After 46 years, recognition for a moment in which we can take genuine pride

After 46 years, recognition for a moment in which we can take genuine pride

A long, long time ago – 46 years to be precise – along with some 300 other students I took part in an anti-apartheid protest at Liverpool University, occupying the university’s administration building for 10 days in the spring term of 1970. The key demands we were making on the university was for the resignation of the Vice-Chancellor, Lord Salisbury, a supporter of the apartheid regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa, and for the university to divest itself of its investments in the the apartheid regime in South Africa.  There were many sit-ins at British universities in this period, but in Liverpool it led to the severest disciplinary action of the time. Nine students, including Jon Snow, Channel 4 News presenter, were suspended for two years. But one, Peter Cresswell, was permanently expelled.

Yesterday, in an emotional ceremony following two decades of lobbying for restitution, Pete Cresswell, now aged 68 and retired from a career in social work, was at last awarded an honorary degree. His expulsion was finally recognised by those who spoke for the University as an injustice. As Pete observed in his acceptance speech, time had shown the protestors to be ‘on the right side of history’. Continue reading “After 46 years, recognition for a moment in which we can take genuine pride”

Once Upon a Time: Abdullah Ibrahim’s new album, Mukashi

Once Upon a Time: Abdullah Ibrahim’s new album, <em>Mukashi</em>

Abdullah Ibrahim

Abdullah Ibrahim

A few years ago, in sleeve notes for Cape Town Songs: The Very Best of Abdullah Ibrahim, Nigel Williamson wrote of the spiritual, political and musical journey that Ibrahim has pursued for some 60 years as a jazz musician. In his music, wrote Williamson, as well as ‘great pain and sadness, you will also find great hope and joy’.

His music is in many ways a celebration. A celebration of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. A celebration of the dedication and unswerving dignity of men like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and the other ANC leaders. A celebration of South Africa and the rainbow nation it has now become: But above all it is a celebration of the genius and humanity of Abdullah Ibrahim, one of the greatest artists of our tumultuous times.

I have loved Abdullah Ibrahim’s music since discovering the early UK vinyl releases (the ones on Kaz Records, with cover art by Tony Hudson) of mid-70s South African albums like Soweto and Blues For A Hip King (both made in 1975), African Sun and  Voice of Africa that featured the original, iconic recording of ‘Mannenberg’ from 1974.  Another prized early find was Autobiography, a live 1978 recording of Ibrahim in a solo piano concert in Switzerland, on the final track of which he played a flute solo. Soon I’d found what is perhaps the quintessential Abdullah Ibrahim album, African Marketplace (1979), recorded by a twelve-piece band, and comprising eight nostalgic vignettes of the homeland from which he was an exile.  As Professor Wilfred Mellers observed in the sleeve notes, three distinct strands were manifest in Ibrahim’s music:

An innocently euphoric social music that derives from his boyhood days in South Africa; an intense blues-based pianism, harmonically related to Ellington, texturally to Monk, which springs from his years in the Big City; and a revival of indigenous African traditions, rural as well as urban.  Throughout his career the emphasis has shifted from the first to the second to the third category; yet all three strands always were and still are co-existent.

Now approaching his 80th birthday, Abdullah Ibrahim recently released a new record, Mukashi, in which the same three strands identified by Mellers are still evident.  I’ve been listening to it a lot lately: I think it might be one of his very best. He has spent the last few albums revisiting and reworking old songs, and he does so again on this album. Yet it feels exceptional: from the short opening track with its Japanese-tinged flute and incantatory vocalising by Ibrahim (‘mukashi’ is Japanese for ‘Once Upon A Time’) and throughout this quiet, reflective album there is not an extraneous note as Ibrahim seems to be musing, lost in thought at the piano, letting memory flow through his fingers.

The album’s title may be Japanese but the music remains rooted in Africa rhythms, Monk, and the old hymns that have always been Ibrahim’s signature. At the same time, the sparseness is distinctive enough to suggest the musical equivalent of haiku or calligraphy.  This beautifully-recorded album flows and meanders through solo piano pieces, duets with Cleave Guyton on flute, clarinet or saxophone, and trio numbers that feature either Ukrainian-born Eugen Bazijan or  the Texan Scott Roller on cello. It’s music that feels dense with meaning and memory, yet achieved with a striking economy of resources.

The album is imbued with a profound sense of nostalgia and melancholy, and though some reviews have  attributed this mood to the fact that Ibrahim will be 80 this year and the death of his wife last summer the album was recorded in autumn 2012 and in the spring of 2013.  The titles certainly reflect a meditative mood – ‘Serenity’, ‘Peace’,  ‘Devotion’ – though many also contain echoes of tunes from the Ibrahim canon we know well, such as ‘Matzikama’ ‘Essence’ and ‘Root’, which revisits ‘Mannenberg’. Cleave Guyton’s clarinet is particularly lovely on ‘Mississippi’, a tune, like ‘Peace’ with echoes of the hymns and gospel spirituals he heard as a young boy whose mother and grandmother were church pianists in a local branch of the African Methodist Episcopalian church, brought to South Africa by African-American missionaries.

