Searching for beauty that makes you feel alive

Milisuthando Bongela is the Friday editor at the Mail & Guardian

Milisuthando Bongela is the Friday editor at the Mail & Guardian

When I sat down to write this week, my attention was focused on the subject of beauty. Not physical or glamorous beauty, but the sometimes mysterious alchemy that we as human beings have all shared a dance with in countless different iterations in our lives.

Irish poet and author John O’Donohue once said that “beauty is that in the presence of which we feel more alive’’. It’s impossible to disagree with this interpretation of a subject that is too often limited to the realm of the flesh only.

Although its revolutionary and decolonial positioning was disputed by some, the #FeesMustFall student version of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika is an indisputable moment of beauty in a hideous clamouring for money and power by the powers that be. People who disagree with the validity of the new song say that it is no different from the original national anthem, which is rooted in Christian dogma.

One person argues that it speaks to the same “Nkosi’’ that black people have been praying to throughout their domination and that there is nothing decolonised about the existence of a biblical devil.

These are valid points being raised by a generation of people who have been brought up Christian but now find themselves at odds with a religion that no longer suits their political outlooks — a religion that would be cast as a sinner in tomorrow’s heaven of a decolonised world.

Some of my friends are mad at Christianity for how it arrived in Africa, its political implementation and subsequent violent capture of whole civilisations. As a nonbeliever, I not only agree with this stance, I sympathise with it.

But I cannot take away the beauty of that song and how it made me feel from its inherent power — which is stronger than any scripture, dogma or missionary. What is the thing that makes me feel good, especially when I say the words Nkosi and Sathane?

I’m beginning to learn that from moments of great human failure, even greater human goodness emerges. And that that goodness is more powerful than the evil it stands against. And to survive the immeasurable disasters of today, we need to cultivate and embrace the moments of beauty because we have no other choice.

In moments like the one we are going through in South Africa, there needs to be a line of questioning that seeks to connect rather than to divide, one that seeks to embrace rather than to repel each other —especially those pained individuals whom we deem enemies of love.

Such an esoteric advance deserves more than an 800-word allotment in a political newspaper, but here it is in a space that possibly needs it, a space where binaries thrive and black and white sells.

Recently our country’s moments of true human beauty have been taken and hung out for examination. Mandela the man is one such moment. In the wake of a generation of young, angry black people looking for redemption for crimes that were never atoned for, Mandela has been called a sellout.

I was one of the people who uttered these words not so long ago, feeling that his forgive-and-forget approach had been too easy on a people who have done little to deserve that grace.

I understand the people who still maintain their positions on this but I have moved my thinking from where it was a year ago as I am growing to understand life a little deeper.

How do we change bad systems? Do we go knocking on their doors or burning their roofs? Perhaps — if we no longer need the doors and roofs. Or do we appeal to the people that maintain them?

In my conversations with colleagues and activists, changing the system has been a popular term on all fronts. We hate the system of patriarchy therefore we need to change the system of patriarchy. But how do we do this without changing the people who uphold systems? The question then becomes, how do we change people? What methods do we use to change people? Is that even a possible feat?

To use Mandela as an example, his approach managed to change white people from thinking that upholding racism was a good thing to a people today who burn bright red at the thought of being called racist. It is now a bad thing. While there are still many racists roaming, the relationship between racism and people has changed.

What did that? Was it the threat of death and deportation to an island of personae non gratae? Or is racism out of ideological fashion because people changed a little bit? Were the doors of democratic South Africa forced by black power or opened by white fear? In between these binaries, where did the ideas of truth, peace and beauty reside?

This is one example that probably won’t be very popular in a time when people are looking for physical change to match their tangible land. I’m with them.

But I’m also searching for that thing which transcends my understanding of power from the physical and its earthly dimensions to something higher, more profound and something that might give us a fighting chance against a state that we will lose against if we use its language of violence.

Something that, like the power of song, can make one feel more alive in a time when dying is so inviting. 

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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