Same WhatsApp group: Thuma Mina and ‘we gon’ be right’
In his autobiography Still Grazing, Hugh Masekela describes in muted tones his return to South Africa after decades in exile. His disposition belies the climactic moment that September 1990 ought to represent.
In February of that year, he watched political prisoner and president-in-waiting Nelson Mandela’s release from Victor Verster prison with his then partner Jabu in their townhouse in Harlem, New York City.
“It was a new dawn,” writes Masekela, still perplexed by Mandela’s “reconciliation jive”.
He gets a call from Miriam Makeba and his sister Barbara, who says: “Hugh, go to the South African embassy and have them give you a visa in your Ghana passport. Come home, boy!”
In September 1990, after a chorus of roars and ululations on his arrival at Jan Smuts Airport, Masekela gets reacquainted with home but the ensuing years find him in a dark place.
“Snorting cocaine like a vacuum cleaner,” he writes of the effect drugs were having on his family life: “Jabu did not mind the smoke and booze but was not happy about my cocaine use, especially because it was responsible for my disappearances for several days at a time. We would go for days without speaking to each other.”
Instead of the euphoria of a homecoming, Masekela descends into a creative and spiritual nadir as images of a South Africa eating into itself prey on his mind. These last sections of the book also detail his going public about his sister Sybil’s death from HIV, which resulted in some family members turning on him. Masekela recounts the country’s period of denialism as “a dismal era of head-in-the-sand and turn-a-blind-eye folly”.
Thuma Mina, a song whose lyrics President Cyril Ramaphosa appropriated for his recent State of the Nation address (Sona), positions Masekela as more of a people’s musician rather than as a jazz player. A church hymn refashioned into a slice of bluesy gospel with Peter Mokoena and Sello Twala and featured in an album (2002’s Time) whose production credits include Blondie Makhene and Khaya Mahlangu, Thuma Mina plays into Masekela’s strengths, a roving musician in touch with people across the board.
“He was a folk artist, actually, to use a terrible phrase,” says former music executive and cultural activist Sifiso Ntuli. “He was a folk artist. A true people’s artist by definition. Hugh loved people.”
Bra Hugh’s declaration to be there for the drug addict, the alcoholic, the victims of abuse, the sufferers laced with Aids is an account drawn from first-hand experiences, as is his call to be there emabheshini nase mashebheeni.
Ramaphosa’s appropriation of Bra Hugh’s version of #CountryDuty falls into the realm of the calculated PR stunt, one that in a flourish similar to JFK’s “ask not what the country can do for you” puts the onus of a functional state back at the feet of the citizenry.
With this invocation of Thuma Mina, we find Ramaphosa testing the limits of his “Ramaphoria”, a phrase I first picked up on The Big Debate, an SABC TV current affairs show, which had dedicated an entire episode to Ramaphosa’s clarion call. Send me, Mr President, an Ad Reach poster whispers from a Johannesburg street during an insert, nestled between gum trees and electric fences. “We should put all the negativity that has dogged our country behind us,” Ramaphosa told Parliament, “because a new dawn is upon us and a wonderful dawn has arrived.”
Recalling the biblical genesis of the music, Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, said Isaiah (who had answered God’s call for a deployee in Isaiah 6 verse 8) first had to be cleansed to perform that duty.
Considering Ramaphosa’s recent imaging in the South African political space — a founder of the National Union of Mineworkers, a businessman who amassed wealth and then played a role in the trajectory of the Marikana massacre — Thuma Mina, which reverberated over all else the president said during Sona, seems to be his attempt at cleansing.
It is an opportune appropriation of a folk hero’s gait and stature by a blemished political figure. It is a gravedigging act, performed on the gravesite of a man with such a healthy distaste for politicians that he wanted the state as far away from his funeral as possible.
Of course, should Ramaphosa prove to be the stooge of big business that the cynical among us are convinced he is, he may have to swallow those words, or they might bear new meaning.
As a guest on the show (radio producer Nolwazi Tusini) stated: “Frankly, the government needs to thuma themselves because the citizens of this country have been thuma’d all the places … The citizens of this country have been thuma’d and we’ve done our bit.”
Although Ramaphosa’s gambit may have gone down better than Malusi Gigaba’s “we gon’ be right” quotation of “urban poet” Kendrick Lamar, they be-long in the same desperate trashcan of political histrionics.