In this YouTube clip from 2011, Abdullah Ibrahim and his group Ekaya perform a medley of ‘The Mountain’, ‘Nisa’ and ‘Mississippi’ (at 10:30) that features Cleave Guyton on flute:

‘Krotoa’ is a three-part suite inspired by the story of Krotoa, called Eva by the Dutch, the first Khoikhoi woman to appear in the European records of the early settlement at the Cape as an individual personality:

31 October 1657:
The Commander [Jan van Riebeeck] spent the day entertaining the Saldanhars [a Khoikhoi tribe from the interior] and questioning them about various things through the medium of a certain girl, aged 15 or 16, and by us called Eva, who has been in the service of the Commander’s wife from the beginning and is now living here permanently and is beginning to speak Dutch well. (From the Journal of Jan van Riebeeck, Volume II, III, 1656-1662)

It’s a piece in which Ibrahim is especially intense and tender, with strong echoes of Ellington. ‘Peace’ is dedicated to ‘the ebb and flow of nature’ and has a stillness and spiritual depth that reminds me of ‘Water From An Ancient Well’, the tune they played repeatedly on Jazz FM in the late 80s. ‘In the Evening’ (which also appeared on his previous solo album, Senzo) has a new arrangement to incorporate cello and clarinet, while ‘Root’ is a stately solo piano variation on the melody of ‘Mannenberg’, one of Ibrahim’s most significant compositions.

If asked to characterise Ibrahim’s music in two words, I’d suggest ‘joyous’ and ‘spiritual’: over the years his albums have sometimes been predominantly one or the other; often they have exhibited both elements.  Ever since his conversion to Islam in 1968, his music has been deeply spiritual, ‘a quest of the inner self’.

The most beautiful, potent aspect of Islam is the unity of things; you can’t throw anything out of the universe. This realisation has been a driving force for me.

In a 1986 Arena film for the BBC, A Brother With Perfect Timing, he said: ‘Composition means you have to be composed so the message can flow through you – it’s like a state of Zen. It serves as a purification, and it’s a high.

This extended  YouTube clip shows Ibrahim at the Lotos Jazz Festival, Poland in February 2014 duetting with Carlos Ward (flute) in the manner of Mukashi:

Listening these last weeks to Mukashi, I have been drawn back to Ibrahim’s earlier albums.  Collectively they document the extraordinary life and times of a jazz musician born into apartheid South Africa in 1934, who left his homeland shortly before Nelson Mandela was jailed for life, but who returned to play at Mandela’s inauguration as President four decades later.

Born Adolphus Joahannes Brand in Cape Town on 9 October 1934, he grew up in the ‘Coloured’ township of District Six at the foot of Table Mountain, a mountain that apartheid laws meant he was not able to climb until he was almost 60: ‘Through many decades of traumatic experience in South Africa we were denied many things.  We didn’t even know our own country’.

Life was hard in District Six, but it also provided a vibrant, dynamic and creative atmosphere in which to grow
up. Brand’s mother ran a local choir and played the piano in church, and Adolphus began formal lessons on the
instrument when he was seven. In addition to the African folk tunes he heard in the township and the gospel sounds in the local Methodist chapel, the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong had also made its way to South Africa via 78s imported by American sailors. The new sounds were eagerly assimilated by township musicians and Brand was so entranced by black American music that he gained the nickname ‘Dollar’.

By the time he was fifteen, Brand was a professional musician playing around Cape Town, and at nineteen he joined the Tuxedo Slickers, a black big band which had ‘Tuxedo Junction’ as their signature tune and a repertoire of American swing coupled with local tunes. In 1954, South Africa’s leading vocal group the Manhattan Brothers needed a pianist. Brand passed the rehearsals and became a member of their backing band that included Kippie Moeketsi on alto and clarinet. One of the tunes they played back then, ‘Ntyilo-Ntyilo’, has cropped up many times in Ibrahim’s live performances and on his albums over the years.

Kippie, who would become one of the greats of South African jazz before his death in 1983, introduced Brand to the piano playing of Thelonious Monk, one of Brand’s enduring influences, and persuaded him to move to Johannesburg. There they formed the Jazz Epistles with the trumpeter Hugh Masekela and recorded South Africa’s first jazz album, fusing the influence of American musicians like Charlie Parker, Monk, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane with traditional African sounds.  The band split up after only a few months when Masekela and others travelled abroad to perform in the musical King Kong. Brand turned down the opportunity to join the tour, feeling that he had a musical mission at home and his place was with his people.

Politically the situation in South Africa was deteriorating. Demonstrations against the hated pass laws were intensifying and were met with systematic and brutal violence by the apartheid state. In March 1960, in Sharpeville, 69 defenceless demonstrators were shot dead and 400 people, including women and children, were injured. Martial law was declared and soon Nelson Mandela would be put on trial.

