/ 12 June 2024

Abdullah Ibrahim and the hidden ‘culture wars’

Abdullah Ibrahim's Ekaya At The Barbican In London
Abdullah Ibrahim of Abdullah Ibrahim's Ekaya performs on stage at Barbican Centre on March 30, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Roberta Parkin/Redferns)

There have been heart-warming accolades for Abdullah Ibrahim’s achievements as he approaches his 90th birthday in October 2024. All were effusive in their homage to one of South Africa’s most distinguished pianists and composers. The articles traced his career and the collation of politics and music embedded in his artistry and hailed his endurance and vision. Such distinction certainly deserves special appreciation and applause.

I would like to add to this homage because such extraordinary eminence deserves an enduring affirmation of this cultural icon. It is unfortunately the case that recognition of eminence is often expressed posthumously. Additionally, I would like to chide the “culture warriors” who invariably pour scorn on anything that is at variance with their worldview. I focus on Bonolo Makgale’s article in the Daily Maverick because at least one of the reactions illustrates my point. 

On 14 April, Makgale saw the second performance in Johannesburg, which was the start of an exacting world tour that would take Ibrahim through Europe, Asia, and North America. The schedule would be daunting to someone half his age. 

A veteran of exclusive jazz venues, Ibrahim has performed with other legendary musicians such as Duke Ellington, Archie Shepp, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Kippie Moeketsi. At other times, he has performed alongside his wife, Sathima Bee Benjamin, a jazz vocalist of note in her own right. 

Reading the tribute reminded me of my first experience with Ibrahim’s musical brilliance almost four decades ago. In January 1987, South African students studying in the US organised a conference at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to discuss matters of common interest. To provide solace, I suppose, Ibrahim was invited to perform. I was a young academic then and was invited to address the conference.

Weaved into his repertoire at one of the evening’s entertainment slots, Ibrahim displayed passion and dexterity. The exquisite renderings featured chants and moans seemingly drawn from a deep well of memory of suffering dating back to the horrors of apartheid. He would give short commentaries on the meaning of the wailings in case there was any confusion or amnesia. He would simultaneously exude a searing sense of hope for a better tomorrow in some offerings. His determination and relentless spirit were palpable.

For Ibrahim, it seemed natural to mingle music and politics. The transition from Dollar Brand to Abdullah Ibrahim was an undertaking that marked his rupture from an imposed identity to one he constructed on his own volition drawn from a hidden curriculum: a rediscovery. In other words, he was taking charge of who he was, his version of Mahatma Gandhi’s “becoming the change you want to see in the world”. This transformation was a foundation for his incisive forays into the exterior world.

Since my first exposure to Ibrahim in 1987 in Chattanooga, it became habitual for me to attend his concerts whenever possible, as was the case at Carnegie Hall and in Boston a few years later. Here in South Africa, I have seen him at the Wits’ Great Hall and at the Johannesburg City Hall. I regret that I could not attend his only two performances in South Africa before embarking on a global tour. 

After reading Makgale’s piece, I was curious to read the reactions the tribute elicited under the comments section at the end of the article. To my amazement, the first response was from what I have come to describe as the custodians of the “old order”, a cohort that has arrogated itself the right to smash any ideas that they deem contrary to what has been transmitted intergenerationally as unalterable, that is, racial minority domination for eternity. It is a yearning to bring back the old South Africa that is in synchrony with Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rallying cry. 

So the first nasty slap to Makgole’s article was from an erstwhile fire brigade member who intemperately gushed, “How would you know? SA never been democratic [sic] in the way you describe.” The retort was posted at 07:37 on the day it was first published, meaning that the author had been busy patrolling the perimeter of the sacrosanct old order dominion to detect if anyone had dared to trespass established mores and received verities. Notice that the retort does not address the article’s subject, that is, Ibrahim’s remarkable musical contribution. I suspect that the detractor probably does not know Ibrahim and probably thinks he is not worthy of any accolades.

Anyone who has read the article carefully would recognise that South Africa has changed dramatically from being a state ruled by an oppressive white minority to an inclusive (at least theoretically) constitutional democracy. 

Makgale is not unaware of the fraughtness of the nascent democracy, especially during the latter part of its 30-year lifespan; after all, she works for the South African Human Rights Commission and implicitly, if not explicitly, acknowledges the inadequacy of the present state of governance. Whatever ills afflict the current democratic dispensation, it is useful not to see it as hopelessly unalterable. Instead, she offers, “In our relentless efforts to find innovative ways to build our democracy, may we remember that this moment is not static, it’s a work in progress.” I am reasonably confident that the eternally optimistic Ibrahim would agree.

As a country, we have been shocked by the news that 80% of 4th graders cannot read for meaning (and by the way, this is not a new revelation). We are all outraged, rightly so, and that reflects poorly on those responsible for education in the country. What is more shocking is the manifestation of the same phenomenon among supposedly educated adults who act as omniscient custodians of all that is right and good. A disturbingly large proportion of the custodians of the old order demonstrate a similar lack of “ability to read for meaning” as evidenced by Makgale’s detractor. Reader comments in opinion sections of many newspapers that allow for reader comments reveal a preponderance of those who long for the “glorious past”.

But why is that so? One plausible explanation is that (imagine this if you can) ideology or ideas, like biology, have genes transmitted from one generation to the next and often get modified due to various factors present in the moment. 

Therefore, Mokgale’s detractor and those who share his ideological disposition have inherited, let’s call it memory this time, a phenomenon insightfully captured in Jonathan Jansen’s book Knowledge in the Blood. Present-day detractors display in their comments varied ways they have ingested ideas or ideologies that have mutated over time, such as, for example, the “qualified franchise” and “tutelage”. Not too long ago, the fate of a black political leader in a liberal party was unknowingly under observation as an “experiment”. When the “experiment” failed to yield the unwritten desired result, a train of events triggered his resignation. 

The sequential phases of mutations noted above belong to the liberal political culture here in South Africa. According to this strand, the only acceptable democracy is one in which white people are in charge without declaring the wish publicly or explicitly. It does, however, allow for a provision for partnership with black people but modelled after what the purportedly liberal Sir Roy Welensky, one-time prime minister of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, reportedly advocated the “rider and horse” partnership analogy. In this arrangement, the “rider” was to be white and the “horse”, black. 

Other non-liberal variants of the ‘ideological gene’ have recently found reincarnation by stating that they only seek recognition as a “cultural group”; otherwise, they pledge total allegiance to the Constitution. Guess what? The “separate development policy that emerged in the early 1980s was an ingenious design to give South Africa a new look. Rather than be seen as a race-based system of oppression, it would henceforth be projected as based on ‘cultural differences”; that was thought to be more palatable and could be sold easily to the international community. Clever indeed, but it didn’t work. 

The “cultural differences” ploy is simply another doomed attempt to reassert racial domination. The chicanery of the “separate but equal” doctrine was laid bare in a 1954 United States supreme court decision that the doctrine was unconstitutional in a democracy. There is a universal quality to the doctrine that renders it relevant to South Africa as well. This Joint Afrikaner Declaration is so passé and destined to suffer the same fate as its kindred ideology in the US. But should Trump triumph in the coming US election (perish the thought!) then it’s all back to square one and kindred spirits in South Africa will be emboldened beyond belief.

For now, let us revel unstintingly in Abdullah Ibrahim’s musical achievements and marvel at his continued output in his twilight years. The antics of cultural warriors should not undermine celebrations of his achievements. Spare no room for irreverent diversions and aspersions from those who lack integrity and discernment.  

Mokubung Nkomo is a retired academic.