South African Object Lesson?

Back in the fall, Brooke and I bought tickets for tonight’s concert by the Soweto Gospel Choir as a sort of birthday present to each other. Tonight we were pretty excited about going. Even though we didn’t have the greatest seats (row YY, second from the back), we settled in expectantly. Then we heard her. Behind us, in row ZZ. An obnoxious Afrikaner woman. Before the concert even started, she was crowing about how this was HER music and she wondered how North American audiences would respond.

As the concert began, I let the music wash over me and I welled up a few times. South Africa has a long-established place in my heart. Back in the 1980s, when Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned, ANC head Oliver Tambo visited Toronto and I went to see him. He wasn’t a young man and I was impressed with his unflagging passion for his country. In fact, I was, and continue to be, deeply impressed with all black South Africans. Their pride in their country and their seemingly endless optimism are infectious, and that’s why I was enjoying the music (and dancing) so much. I was particularly looking forward to the end of the program, when they were going to sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the South African national anthem. It’s a song that has made me cry ever since I first heard it in A World Apart, the little-seen film about the life of South African activist Ruth First. But something began to go horribly wrong about ten minutes into the show.

Miss ZZ began to sing. Any song where she knew even a snippet of the tune was fair game for her clumsy humming. If she didn’t know the song, she chatted loudly with her husband. Of course, by the time we got to Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, she was in full voice. It was as if she thought we were at a sporting event. Needless to say, the moment was spoiled for me, and probably for a few of my neighbours.

I chose to look at the whole farce as an object lesson. Here’s a white South African, trying desperately to hang on to and participate in a culture that isn’t fully hers, even from the back row, with a lousy voice and in a way that’s entirely obnoxious. Kind of sad and funny at the same time. But also very very annoying. The fact that her one off-key Boer voice was very nearly drowning out more than twenty beautiful voices singing in Zulu, Xhosa, Sotha, Swahili and English was a chilling reminder of the situation from which South Africa is trying so hard to escape. It’s incredible that South Africa recently celebrated ten years of democracy. I find it almost inconceivable that instead of revenge and bloodbaths, the government set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that the country is trying so hard to forge its many cultures, even the often-brutal colonial ones, into a new South Africa.

Another interesting thing about tonight was that, so soon after my “milestone” 40th birthday, it brought a few different parts of my life together. In addition to South African independence being a particularly close cause to me, there was something else. Two of the major sponsors of the event were Tyndale College (formerly Ontario Bible College) and Wines of South Africa. I graduated from Ontario Bible College in the late 1980s, and in my current job, our company represents three South African wineries in the province of Ontario. I even ran into one of my old professors from OBC, the Zulu-speaking Dr. Ebenezer Sikikane, whom I haven’t seen in almost twenty years.

So in spite of all of that, or perhaps because of it, the concert was glorious. The choir are in the midst of their first-ever North American tour. If you get the chance to see them, take it!

4 thoughts on “South African Object Lesson?”

  1. What a drag! I bet the urge to bitch-slap her must have been overwhelming but what can you do?

    I went to Roy Thomson a while back and had balcony seats around the orchestra fo Beethoven’s 5th and a couple of Piano Concertos. The woman behind me with her two fat kids, opens a crinkly shopping bag and pulls out some Doritos! I’m not kidding. They at the whole bag, cruching and crinkling for the whole first movement. I couldn’t believe.

    Being the polite Canadian that I am, I just turned around and glared when they got to be too loud. There are a lot of stupid people out there.

  2. How incredibly galling that an outsider to our country and our culture could comment in this way. I was relieved to realise this was written by a “North American” known worldwide for their smug and insular world views. South Africa has a truly remarkable culture and its changing landscape has a place for every citizen with an open heart.

    It's wonderful and miraculous that this Afrikaans woman felt that the music of the Soweto Gospel Choir was hers… and it is! How far we have come, how proud we should be that our cultures are blending and that we can now share appreciation for the many wonders our country has to offer.

    What would you say about the many “black” South Africans who so enthusiastically follow Western (and previously “Afrikaans”) South African traditions like Rugby and Braaivleis – are they desperate to fit in too? Isn't it possible that we can all appreciate good things?

    Only from the inside as a South African is it possible to understand the magic melting pot of our country and it's people. Every day we live a miracle as we grow in understanding, tolerance and love. The mixture is electric and our sense of humour crosses so many barriers. There are so many little things that are uniquely South African, that only we can truly appreciate. This appreciation is something South Africans share across all races, like a secret language. We all feel a joyful pride and enthusiasm for everything that belongs to us as a nation.

    Apart from anything else, how can you be so sure of the previous political views of this woman you have disdanefully branded “Afrikaans” with as much predjudice as others in another era might have branded her countrymen with darker skins something far worse. Many Afrikaaners fought in the struggle and were imprisoned during the apartheid era for their views. My own parents (not Afrikaans) served time for being members of various left wing groups and we grew up in foster homes with police guards. We claim our right to live here now and celebrate our country's growth and change. We love our country and pray for it's continued growth.

    While we may have a long way to go to full reconciliation we are a nation working very hard to bring love and acceptance to each other, trying to bridge gaps and mend a society torn apart by previous atrocities. Who are you to judge the joyful acceptance of this change by one of our people? South African are truly remarkable and even in the midst of our struggles with poverty and violence we stand together every day in small ways to make magic.

    Watching our children grow together is so rewarding. More and more we see the next generation grow truly colour blind, it's wonderful. Even the workplace is now full of bright and well educated young people who bring such a warmth and energy to our stuffy corporations, young people who would have been disadvantaged not so long ago.

    Don't think that a few meetings with some of our statesmen, some business connections and a keen interest in our politics is enough to make you one of us – enough to give you any understanding of who we are or what is right for us.

    While the woman you despise may have been lacking in some manners – to drown out a performance in a theatre is rude… condemn her only for her thoughtlessness – not her enthusiasm, innocent enjoyment or her valiant efforts to throw herself into a new era… with a smile.

  3. Cate, thanks so much for your comment. It was surprising to me to realize that someone might want to comment on something that I wrote four years ago! Looking back on this entry, you're absolutely right, of course. I wrote this in post-concert frustration and didn't think through all your well-reasoned points. That tends to happen when we are angry. So I apologize. From four years on, I can grant that I didn't know much about this woman other than that she was being rude.

    I am happy that you see South Africa changing and becoming more colour blind. I know for a fact though that there is very much more work to do. I recently saw Kim Longinotto's documentary “Rough Aunties” which follows a group of women who are trying desperately to care for the many abused children in SA.

    I am not a South African, but I do continue to have an interest in the country. I sincerely hope that the future is as bright as you say. I have my own doubts, but that doesn't mean I want to see failure. I wish you well and hope that you can forgive my outburst. Thanks again for taking the time to set out your thoughts.

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