Dollar Brand and Sathima Bea Benjamin in Cape Town, 1961

Dollar Brand and Sathima Bea Benjamin in Cape Town, 1961

A year earlier Brand had met the woman who was to be his wife and life-long musical partner, Sathima Bea Benjamin.  In the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre,the couple left South Africa for Europe, settling eventually in Zurich.  It was there that Benjamin persuaded Duke Ellington to attend an after-hours performance by Brand in the Africana Club. Ellington was impressed and, at that time an A&R man for Reprise Records, invited Benjamin and Brand’s trio to Paris where, in one intense weekend, Brand’s album Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio and Sathima’s first solo album A Morning in Paris were recorded.  Ellington arranged for Brand to play in America, where he appeared with the likes of Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, at the Newport Jazz Festival, and sat in with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

In the film Sathima’s Windsong, the life story of Sathima Bea Benjamin unfolds through her own reflections and memories, woven together with the music she created:

On 1 June 2013 Sathima Bea Benjamin’s 1976 spiritual jazz masterpiece African Songbird was reissued for the first time in decades.  She died just weeks later, on 20 August:

Brand returned to Africa in 1969, where it immediately became clear that apartheid had all but killed the jazz scene. Very few recordings were made and non-white musicians faced a myriad restrictions. Nevertheless, this proved to be a crucial period in the musician’s life.  It was at this time that Brand converted to Islam and adopted the name by which he has been known ever since.

And in 1974 came the historic recording session in which Abdullah Ibrahim brought together the Cape Town musicians Basil Coetzee, Morris Goldberg and Robbie Jansen to produce the seminal album Mannenberg – Is Where It’s Happening.  Not only was the title of the album – a tribute to the black township outside Cape Town – highly provocative; the title track also captured the spirit of black and coloured society, and quickly became an anthem of resistance that would be played at every political gathering in South Africa until the fall of apartheid.

John Edwin Mason, in a paper published in African Studies Quarterly, Mannenberg: Notes on the Making of an Icon and Anthem, writes:

Mannenberg’s popularity was due to a variety of factors. It certainly helped that, as the jazz pianist Moses Molelekoa once said, it was ‘a dance song, a party song [like] most of the jazz that was coming out at that period’. It had an irresistible hook – its beautiful melody. It was driven by an infectious, danceable beat. And it was an intriguingly unfamiliar combination of familiar ingredients – the groove was marabi, the beat resembled ticky-draai (or, perhaps, a lazy ghoema, depending on who was listening), the sound of the saxophones was langarm, and the underlying aesthetic was jazz. Most South African listeners – African, coloured, and white – had something familiar to cling to and something exotic to be excited about.

Those ingredients cited by Mason, from marabi to langarm, were aspects of their culture which ‘Coloured’ South Africans had once regarded as retrograde and shameful.  But the Black Consciousness movement had changed the political climate in the coloured community, especially among the youth who were protesting against the apartheid education system that forced them to learn Afrikaans, the hated language of their oppressors.

Black Consciousness redefined ‘black’ to include Coloureds and South Africans of Indian descent, as well as Africans, and meant asserting the value, dignity, and beauty of indigenous and working-class black cultures. Coloured people, Ibrahim said at the time, were ‘aware that it’s their music. They feel it’s part of them’. The song’s success was ‘an affirmation… that our inherent culture is valid…it’s our music, and it’s our culture….’

This is Ibrahim – filmed in 1987 for the BBC Arena film A Brother with Perfect Timing – describing how the iconic track ‘Mannenberg’ came into being, and performing it live:

There were more recording sessions by Abdullah Ibrahim’s band, as well as the making of Sathima Benjamin’s solo album African Songbird and the birth of a daughter.  But with the political climate worsening, culminating in the Soweto uprising, the family decided to leave the country and settle in New York. In exile once again, he continued to explore the musical interface between African music and American jazz, producing some of his most powerful music to date.

When we play such songs we effectively become like actors interpreting the feelings of the voiceless in South Africa.  They have been forced into silence.  If we play a song about loss it’s because someone is feeling that loss; if we play a song of celebration it’s because we know we shall celebrate.  We document the feelings of the voiceless, we report their pain and courage.  We commend our people, we commend their ceaseless courage and their sense of love, their willingness to forgive.  This is what sustains all of us, inside and outside the country.  This is our African heritage, its sunshine is inside us all.

From that second period of exile emerged tunes such as ‘Zimbabwe’ and ‘Mandela’, which found Ibrahim reflecting upon the Africa of his hopes and dreams distant New York. Numbers such as ‘Cape Town’ and ‘African Marketplace’,  also conceived in the years of exile, are moving tributes to the country he loved and which in his heart he never left. It is not without significance that the group he formed in the early 1980s was named Ekaya – ‘home’.  As noted in Maya Jaggi’s Guardian profile, published in 2001:

‘He could have lost all connection with South Africa, but he chose not to,’ says Mandla Langa, a writer who was the African National Congress-in-exile’s cultural attaché in Europe. ‘He aligned himself with the liberation movement, creating a bridge between the country and exile.’ His mainly instrumental compositions, charting the trials and sorrows of exile and apartheid yet with an insistently celebratory lilt, became wordless expressions of freedom and defiance. Unlike many exiles, he survived to perform at the 1994 presidential inauguration of Nelson Mandela, to whom he had dedicated a jauntily upbeat tune. Backstage, Mandela returned the compliment. ‘Bach? Beethoven? We’ve got better,’ he said.

