Graceland Lost

The world no longer cares about South Africa the way it used to


The accordion melody of an erstwhile Basotho miner, Forere Motloheloa, is the first act of Paul Simon’s 1986 album, Graceland. It’s dense, melliferous, and steadfastly sticky. By the time Simon comes in we’re approaching one of the defining albums of the decade.

“It was a slow day / And the sun was beating / On the soldiers by the side of the road.”

The struggle against apartheid counted in its ranks great musical virtuosos — Peter Gabriel, Youssou N’Dour, Stevie Wonder — but Graceland was unique. It was transcendently humanitarian in a way that straight-up political songs weren’t. Against the grain, not least breaking the UN-approved cultural boycott by recording in Johannesburg, a famous singer-songwriter and a number of South African artists, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo (then unknown outside of the country), sang about archangels, shoes, and trampolines. American music reunited with its African roots and in the melange, notwithstanding the brutality of apartheid, the world was turned on to the bittersweet reality that life could still eclipse suffering. The overlaying of absurdist pop lyrics on top of township rhythms — unthinkable in today’s PC climate — was of the same skein as old-fashioned heroes like Frederick Douglass: “The soul that is within me [Graceland was saying] no man can degrade.”

In less than a year the album sold over six million copies and — in the way of a music of the spheres — helped compel that stubborn as a mule arc of the universe towards justice. And then it happened, eight years later, Nelson Mandela’s presidency! South Africa was headed to Graceland with drums, bass, and pedal steel. In a sense, Mandela was “the King of Rock and Roll”— the new South Africa the twin of a mansion in Memphis, Tennessee.


If it had occurred under apartheid, it would have resulted in an emergency meeting of the UN security council. Its infamy would have been chronicled and epochal like Sharpeville and Soweto. August 16th, 2012 — Marikana — would be solemnized with demonstrations outside South African embassies. The great and good would never have it forgotten.

But the massacre of 34 platinum miners, some 100 km northwest of Johannesburg, took place under black-majority rule.

First, a fusillade of assault rifles mowed down 17 strikers; approximately 20 minutes later, an equal number were slain in the crevices and undergrowth of a rocky outcrop where they had thought to find sanctuary. The majority were shot in the back. Survivors’ testimonies recount their fellow workers cowering and trying to surrender.

The morning began darkly with four mortuary vans ordered on standby; the afternoon’s dénouement saw ambulances denied entry, preventing those clinging to life from receiving medical interventions. As it was 78 of the total 112 shot would survive.

Marikana, 6/8/12. Photo: Alon Skuy

The chronology of the preceding events are complex (10 people were killed before August 16th, two of them policemen), but the fact was that these men, living in abysmal conditions, were trying to negotiate a salary increase with an employer who refused to meet them. It has since been revealed that the British company’s most prominent representative was a “deep cover” operative for the State Security Agency, an organization that looms large in a government, increasingly, given to plots and shadows.

On the board of Lonmin sat Cyril Ramaphosa: struggle hero; the founder, in 1982, of the very union that the strikers rejected as being inimical to their interests; one of the wealthiest men in South Africa — all of it racked up in eighteen years. He described events in email correspondence with management, the ministers of police and mineral resources, 24 hours before the shooting spree, as “dastardly criminal” and demanded “concomitant action.” Four months after Marikana, Ramaphosa would be elected deputy-president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC); two years after that, he would be deputy-president of the country.

Following 300 days of hearings a muted commission of inquiry recommended “further investigations.” No police officers have been charged; no politicians held responsible. There have been no sanctions for Lonmin, merely a scolding that the company’s failure to provide adequate housing contributed to the tensions.

Much to her chagrin the police commissioner has been suspended — the only fallout to date — and the results of a subsequent inquiry into her fitness for office has been submitted to the president. (Jacob Zuma, himself, facing 783 charges of corruption and fighting a rearguard action to prevent the highest court from forcing the indisposed national prosecuting authorities to make their own evidence actionable. In a separate matter, he was found to have “failed to uphold, defend, and respect the Constitution” by refusing to pay back a portion of the $27-million that the government spent on his private home. The ANC coated him in three-layers of teflon. The national treasury settled on a sum just over 3% of the total amount. His middle name, Gedleyihlekisa, means: “The one who laughs while grinding his enemies.”)

Shortly before the massacre the miners sang a funereal anthem. Unlike the Civil Rights Movement’s “We Shall Overcome” to which it is sometimes compared in terms of significance, “Senzeni Na? (What Have We Done?)” is bereft of hope. It was the dirge of the 1980s. It’s as if despair has been hammered Golgotha-like into each and every note. The leader of a rival union, who had initiated the lament, then addressed the strikers:

“The life of a black person in Africa is so cheap. They will kill us, they will finish us, and then they will replace us.”

