In concert, South Africa jazz great Hugh Masekela prays for racial peace
Many of South Africa's poorest are spreading rumors that all foreign migrant workers will be chased from their homes or killed after the World Cup. But at a concert this week, South Africa jazz great Hugh Masekela reminded South Africans of the essential humanity of their concept of ubuntu.
Johannesburg, South Africa
For a time, I thought it was just my imagination that tensions were brewing in the townships of South Africa. I would hear a comment from a gardener, a housekeeper, a store cashier, that when the World Cup games are over, South Africa’s poorest citizens are going to chase away the people they see as competition – the Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Malawians, and others who come to South Africa to find work.Skip to next paragraph
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But last night, at a jazz concert of all places, I realized that I wasn’t alone in my concerns. Hugh Masekela, the 71-year-old freedom activist and jazz trumpeter, took time at the beginning of his concert to dedicate a song to the untold millions of foreigners who have taken refuge in South Africa.
The song was Stimela, coming from the English word “Steam,” and it tells the story of all the men from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Lesotho who have left behind their families and ridden steam-engine trains to South Africa to work in the underground mines. The men work in dangerous conditions, and sleep in filthy hovels, and when they hear the haunting sound of the steam engine whistle, they curse that train for bringing them so far from home.
“This song is for the men, women, and children from Zimbabwe, and from Mozambique, who are frightened, who worry about getting chased away,” Mr. Masekela said last night. “When you go home tonight, send a little prayer out to them.”
There was a stunned silence in the audience for a moment, then a hesitant applause, and then the music began.
Just when South Africa finally made the impression it had hoped to make – a beautiful, modern emerging African nation – now there is an unsettling fear that all that might be undone with a few weeks of xenophobic violence.
The fear is not unfounded. Just two years ago, in May 2008, townships erupted into violence, as South Africa’s poorest citizens intimidated, beat, and even killed the foreign migrants who had settled among them. Sixty-nine people perished in a few weeks, and nearly 60,000 others fled to police stations and makeshift camps for safety.
The anger of South African township dwellers is understandable, if misdirected. Perhaps 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and with a 25 percent official unemployment rate, there aren’t enough jobs to go around to help the poor improve their lot in life.
Add to that the fact that the government that many poor black South Africans pinned their hopes on has been slow to deliver basic services such as drinking water, electricity, sewage service, trash pickup, and decent educations, and you have the makings of civil unrest.