It was not until 1990, along with many other exiles, that Ibrahim was able to return home for good following the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the promise of free and democratic elections. It was only then that he was finally able to climb the mountain that rose above the city where he had first played music – celebrated in his hauntingly beautiful composition ‘The Mountain’:

Mandela’s long walk: a long journey for all of us

Mandela’s long walk: a long journey for all of us

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela campaigning against the pass laws

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela campaigning against the pass laws

Watching Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom in a crowded cinema yesterday, the thought occurred, as the credits rolled, that it has been not just Mandela and the people of South Africa who have made a long  journey to freedom.  We all have.  When I was a university student in the late 1960s it would have been unimaginable that a major film, backed by American and European film distributors, would have told the story of a black South African jailed for planning and carrying out acts of sabotage in pursuit of one man one vote.   It’s a mark of the transformation in political and cultural attitudes since then that a Hollywood-style biopic about the radicalisation of a young black lawyer who starts out committed to non-violence before having a change of heart should be a box office hit and in line for success in the BAFTAs and Oscars.

It’s sobering to recall that in the same decade that Mandela and his nine comrades began their life sentences on Robben Island, black Americans were also struggling, and dying, in their pursuit of civil rights and economic emancipation, while entrenched racism and discrimination persisted in this country.  In 1969, along with thousands of other other students and anti-apartheid activists, I demonstrated against the South African Springbok rugby tour  of Britain: though the team of white Afrikaners had been selected on strictly racial grounds, the British political establishment thought it acceptable for the tour continue.  In the same year, at Liverpool University, students were met with incomprehension on the part of the university authorities when we demanded that the university divest itself of investments in South Africa and get rid of its racist Chancellor: ‘You cannot involve the whole university in a personal emotion’ was the response.

Rivonia trial

The end of the Rivonia treason trial

So, what of the film itself?  It would be fair to say that as an example of the genre to which it belongs – the biopic of a great man – it is an honourable achievement.  How could it be otherwise, given the extraordinary nature of Mandela’s story? Adapted by William Nicholson from Mandela’s 1995 autobiography, the screenplay avoids the major pitfall of most biopics – being over-respectful.  In the early scenes at least, the film does not shy away from certain less pleasant aspects of the young Mandela’s character in scenes that portray his womanising and the way in which he deceived and on occasions beat his first wife.

Indeed, a central thread in the narrative (as it is also in Mandela’s own telling in the book) is the terrible impact of Mandela’s political commitment on the family, and especially his children: his absence from home during the time he went underground as the ‘Black Pimpernel’ and the 27-year separation from his family during his imprisonment.  Again and again our attention is drawn to the wife whose husband returns home late or never at all, the children who hardly know their father. Heart-breaking moments foreground these personal traumas, such as when Mandela learns that his eldest son Thembi has been killed in a car accident and is refused permission to attend his funeral, and when he sees his daughter Zindzi for the first time, allowed to visit her father in prison now that she is sixteen.

The film’s success in presenting Mandela as a rounded character is due in no small way to the superb performance of Idris Elba, who – though he may not look like Mandela – certainly sounds like him and is completely convincing in the role, lending a crucial human dimension to what would otherwise be a routine, stylised epic.As Geoffrey MacNab wrote in his review for the Independent:

It is left to Elba to give emotional complexity to a story whose triumphant ending we all know well in advance. Elba’s performance is stirring and very effective. He doesn’t just capture the gait, voice, mannerisms and self-deprecating humour of an immensely well-known figure, but he shows us a character who is constantly changing. The young Mandela is very different from the sainted figure we encounter in the final reel. He is athletic (continually shown boxing), charismatic, angry and confrontational. He is also a pragmatist in the fight against white supremacy.

Naomie Harris has received praise, too, for her performance as Winnie Mandela.  She is good, especially as the younger Winnie, the social worker who captures Nelson’s heart. But in later scenes the steeliness of the radical who fiercely endorses violent retribution against alleged informers is sometimes undermined by the flicker of a cheeky grin.

The film’s portrayal of Winnie Mandela is another example of the film’s reluctance to airbrush its main characters.  To a large degree it rehabilitates Winnie, emphasising that her trials – arrests and re-arrests, banning orders and 16 months in solitary confinement, along with constant intimidation and in front of her children in her own home – add up to a story of brutalisation that ran in parallel to Nelson’s.  Her endorsement of  the horrific practice of ‘necklacing’ suspected informers and collaborators with burning, petrol-soaked tyres – unflinchingly presented – was, the screenplay suggests, a consequence of that brutalisation.

Even at over two and a half hours, it would be a challenge for the film to cover everything in Mandela’s own remarkable life, let alone do justice to the story of the struggle by the people of South Africa to free themselves from the shackles of apartheid.  You notice key historical moments that have been omitted or given only glancing treatment. Mandela’s rural childhood is glimpsed in the first few minutes, while the period when he ran a law firm in Johannesburg, in partnership with Walter Sisulu, rushes by, focussing as much on his womanising as the cases he was taking on and his growing politicisation.

The politics are dealt with a little superficially, mainly through the tried and tested device of inserting rapid-fire newsreel clips of national events or of the growing international isolation of the South African regime as the boycott campaign gains strength. One political event that is presented as an extended dramatised reconstruction is the massacre of anti-pass law demonstrators at Sharpeville in March 1960.  The reason is obvious – it was a pivotal moment in the development of the struggle against apartheid – but I think that for younger cinema-goers or those outside South Africa the oppressive nature of the pass laws might have been made more clear.

