The passing of Miriam Makeba (this week) and Es'kia Mphahlele (in October 2008) is a major loss to SA – and a painful reminder that we have failed to properly acknowledge artists' role in the gestation and birth of democracy in Mzansi.
Mphahlele and Makeba are beacons for creative expression and for the contribution of artists to wider society. They are icons and pioneers. They have been powerfully inspirational; thanks to how they found and served a higher human purpose, their inspiration is at a different level as compared to the somewhat more populist but often more transient aura of power-holding politicians or famous entertainment stars.
Makeba became a key voice of resistance, her songs an elegant and evocative soundtrack to the struggle, conveying the dignity and quiet strength of the many ordinary people that demanded an end to apartheid during the darkest years of racial oppression.
She presented the struggle as stemming from a people who understood how fighting an oppressor was linked to a commitment to a larger common humanity. Her music conveyed that the struggle was – simultaneously – about confrontation and care, about pushback and embracing with love, about angry resistance and songs of love. The songs combined the grittiness of the then current reality ('the truth' as Makeba was wont to say) with an implicit and joyful hope in the future.
In those dark years, her music and personal commitment to freedom represented by her life story buoyed us. For activists absorbed in long nights of work in those times (work that included intense discussions, strategising, detailed 'event planning', production of media, etc) her music gave us strength to sustain our efforts for change.
Overseas, Makeba gave her listeners a distinctive and compelling window on Africa. Her songs communicated the spirit of a continent (its moods, registers, modes of expression and the stubborn humanism underpinning so much of what we do in the continent).
Makeba's life was not easy. Although she clearly thrived on flexing her singing talent and her beats and melodies convey joy and an invigorated outlook on life, she suffered vindictive government action against her, the travails of exile (including being unable to travel to her mother's funeral in SA) and a rollercoaster of failed marriages (to persons such as Hugh Masekela and Stokely Carmichael). She bore this suffering with remarkable dignity.
Mphahlele's terrain of operation was different and, occupying the intellectual stage, his immense contribution to society was/is disseminated in a different way (compared to Makeba). His enormous impact ripples out from the world of literature, academia and the arts.
Numerous writers were influenced by Mphahlele. Emerging as a writer in the 50's, through his work and ideas he established himself as a giant in the decades to follow. However, despite his standing in literature and academia, Es'kia Mphahlele's contribution to South Africa has been woefully under-recognised in democratic South Africa.
Mphahlele is an outstanding representative of the Drum generation of writers (a group which included leading lights such as Can Themba, Nat Nakasa, Lewis Nkosi, Casey Motsisi, Arthur Maimane, Todd Matshikiza and Bloke Modisane and Henry Nxumalo).
His memoir, Down Second Avenue (1959), was a milestone, a turning point and a major marker of directions, themes, dexterity and moods in emergent black writing. This text is required reading wherever the development and history of indigenous literature is studied and qualifies as an important text beyond.
Throughout his life, Mphahlele remained committed to teaching (literature and writing) and to guiding young writers. Backed up by an impressive body of creative writing, he made contributions through teaching at university, involvement in writer's organisations, essay-writing and by granting access to young writers.
Life was also not a breeze for Mphahlele. Apart from a tough boyhood in racist South Africa as conveyed through his memoir, he endured life in exile (he wrote and taught in Nigeria, France, Kenya, Zambia and the US). He never bowed to the pressures (including the dislocation a writer faces in having to ply his craft in exile); he remained focused and strong, and avoided the self-destruction of several other writers of his generation.
A tireless warrior in the battle of ideas, Mphahlele wrote continually and skilfully to propagate a respectful and informed view of African culture and to advance his conception of African humanism. These ideas are likely to be taken forward by the Es'kia Institute that he founded in 2002.
With the passing of Makeba and Mphahlele the truth again hits home: democratic South Africa has failed to adequately acknowledge the contribution of artists – their role in freeing our ideas, in fuelling hope and an in entrenching key values (social cohesion, humanity, a life in dignity) that we have enshrined in the constitution and strive to realise in our daily lives.
They have not been given their due, neither symbolically nor via creation of dynamic institutions on culture and society nor by significant opportunities and channels for supporting young talent. Government and other role players need to act urgently to correct this shameful neglect and, through such action, live up to the legacy of stalwart such as Makeba and Mphahlele.
Finally, invoking Mahalia Jackson and her classic song (written by Dick Holler), we may well lament:
Has anybody here, seen our old friend uMama and Es'kia?
Can you tell us where they've gone?
They freed a lot of people, but it seems the good die young
We looked around and they were gone ….