycott not insulate the Swazi music industry from the rest of the world and stop artists developing and engaging with that around them?

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi

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