Another pivotal scene comes with Mandela’s speech from the dock at the conclusion of the 1964 Rivonia treason trial.  It’s a stirring moment, worthy of Shakespeare, and highlights the stature of Idris Elba’s performance.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.  I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

The politics of the period of imprisonment on Robben Island are dramatised in two scenes. When Mandela and the other ANC leaders first arrive on the island, prison regulations stipulate that African prisoners must wear short trousers. Only Africans were given short trousers, for only African men were deemed ‘boys’ by the authorities (the ‘Coloureds’ in the ANC contingent were issued long trousers).  The ANC prisoners wage a successful campaign for all prisoners to be given long trousers, a small but symbolic victory. We see the moment of victory, though the form of protest that brought it about are left unclear.  Nevertheless, it represents a way for the screenplay to humanize the way in which apartheid denigrated black South Africans – and the way in which prison, in Mandela’s words, ‘not only robs you of your freedom [but] attempts to take away your identity.’

Another key moment is the arrival on the island of a new, younger generation of prisoners – militant Black Conciousness activists arrested after the Soweto uprising in 1976.  The young men, who have come to political maturity in the years when the ANC leadership was behind bars, are at first scornful of the ‘old men’ and of Mandela growing tomatoes on the small plot that the prison authorities have conceded.  Mandela instinctively reaches out, seeking to learn from the experience of the young generation, and their new approaches to political action and thought.

Mandela set free

Idris Elba and Naomie Harris: the day of freedom

The politics come through most clearly in the final section of the film when Mandela is released from prison, warily reunites with Winnie and negotiates an end to apartheid with representatives of the white power structure. There are compelling scenes in which Winnie and Nelson disagree bitterly over policy and the question of violence.  There are taut scenes in which powerful acting by both Idris Elba and Naomie Harris viscerally conveys the couple’s accumulated years of struggle and sacrifice.

Mandela’s reason for pursuing reconciliation is shown to be pragmatic as well as idealistic – a way to avoid a bloody black-on-black civil war. Elba, with whitened hair and heavily-pancaked face, suggests the elder Mandela’s probity and strength of personality, but his acting in these later scenes is more stilted. The scene in which we see him telling his wide-eyed grandchildren that they should not talk of violence against whites people (‘that is what they do to us, we must do better’) is a bit too sentimental and mawkish.

If you have read Mandela’s book, or lived through the years of anti-apartheid struggle, you will learn nothing new from this film. You may feel that it is too big a sacrifice to endure Bono wailing about ‘ordinary love’ on the soundtrack (though you can walk out – he only starts as the credits roll). Nevertheless, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom does provides a stirring, honest and largely unsentimental account of Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary life.  For a film that says something new and interesting about Mandela we will have to wait for something from what is currently cinema’s most vital genre – documentary.

Slavery, apartheid and morality

You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher
Peter Gabriel, ‘Biko’

There was a moment in a recent TV documentary about the Asante kingdom (located in present-day Ghana) when a Ghanaian academic, asked about the Asante proclivity for selling captives from neighbouring tribes into European slavery, said, ‘Well, we didn’t have any morality then’.  It didn’t sound right.

It was only later, watching a film about the international movement to boycott and isolate apartheid South Africa in sport, that I figured out what was wrong.

Of course the Asante of the 18th and early 19th century did have a moral code – it was just that, exactly like European morality at the time, it applied only to Asante and not to others.  Certainly there were those in the anti-slavery movement who argued that ethical standards on how we should treat human beings should apply not just to fellow-countrymen but also to those widely regarded at the time as belonging to inferior races – but they had a mighty struggle getting their views accepted.

One love 
One blood 
One life 
You got to do what you should 
One life 
With each other 
Sisters 
Brothers 
One life 
But we’re not the same 
We get to 
Carry each other
– U2, ‘One’

What gained traction in the 20th century (paradoxically, in a century of such great inhumanity) was the concept of moral universalism – that ethics apply universally, for ‘all similarly situated individuals’, regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality or sexuality.  For some, the source or justification of a universal ethic lay in Christian or other religious beliefs, in Enlightenment reason or socialist values.  Whatever the source, Noam Chomsky stated its meaning crisply:

One of the, maybe the most, elementary of moral principles is that of universality, that is, If something’s right for me, it’s right for you; if it’s wrong for you, it’s wrong for me. Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its core somehow.

Watching the current (brilliant) series of documentaries about the worldwide effort to destroy South African apartheid, Have You Heard From Johannesburg, I recognised a principle that drew countless numbers around the world, myself included, to protest on behalf of others we would never meet, but whose circumstances and treatment were judged intolerable.

Notwithstanding their European origins, . . .[i]n Asia, Africa, and South America, human rights now constitute the only language in which the opponents and victims of murderous regimes and civil wars can raise their voices against violence, repression, and persecution, against injuries to their human dignity.
– Jurgen Habermas

In South Africa, opposition to apartheid was led by the African National Congress, founded 100 years ago on 8 January 1912.  The ANC in its constitution and membership represented the ideal of universalism, being an organisation open to all, irrespective of race, colour and creed, its 1955 Freedom Charter stating that all should have equal rights, be equal before the law and enjoy equal human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948, asserted the same principles globally. By that time, the idea that different peoples were endowed with separate rights was challenged by those struggling against colonial oppression or trying to build new nations.  The barbarities of war and genocide fuelled the yearning to safeguard rights within the nation-state, as well as limiting external aggression and war.  ‘It was imperative that the peoples of the world should recognize the existence of a code of civilized behaviour which would apply not only in international relations but also in domestic affairs’, said Begum Shaista Ikramullah, a Pakistani  delegate on the UN drafting committee in 1948.

