Senzenina is a song I first encountered during a protest march I joined in 2007 to protest the firing of Nozizwe Madlala Routledge, whose outspoken stand against the HIV/AIDS denialist Thabo Mbeki was an inspiration to many. It was an easy song to pick up and it was a new experience for me to walk along and sing one of the great struggle-songs with the hundreds of people in the street- there was a feeling of great solidarity and purpose as we marched along. And of course I loved the singing.
One of the most hard-working ministers in the ANC party, Nozizwe was praised by many for ‘speaking truth to power’ on that occasion; she did a lot of good in her brief stint in the health department. Brief, because among other things she brought to light the unacceptable standards of care at Mount Frere hospital in the Eastern Cape – the infant death-rate at this hospital were absolutely shocking and she got into trouble for exposing what was going on there as well.
The song’s title means ‘What have we done wrong?’ and was often sung at protest marches under the Apartheid regime; it is often sung at funerals still. There is a strong tradition of singing in the African cultures – people sing on their way to the fields in rural areas, at any festivals, political meetings, at protest actions, they sing for recreation, they sing while they work. I often hear some individual going down the road singing – and I love them for this. If you’re on the train going to or from Cape Town and you travel 2nd class, you’ll find yourself jammed in a carriage so full of people that I think they sing to keep their lungs inflated or their breath will be squeezed out of them. Seriously, it is something beautiful to find yourself in a ‘singing carriage’.
As a German-speaking South African kid, singing was part of my everyday life also. When my mother and I were preparing food in the kitchen, we’d sing folk songs in harmony or we’d all sing in the car. Folk songs were part of every German wedding too, and of course an Octoberfest is not the real thing unless there is hearty singing. A few years back I went on a road trip with my sister and the folk-songs came out again; some of the words went missing but the harmonies were still there.
The Irish are also famous for singing. But here? From Afrikaners to Zulus, everyone sings except the English-speakers. Isn’t that weird? There’s nothing sadder than being in a pub and people want to sing but nobody knows the words to each other’s songs. Sometimes someone will join in with songs from the current DVD that’s on, but that’s about as far as it goes.
Singing is a special pleasure. I don’t see why it should be reserved for performers, choir members/church-goers or mothers singing to babies. It’s like drawing. Back in Victorian times, few people had a camera. So everyone drew, to hold the memory of where they’d been. It was as common a skill as writing. Now it’s something only a few people ‘can do’.
Even better, singing can be combined with dancing – another delightful habit of African people here. A friend once told me about a long and tedious meeting in an NGO office. When the energy started to flag, everyone would get up, dance around the room in a circle, singing lustily and then return to their seats, with butts not so sore anymore and tedium relieved – not to mention a huge oxygen boost.
As a child I’d run errands to the store, and always go past the ‘Non-White’ side of the store, (this was in the early to mid-Sixties and Apartheid was still very firmly entrenched) where a tailor would be sitting flat on the verandah with his hand-operated sewing machine, and a cobbler would be on the other side, mending shoes. A number of men would be loitering and chatting, others would be spontaneously dancing to what my mother called ‘that cheeky music of theirs.’ Here is a sample of the sort of thing she meant although it’s not from that time.
Do treat yourself and listen to it – if dancing where you sit is allowed. Indeed I’d strongly recommend it. Perhaps put your coffee down first. It gets quite lively.