The tyrants of democracy have the added terror of legitimacy.” It’s an agitprop statement from an obscure British outfit that wasn’t written with South Africa in mind. However, it encapsulates the point made by one of the few stalwarts fulminating about Bloody Thursday — Ronnie Kasrils:

The Sharpeville massacre in 1960 prompted me to join the ANC. I found Marikana even more distressing: a democratic South Africa was meant to bring an end to such barbarity. And yet the president and his ministers [are] locked into a culture of cover-up. Incredibly, the South African Communist Party, my party of over 50 years, did not condemn the police either.

The trappings of legitimacy constitutes a type of global silence too:

With a pariah state, nothing is to small to be overlooked; with a member of the international community, very little is outside the bounds. The same is true of the crimes of right-wing and left-wing governments. Depending on our stance: one is reviled and the other indulged.

Historical guilt often informs our judgements: we can, equally, hold ourselves to higher standards (worthy of criticism) and patronise others with lower expectations. The politics of identity is hysterical one moment and tight-lipped the next.

What we seldom get is a universally consistent concern for human welfare.

There was a time when black South Africans were considered the oppressed of the oppressed. Anti-apartheid was the sine qua non of the age. There was a regular flow of information and stories — almost daily, often front page. Now that white minority rule is no longer, that enormous interest has waned. I have been astonished at how many times I have been met with blank stares when mentioning these 34 miners to non-South Africans. It’s as if South Africa has, somehow, obtained escape velocity whereas before it was gravity itself.

What happened to the country’s considerable friends — those that made the struggle part of their life’s work? Men like Brian Mulroney who could face down Margret Thatcher at Commonwealth meetings: “Margaret, in this great moral cause, I am going to place Canada clearly on the right side of history.”

In December last year, Mulroney was made a gold member of the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo, the highest honour for foreign citizens. His Globe and Mail op-ed was entitled: “Canada can lead: Remember our apartheid fight.” It’s the sort of reminiscence that the ANC wallows in. Nowhere does it mention Marikana.

The massacre is certainly the most egregious event, but not the only example of the perilous state of affairs. There have been hundreds of deaths in police custody. Fatal shootings, rape, and torture, are well documented. Political assassinations are routine. One estimate puts it at 450 such executions since 1994. Most of these happen at local government level (20 murdered candidates were on the ballot in the elections a fortnight ago), but self-organized shack dwellers and whistleblowers have also been targets.

All these corpses before we can even broach other subjects: crime, corruption, state censorship, failing public institutions, and an economy running on borrowed time. South Africans are strident about the degradations in plain sight; the rest of the world — save for the celebrity of Oscar Pistorius — silent.


Paul Simon, 1986. Photo: L. Haun/Getty

Such was the condemnation over Simon’s breaking of the cultural boycott that he was put on a hit list by militants of the Azanian People’s Organization. The campaigning musician, Steven Van Zandt, claims to have dissuaded members of the small black consciousness group from carrying out the threat. Van Zandt is adamant that Simon was wrong not to have obtained prior permission from the ANC and, evidently, his animus endures to this day.

In 1987 the New Yorker was protected by the grandees of South Africa’s artists in exile: Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. If not for them joining his Graceland tour, Simon would have had a considerably harder time facing down the pickets that followed every performance. The musicians thought it an opportunity to get the grooves out of the ghetto. Theirs weren’t just personal dreams. In Joe Berlinger’s film, Under African Skies, everyone reiterates that they were creating, wherever they played, a new world in the shell of the old. In the words of “You Can Call Me Al” they had in their sights the “angels in the architecture.” The concert in Zimbabwe that year saw black and white South Africans travel to Harare. They weren’t representative, but they were the future.

The artists were the actual voices of black South Africans, its harmonies and heartbreak; the ANC was its punishing superego. The most revealing moments of Berlinger’s interviews anticipate the rot. Simon describes a meeting in which he was told:

“The way we are structured, you have to ask the ANC if you are going to do anything.”
“Oh, really? So is that the kind of government you are going to be? Does that mean we have to show you what kind of lyrics we’re going to write? Or if the musicians’ union decides to vote this way and you don’t like [it], you’ll change it around?”

Guitarist Ray Phiri was apoplectic when ordered to go back home by senior ANC figures in London:

“Tell me like I’m a seven year old. Teach me! What did I do wrong? I’m the victim here. I live in South Africa. How can you victimise the victim twice?”

Graceland constellated a frisson of hope, it was a metaphor for a state of grace. South Africa was going to be a shining example. But it’s as if the mansion only had a gilded foyer and the interior rooms, as we are now discovering, are uninhabitable. Just “ghosts and empty sockets.”


Top photo: Graceland Tour, Rotterdam, 1987. Photo: Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty

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