This was impressive, given the experience of the previous decades.  The Encyclopedia of Genocide records that:

In total, during the first eighty-eight years of [the twentieth] century, almost 170 million men, women, and children were shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved,frozen, crushed, or worked to death; buried alive, drowned, hanged, bombed, or killed in any other of the myriad other ways governments have inflicted deaths on unarmed, helpless citizens and foreigners. Depending on whether one used high
or more conservative estimates, the dead could conceivably be more than 360 million people. It is as though our species has been devastated by a modern Black Plague.

Michael Perry, in Toward a Theory of Human Rights by (Cambridge University Press) underlines the significance of the change that took place in the second half of the 20th century:

In the midst of the countless grotesque inhumanities of the twentieth century, however, there is a heartening story, amply recounted elsewhere: the emergence, in international law, of the morality of human rights. The morality of human rights is not new; in one or another version, the morality is very old.
But the emergence of the morality in international law, in the period since the end of World War II, is a profoundly important development.  Until World War II, most legal scholars and governments affirmed the
general proposition, albeit not in so many words, that international law did not impede the natural right of each equal sovereign to be monstrous to his or her subjects.  The twentieth century, therefore, was not only the dark and bloody time; the second half of the twentieth century was also the time in which a growing number of human beings the world over responded to the savage horrors of the twentieth century by affirming the morality of human rights. The emergence of the morality of human rights makes the moral landscape of the twentieth century a touch less bleak.

Coincidentally, in the same week that these thoughts were provoked by watching two TV documentaries, on Thinking Allowed Laurie Taylor spoke to Kate Nash, a sociologist from Goldsmiths College who was about to present a paper, Charity or Justice: What is the suffering of strangers to us? to a conference on Humanitarianism.  What is the suffering of strangers to us? What is it that makes us care for people we have never met and who have very different lives from our own?

Nash argues that such feelings can be prompted either from a sense of justice or an impulse for charity. Laurie Taylor asked her to explain the distinction.  She responded:

Charity is related to humanitarianism.  It’s the idea that we respond to the suffering of others because they are suffering – its basis is compassion.  Justice on the other hand is more a response in terms of common expectations: we respond to the suffering of others as we expect that they would respond to us, to help us out, because we share common conditions and because we share what’s sometimes called a ‘community of fate’.

Nash sees justice as rooted in the nation state – the ‘community of fate’ is firmly rooted in the nation, and our sense of commonality is based on the nation:

It’s a much thicker sense of commonality – that we belong together because of common language, common origins and common history. But generally, when we think about the suffering of those beyond our borders, with the exception of certain political movements, mostly what is being asked for is a charitable, a compassionate response.

That proviso – ‘with the exception of certain political movements’ – is important.  It reminds us of the crucial part played by campaigns from the anti-slavery movement to the anti-apartheid movement in advancing and solidifying a global vision of justice and human rights.  Nash argues that the media – including Internet and social media – will play a key role in strengthening support for international justice and human rights in cultural politics.  But to me it seems that the role of international solidarity campaigns will remain paramount.

The series Have You Heard From Johannesburg, currently being shown on BBC 4, is a superb, probably definitive, cinematic history of the worldwide struggle to isolate and destroy South African apartheid. Filmed by Connie Field throughout the world over ten years, it features interviews with many of the major players, and archive footage of the struggle, much of it never seen before on television.  An American series, it has been adapted for screening on British TV, with a different second episode.

That second episode looked at how athletes and activists around the world hit white South Africa where it hurt – on the playing field. Knowing that fellow blacks in South Africa were denied even the most basic human rights, let alone the right to participate in international sports competitions, African nations refused to compete with all-white South African teams, boycotting the Olympics and eventually forcing the International Olympic Committee to ban apartheid teams from future games. By the 1970s, only South Africa’s world champion rugby team remained, and citizens across the world took to the streets and sports fields to close the last door on apartheid sport.

In 1970, the struggle focussed on the Springbok tour of Britain, with protests such as the one outside Manchester’s White City ground.  A few months earlier, November 1969, Peter Hain had come to the Student Union at Liverpool University, where I was a student, to address a meeting and gather support for the demonstration (above).  Jon Snow, who was arrested on the demo, wrote about the impact of the movement in his account of his early years and his career in journalism, Shooting History:

It was Peter Hain, subsequently a Labour Cabinet Minister, who finally identified our cause. Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had spent the previous months preaching change through ‘economic engagement’ with the South African apartheid regime. Wilson and others had gone soft on economic sanctions, and the apartheid state was consolidating its hold amid calls from Nelson Mandela’s beleaguered African National Congress (ANC)  to black South Africans to burn their passbooks. British culpability and collusion with apartheid were clear, but what was Liverpool’s connection?  […]

In November 1969 Peter Hain, himself South African by birth, came north with his ‘Stop the Seventy Tour’ campaign. The South African Springbok rugby team were already in Britain, while a cricket tour was to take place in the summer. Hain’s ultimately hugely successful campaign recognised that sport was very close to the heart of the apartheid regime. It was the public, competitive and white face of South Africa. We might not be able to spring Mandela from Robben Island, but we could at least stop his jailers from playing sport in our green and pleasant land. Hain’s target was the Springbok match at Old Trafford in Manchester.

