Three Days Singing in Soweto: Reflections on History, Politics, and Diversity

Dylan Li
Dylan Li
Jul 6 · 5 min read

After two days of much-needed vocal rest in mountainous Drakensberg, we arrived in Johannesburg. In doing so, we joined a centuries-long train of newcomers to the city. Johannesburg (affectionately known to South Africans as “Jo’burg”) and the Gauteng province in which it is located both trace their origins to a 19th century gold rush. Now, with the rush for gold having concluded long ago, Jo’burg still draws immigrants from all over South Africa and neighboring countries — in addition to being South Africa’s largest city, it is also one of the nation’s most linguistically and culturally diverse. In Limpopo, we greeted our South African compatriots with the Sepedi phrase “Thobela,” in Haenertsburg we were best served by English and the familiar-sounding Afrikaans “Hallo,” and in Drakensberg we used the Zulu “Sawubona!” In Jo’burg, we found that we were well-served by any of these phrases; many of the people we encountered at homestays, in churches, and in hotels had six or more languages under their belts.

As it had done for so many who came before us, Jo’burg welcomed us with open arms. During our stay, we gave two performances in a neighboring township called Soweto (whose name, as I later learned, is derived from the descriptive term “South-Western Townships”). The first was a music-sharing session with an Old Apostolic Church (OAC) choral affiliate. The choir included individuals of all ages but seemed to be on the younger side. We commenced the sharing by together learning a song which had been composed by our tour-composer-in-residence, Bongani Magatyana, entitled “Ingoma” (which translates to “Song” in both Xhosa and Zulu). We then sang in alternating sets with the OAC choir; their sets were comprised of South African church songs and featured some of the more impressive dance movements we had seen so far on tour, whereas we performed both our Western and South African repertoire. This was the first time we had set foot in an OAC place of worship, and we noticed that our songs were not followed by applause or ululation, as they had been in previous performances, but rather by snapping and hand-waving. The OAC choristers explained to us when we stepped offstage and took our seats that their more muted reception was not due to a lack of enthusiasm but rather out of respect for the sacred space of the sanctuary.

We performed alongside two other choirs the next day in a festival organized by a Methodist congregation, again alternating sets. I was raised in a Methodist church, but this congregation was considerably more lively than the one I had known in eastern Indiana, as dancing and audience participation abounded. My favorite part of the performance was the church choir conductor’s hearty participation in the songs of the two guest choirs. Indeed, after we had sung a couple of songs under Bongani’s direction, the conductor (who had by this point stood next to me and joined our choir for the remainder of our set) pivoted to me and asked, starstruck, “Is that Bongani Magatyana?” The evening was also notable insofar as we encountered a striking manifestation of Gauteng’s diversity diversity in this church; at the end of the festival, the minister invited all present to say the benediction in their native tongue, and the subsequent cacophony of languages resounding in the sanctuary called to mind the Tower of Babel.

In addition to performing, we also spent time at two museums in Gauteng, both of which memorialized the apartheid struggle: the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg proper and the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto (I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I hadn’t heard of Hector Pieterson before visiting the museum, but his death during Soweto protests in the mid-1970s was a watershed moment for global progress against apartheid). A full review of these museums is not in order here, but I want to highlight a few of my impressions. First, it was striking to see so much video and photography that documented how recently apartheid was in place. Of course, all of us had read in history books about this lengthy and oppressive era, but it was another thing entirely to watch 1980s BBC interviews in which white South African cabinet ministers argued that black South Africans were incapable of governing themselves. Second, the museums gave us a glimpse of what black and colored South Africans — especially those living in the townships — would have experienced as the targets of the government’s violent political suppression campaigns. We walked past the huge, threatening armored vehicles which patrolled the streets of Soweto from the late 1970s into the 1980s, studied the signs students painted to protest the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in state-run schools, and contemplated gut-wrenching footage showing the government’s unprovoked attacks on unarmed civilians. We were inspired by black South Africa’s resilience — but these scenes also troubled us deeply. How had the apartheid state in South Africa managed to persist for so long despite its flagrant human rights abuses?

Following from this, the third impression I want to share from our museum visits relates to the importance of international activism in helping end apartheid. As I read more about Mandela’s final days in prison, I realized how instrumental sanctions had been in forcing the apartheid regime to preserve Mandela’s life during his imprisonment and later in forcing FW de Klerk and his National Party to come to the negotiating table. I don’t want to be naïve and give too much credit to the United States. However, reading about these phenomena did instill in me the importance of speaking out against human rights abuses as an American citizen. My understanding of American opposition to apartheid is that it came from the bottom up — that the American government was initially hesitant to take a stand, but that the stand it eventually did take was extremely influential in facilitating apartheid’s abolition. The lesson I take from all of this is that, as an individual with an American passport, I have a responsibility to educate myself regarding human rights abuses elsewhere in the world and should make my voice heard in opposition to world human rights abuses.

By Dustin Swonder, a recent graduate concentrating in applied math with a focus on economics

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