Idealistic credo based on spirit of the Charter

Vision for an oratorio: Bongani Ndodana-Breen. (Johnathan Andrews)

Vision for an oratorio: Bongani Ndodana-Breen. (Johnathan Andrews)

“You’ve put me in a watermelon type situation,” said the young man. I at once apologised, though I didn’t know what he meant. I had just spoken at the launch of Credo – a Musical Testament to the Freedom Charter, Unisa’s flagship project for its 140th anniversary, and an oratorio based on a poem from my collection Ophila and the Poet (Junkets; 2010).
On Constitution Hill in the Women’s Gaol museum, I had read extracts from my poem Credo.

It turned out that the young man felt every line in the poem was like a seed, each encompassing an entire plant, and the cumulative effect was like a burst watermelon. His brain was left buzzing, he said.

Credo, the Latin for “I believe”, is usually a statement of personal belief, hence one’s creed. But perhaps it is more often a statement of faith, an expression of hope.

I had a deep need – one I suspect I share with many South Africans of my generation and younger, and hopefully of every generation to come – a need to connect with the spirit and that expression of idealism that our nation invested in the Freedom Charter.

That egalitarian, participative democratic ideal seems to be slipping away from us. Whereas the words of the Freedom Charter begin “We, the people …” and its clarion call is “The people shall govern”, some in highest office are telling us: “The problem in South Africa is that everyone wants to run the country.”

The Freedom Charter, drawn up in Kliptown on June 26 1955 by a congress of the people, was itself an act of extraordinary imagination. The disenfranchised majority envisaged a better and more just world. That act of the imagination created the vision we still have preserved somewhere in our nation because of that document.

Fifty thousand volunteers were sent throughout the country, from the smallest villages to the largest cities, to canvass public opinion. Some 3 000 delegates attended the congress, and far more as spectators. Also watching was a malevolently armed police force.

The Freedom Charter was much more than a document. It was a movement and, from a mobilisation point of view, one of the most successful campaigns ever. It was an exercise in democracy unlike anything that had been seen before in South Africa. The people took their democratic right; they didn’t wait for it to be given to them.

In the poem, I set myself the task of attempting to distil in the simplest and fewest words some essence of the Freedom Charter. I tried to condense whole passages down to just one line – “that peace is liberty, land is prosperity, and community opportunity” or “we would prevent, before we had to cure, with medicines not armaments, in hospitals for compassion not profit”.

I also wanted to free the words from a certain amount of noise that comes with the language of the Charter itself, because of its origin in a previous time. The Charter speaks in terms such as “human brotherhood”, “countrymen and brothers”, which sound sexist today, and about “national groups and races”, which is an outmoded way of thinking.

I also wanted to get away from the mechanics of the Charter, which tend to divide us, as opposed to the ideals, which unite us. Divisions run along “charterist”, “workerist” and “socialist” lines. The Charter is not precise about such issues as nationalisation, but, whatever one’s interpretation, there is no imperative to adopt one policy rather than another to achieve its ideals. It isn’t scripture. It is a historical, though in many ways evergreen, document.

In 2009 composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen was crashing with me (believe me, that is the correct South African-English word) when he came across the poem in manuscript form. He instantly had a vision for an oratorio. Four years later the project has finally come to fruition. The young composer has had a meteoric rise, an international career worth noting and, with me hanging on his coattails, has now set the poem to music.

The reworked libretto also incorporates actual passages from the Charter. These are quite a challenge, otherwise it can all too easily “sound like a bunch of lawyers singing” as Ndodana-Breen has put it.

Ndodana-Breen has deftly assembled a formidable team: a cast led by Sibongile Khumalo, with Otto Maidi and Monika Wassung; the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Berlin conductor Jonas Alber; and multi-media artist Andrew Black, who has created a visual treatment of the oratorio.

A public dialogue on the “Freedom Charter as a cultural text” will be held at 6pm on July 20 at Freedom Park. The speakers are poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, musicologist Ncebakazi Mnukwana, arts journalist Gwen Ansell and composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen

Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman is a political novelist (Primary Coloured, Reports Before Daybreak). He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003 about things that make life more enjoyable – the arts, literature and travel and (in his Friday column, Once Bitten) food. If comments on the internet are to be believed, he is a self-loathing white racist, an ultra-left counter-revolutionary, a neo-liberal communist capitalist, imperialist anarchist, and most proudly a bourgeois working-class lad. Or you can put the labels aside and read what he writes. Visit his website: Read more from Brent Meersman

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