Some of the most dramatic moments in the film came with its account of how, in 1981, the epicentre of the resistance moved to New Zealand, where massive protests met the Springboks when they toured the country.  At Rugby Park, Hamilton, protesters pulled down fences before invading the pitch and ultimately forcing the cancellation of the game (above and top).

The third episode dealt with the international reaction to the brutal suppression of the Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976 and the murder of student leader Steve Biko – events that turned South Africa into a worldwide emblem of injustice. As most western governments refused to heed Oliver Tambo’s calls for cultural and economic boycotts, a new generation of young people – in South Africa and across the world – continued the struggle for justice.  I had not been aware previously of the significant movement in the Netherlands, original homeland of the Afrikaners, where activists such as Conny Braam (below) turned the tide of Dutch conservatism.

Returning to the Asante and their part in the Atlantic slave trade: that account came in an episode from the second series of Lost Kingdoms of Africa, presented by art historian Gus Casely-Hayford. There is a scarcity of written records documenting Africa’s past, Casely-Hayford presents a vivid account by drawing on the culture, artefacts and traditions of the people. Across the two series, Dr Gus Casely-Hayford has explored the rich and vibrant histories of 8 complex and sophisticated civilisations: the kingdom of Asante, the Zulus, the Berber kingdom of Morocco and the kingdoms of Bunyoro and Buganda in the current season, and West Africa, Great Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and Nubia in the previous one.

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Two men, worlds apart

I can’t resist making a comparison today between the university days of  David Cameron and Gordon Brown.

First off, we have the infamous photo  [above] of a bunch of toffs preparing to embark on a long night of alcohol-fuelled debauchery in 1987 (or 1897?). This is Cameron [back, second from left] and his cronies: 10 of Oxford University’s poshest undergraduates, members of  the Bullingdon Club, an exclusive dining society whose raison d’être has for more than 150 years been to afford tailcoat-clad aristocrats a termly opportunity to behave very badly indeed.

The Buller, as it is known to members, was founded in the 19th century as a hunting and cricket club, but is now devoted to drink and dining. Membership is by invitation only and normally limited to alumni of leading public schools. New recruits are secretly elected before being informed of their good fortune by having their college bedroom invaded by way of a window and methodically “trashed”.  The club’s notorious dinners typically involve members booking a private dining room (under an assumed name) and drinking themselves silly before destroying it elaborately. They wear royal blue tailcoats with ivory lapels, and – having made merry – pride themselves in politely paying the restaurant’s owners compensation in high-denomination banknotes.

Now, by way of contrast, here’s Gordon Brown recalling his university days in today’s Guardian.  This is his contribution to the ‘My Hero’ feature, in which he explains why he’s chosen Nelson Mandela.  Having just been involved in a 40th anniversary reunion of those who took part in the occupation of Liverpool University’s Senate House in March 1970 in protest against the university having the racist Lord Salisbury as Chancellor, I know who I would prefer to be the country’s leader. This is the column in full:

Back when I was at university I was a journalist on the student paper and led a campaign to get Edinburgh University to disinvest from apartheid South Africa. It felt a long way from Scotland when, more than 30 years later, I found myself face to face with Nelson Mandela – Madiba – for the first time. He pointed at me, and smiled, and said “Welcome, representative of the British empire!” It was typical of the man I have come to know – a man whose generosity of spirit and capacity for forgiveness make him a true hero for our times.

Back then – when students, trade unionists, musicians and human rights campaigners formed a grand coalition against apartheid – we talked about a future rainbow South Africa in hope more than expectation. The brutality and tyranny seemed simply too great to be overcome in one lifetime. And when there were even people in Britain opposing sanctions and wearing “Hang Mandela” T-shirts, it could sometimes feel that justice would never come. But the lesson of the struggle against apartheid is that no injustice can last forever – that if people of courage and good conscience are prepared to stand and fight, there is nothing we can’t achieve.

That is the spirit that animated so many of the other people I have admired – Burmese monks, Iranian students and Zimbabwean trade unionists, whose names we may never know, but whose courage has been immortalised in the campaigns they have waged for freedom. Back in 2005, there was an amazing video made for Live 8: it showed the leaders of great movements – Martin Luther King at the march on Washington, Wilberforce at the great abolitionist rallies, the Pankhursts during the suffragettes’ protests. Then it focused on the faces in the crowd.

The message is that anonymous people aren’t the audience for change, they are leading the change – that progress is only possible when we recruit a movement: first hundreds, then thousands and, finally, millions-strong. If any one man can embody that message, it is my hero, Madiba.

Sharpeville repercussions

Today marks 50 years since the Sharpeville Massacre, when police in apartheid South Africa opened fire on thousands of unarmed protesters, killing 69 and injuring about 180.  The Pan Africanist Congress, having split from the African National Congress,called on black South Africans to demonstrate against the hated pass laws. Thousands gathered outside the local police station in Sharpeville, challenging the police to arrest them for being without the pass books, or dompas, they were meant to produce on demand.

The massacre was a watershed in the country’s liberation struggle, providing the spark for the armed struggle mounted by the PAC and the ANC, and outraging international opinion, leading to the worldwide boycott and  disinvestment movement.

