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.

Alexander Joe/AFP/Newscom
South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela (l.) and Nigerian singer Femi Kuti perform during the opening ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup on June 11, at Soccer City stadium in Soweto, suburban Johannesburg.

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.

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.

World Cup would make life easier

Many South Africans thought the World Cup would make life easier. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were created, to build stadiums, widen highways, refurbish airports, and to serve tourists in hotels and restaurants. But now that the games are almost over, the number of jobs related to tourism will shrink, and anger is starting to rise.

“The World Cup was a temporary Band-Aid on the problem,” says Chris Bolsmann, a sociologist at Aston University in Birmingham, visiting his native South Africa during the World Cup. “What took place in May 2008 is that people were fighting over scarce resources. When 40 billion rand is being spent to build stadiums or widen roads, the real beneficiaries aren’t the people in the township, they are the middle classes, and that 40 billion rand comes from resources that could have been used to solve problems.”

“I would have thought that we would have learned the lessons of May 2008,” he says. “We need to deliver services. We need people to have decent homes, water, electricity. We need to create jobs. We need to get to the root of the problem.”

The irony, for South African exiles like Bra Hugh, as Masekela is fondly known here, is that when South Africans were fleeing the racist rule of the apartheid government, it was African nations like Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and others that took them in. Senior ANC leaders like future President Thabo Mbeki spent much of their adult lives after college in African capitals, making alliances. Artists like Masekela and his one-time spouse Miriam Makeba performed with artists of other African nations, living the dream of African unity. But now, in South African, many of the people the ANC worked to free feel resentment, not brotherhood, with their African brethren.

For Masekela, it’s not too late to recapture that same sense of human decency, which South Africans have encapsulated in the idea of ubuntu. The word ubuntu means that a human being cannot live in isolation. If another human suffers, we suffer. If we succeed in life, that success spreads to all humanity. It’s a philosophy that finds its way into Stimela, and also in a more recent hit, “Send me.”

When I got home from the concert after midnight, amazed at a 71-year-old man who can play a three-hour concert, I found myself humming the music that Bra Hugh played. And then I did what he asked me to do. I sent a little prayer.

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