/ 23 January 2023

Let’s find our peace before we rest: Sibongile Khumalo, Oliver Mtukudzi, Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa

Rich legacy: Trombonist, composer and cultural activist Jonas Gwangwa embodied the people’s struggle. Photo: Veli Nhlapo/Sowetan/Gallo Images

Friday Editor’s Note

Disclaimer: I’m about to share controversial thoughts about life and death. I ask you to be open …

I find some of the things we say as human beings incredibly confusing. One of them is the well intentioned, comforting-but-hollow words we say when someone dies: “Rest in peace.” 

Since the start of the pandemic — when we were saying so many condolences that our hearts couldn’t deal with the sorrow — I started thinking a lot about life. 

And I mean that in the literal sense of living. Waking up every day, putting one foot in front of the other and not losing your lust for life. Living is relentless. 

But back to resting in peace. There are several definitions for “rest”. 

Rest: cease work or movement in order to relax, sleep, or recover strength; freedom from activity or labour; peace of mind or spirit. 

I don’t want to come across as glib but if we’re going to take these definitions as is then we can assume that when we die, we are finally going to be “resting”, no? Not to have alarms go off daily, no more taxes to pay or traffic to dodge is something we crave. 

I have come to realise that death is the ultimate rest — whether we pray for the person to rest in peace or not but rest they will. It is the “peace” part where the problems start. If peace is “freedom from disturbance; tranquillity and calm”, isn’t that the thing we struggle most with in life, finding peace? 

Over the last three years I’ve come to realise that I do not want to rest in peace, I want to live in peace. Yes, I’ll repeat that for the people at the back, I want to live in peace, not die and hope that the peace will come then. 

For one, I have no clue what lies on the other side of death. Sure we can hypothesise about afterlives, ancestors, angels and the upper room, but in this realm, none of us know for sure what happens when we die. But we all know what happens when we’re alive. 

And if there’s one thing functioning adults rarely have, is peace. Worst still, we’re taught that rest is “idling”; that productivity is what we should prioritise. You see it in the number of days we’re mandated to work in relation to our “leave” days. Rest and peace are luxuries reserved for monks, the rich or the lazy. 

But I have committed to living in peace now. I am no longer interested in having an adversarial relationship with life, and not being at peace because I have unfulfilled dreams, unmet expectations and angst about my future. 

One thing life has guaranteed me is that I’m going to die, so knowing the outcome has suddenly freed me and I’m choosing to live. “Being friendly with the present moment”, as Eckhart Tolle calls it, is the ultimate peace that I’ve been striving to find.

As a serial box ticker, all I’ve done is seen my glass as half full because I’ve entered every year/relationship/friendship with expectations and have been gravely disappointed when life doesn’t go the way I want it to. So I’ve elected to live in peace and let life be what it wants to be. 

I am no longer going to try to bend life to my will, because I’ve noticed that people who live to the full, leave us in awe when they die. We spend years and decades talking about what they did when they were alive because they dared to live their truth.

Take Bra Hugh Masekela, for instance. I read his autobiography Still Grazing with awe and reverence. Not at peace in his home, he left and went to the United States where he met Dizzy Gillepsie, later starting a band with Caiphus Semenya and Jonas Gwangwa. I read about his marriage to Mam’ Miriam Makeba and how Mama Africa and Nina Simone would tear it up in New York. 

And when he was done being a music icon, his peace called him back home, where he helped many musicians overcome substance abuse in South Africa. When you let life be what it is, you find peace.  

When Oprah Winfrey interviewed the author of the spiritual guide book A Return to Love, Marianne Williamson, she asked her “If someone’s life is not going well, what would you say to them?”  Williamson’s answer floored me. “I’d ask them: who have you not forgiven?”. Because the only, that’s right, the only route to peace is forgiveness. 

You’ve got to forgive your parents for not having expressed or shown their love for you, your partner for taking you for granted, your boss for sidelining you, your friends for betraying you. The list is endless. But most of all, you have to forgive yourself for all the mistakes you’re going to make in this life, for the many times you’re going to let yourself and others down, and for the numerous transgressions you’re going to commit against yourself. In forgiveness lies your peace. 

Peace won’t come when you get a perfect job, find the partner of your dreams or buy your forever home. 

Your peace and respite lies in being at peace with life as it is now. This month we celebrate the lives of some incredible late jazz legends, including Mam’ Sibongile Khumalo and Oliver Mtukudzi, along with Bra Hugh and Ntate Gwangwa. 

What they prove to me is that a life well lived, a life that you make peace with, is the biggest reward ever. Because long after you’re gone, and the “rest in peace” has been said, what people will remember is how you lived your life, how you made them feel, and their love for you will keep you alive, forever. 

So rest when you need to, find your peace every day, and watch life reward you with