A STIRRING consequence of Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for literature is the reminder that turbulent times may produce great poets who express rage and dreams so lyrically that they lift the soul, as Dylan did with his words and music.
It was equally true during South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, when liberation songs with potent words and melodies gave people the strength to carry on. A collection of dozens of these freedom songs was beautifully captured in the 2002 documentary film Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, winner of the Audience Award and the Freedom of Expression Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. It features original recordings and new live performances by trumpeter Hugh Masakela, singer Miriam Makeba, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, guitarist Vusi Mahlasela, and others.
When Nelson Mandela died, masses of people gathered outside his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, and rather than standing mournfully on the pavement, sang praise songs and danced in the street to celebrate his life, despite their feelings of loss. It was a natural expression.
The contemporary political chaos in South Africa has not produced its own “Dylan” yet, but interspersed among the people protesting the situation are poets and balladeers who we will hear more of in the future.
In Dylan’s heyday in the 1960s and 70s, students and hippies promoted free love, slammed the establishment, protested against the older generation’s wars and hypocrisy, smoked marijuana and used LSD to get high. And they saw themselves as the vanguard of a better world. South African students protesting countrywide today for free higher education and a better South Africa are not always clear in their goals, partly because they are young and unformed – like the American students of the 1960s were – but are acting on instincts echoing Dylan’s song: “The Times they are a-Changing”.
The naivety of some members of the “Fallist” student movement – a general term for those fighting for fees to fall and education to be “decolonised” – is epitomised by a video clip posted on YouTube last week which by Monday had garnered 430 000 hits. In it, an impassioned black student tells the University of Cape Town science faculty that it should “decolonise” science by doing away with it entirely and “starting all over again”.
Science is a product of western modernity and should be scrapped, “especially in Africa” she said. She cited a place in KZN called Umhlab’uyalingana where they believe that through magic “…you are able to send lightning to strike someone.” Scientific explanations don’t work, she says, “because it’s something that happens.”
Laughs aside, what is happening among the youth has a very serious angle. Despite their often misdirected energies, violence, and attempts to force universities to suspend academic programmes, this born-free generation sees historical wrongs done to blacks through white supremacy and colonialism, and want to rectify them. They are challenging the status quo of blacks’ economic exclusion and cultural oppression by “western colonialists”. These are noble goals, even if understood too simplistically by many in this complicated country with its huge social challenges.
Dylan rose from the crucible of angry American students. Now 75, he was raised in a Jewish community in the state of Minnesota, attended Zionist camps in Wisconsin, became a born-again Christian in the 1970s, and returned to his Jewish roots in the ’80s. He held his eldest son Jesse’s barmitzvah at Jerusalem’s Western Wall in 1983. In later decades he participated in holiday services at Chabad synagogues.
It is an understatement to say we live in crazy times worldwide, epitomized by the buffoon Donald Trump coming close to being the president of the world’s most powerful country, and South Africa reeling under its local version of Trump in President Jacob Zuma.
Many South African students have never even heard of Bob Dylan, and would instinctively regard him as a western colonial import. But his iconic songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War” apply in this country as much as they did in his 1970s America.
Dylan’s young generation didn’t succeed in changing the world – the success of today’s Trumps and Zumas testify to that. But he held up a searing mirror to society. South African students, with their often-irrational fury, are now doing the same.