Not coincidentally, this weekend I have been celebrating another anniversary – 40 years since the end of an 11-day occupation of the University of Liverpool’s Senate House administrative block in March 1970.  The focus for the protest? The demand that Lord Salisbury – renowned for his racist views, scornful rejection of African self-government and financial links with apartheid Rhodesia and South Africa – resign as Chancellor, and that the University divest itself of investments in South Africa. After the protest, the University handed down punishments that were unprecedented in their severity: 9 students suspended and one expelled.

Yesterday, 60 of the 300 students involved in the sit-in came together in a joyous reunion. For the past three months I have been delving into the University archives to research this event, and producing a blog – An Emotional Involvement – which tells the full story of the protest.

The Liverpool students’ protest was rooted in a critical questioning of the nature of a university, its relationship and responsibilities to the wider world. Did it matter? The solidarity protests and the boycott movement gave black South Africans a sense of hope that change could occur. In 1981, on Robben Island, hearing of the massive and successful protests against the Springboks tour of New Zealand, Nelson Mandela said “When I heard that news it felt like the sun coming out.”

The Liverpool protest asked big ethical questions about what it is to be human: what kind of lives we want to live, and want others to be able to enjoy in freedom and dignity, and what kind of world we want to pass on to our children.  Back in 1970, the University Treasurer, HB Chrimes, talking about disinvestment from apartheid, asserted: ‘You cannot involve the whole university in a personal emotion’. In 2010, the current Vice-Chancellor, Howard Newby,writing to the student expelled for the action, affirmed: “Your voice and actions serve as a legacy to the freedoms we enjoy, preserve and defend”.

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20 years since Mandela walked free

Today South Africans are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom – on February 11, 1990 – after 27 years as apartheid’s political prisoner.

Our march to freedom is irreversible.
– Nelson Mandela

16 June 1964: Mandela and seven others, sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia trial are driven from the court to prison.

1966: Mandela sews prison clothes in the yard of Robben Island prison

21 March 1960: 59 people shot dead in the Sharpeville massacre

Soweto uprising Sam Nzima's photo of Hector Pieterson

Soweto uprising: Sam Nzima’s photo of Hector Pieterson, age 12 who died in Mbuyisa Makhubo’s arms after being shot by a police officer. Over 500 people were killed in the uprising.

Steve Biko: died 12 September 1977, murdered in police custody

11 February 1990: jubilation in Soweto

11 February 1990 was one of those days of your life that you can remember vividly, almost moment to moment, decades after: the long wait, through a Sunday lunchtime as the release was delayed, watching live on TV as the world’s cameras waited for the moment that Mandela would emerge from the gates of the prison.

In today’s Independent, there’s a piece by Gordon Brown in which he states, “for many of us born in the second half of the 20th century, the anti-apartheid struggle was the defining political question of our time”. He recalls how, almost 40 years ago at Edinburgh University:

Through a painstaking investigation we exposed the University’s shares in apartheid South Africa, and eventually forced their sale. So many of us could tell similar stories – of the rugby matches boycotted, the holidays not taken, the petitions signed.  The contribution of the British people – the trades unions, the student movement, the Liberal and Labour Parties, the ordinary shoppers who did their bit – all of it should never be forgotten.

Opposition to racism and apartheid was central to my politics as a student at Liverpool University at the same time. I have recently been researching the events of the occupation of the university’s administration block in March 1970 and posting the results in another blog.  The occupation was demanding the resignation of the university Chancellor, Lord Salisbury, infamous for his racist politics and economic interests in apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, and that the university relinquish its investments in companies profiting from their involvement in South Africa.

For me, and I suspect for most of the other 300 or so involved in the protest (including ITN news anchor Jon Snow), this remains a moment in my life that I would never disown.

Back in 1970 I doubt that we could never have imagined a peaceful, negotiated transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa. What scenarios did we have for challenges to repressive state power and regime change at that time? Sharpeville…Prague ’68…Hungary ‘56 ? We surely envisaged that these regimes would only be overthrown by armed uprising and revolution. South Africa in 1990 is comparable to Eastern Europe in 1989 in that both situations were pretty much unprecedented in terms of the absence of violence. That’s not to say that the regimes weren’t under pressure (in the case of South Africa, the pressures of the international boycotts and disinvestment campaigns, coupled with the resulting pressure from multinationals, were clearly a powerful factor). Recognising that doesn’t, to my mind, undermine the crucial importance of the internal resistance –  the ANC, Steve Biko’s Black Conciousness movement, the school boycotts, the Soweto risings, the courage of the men and women, schoolchildren, students, trade unionists who resisted down the years.

In a ceremony outside the gates of Victor Verster prison today, Cyril Ramaphosa told thousands of ANC supporters:

De Klerk did not free Mandela, you did. De Klerk did not end apartheid, you the people – the ANC – did.

Ijuba by Mzwakhe Mbuli

Ijuba lakhal’ emthini
Ijuba lakhal’ emthini

From childhood to adulthood
Non could arrest my mind
From the cradle to the grave
None could imprison my mind
From obscurity to excellence
None could manipulate my mind
From season to season
Non could infiltrate my brainpower
From prison to release
Non could scar my mental capacity

Prison bars and doors
Prison gates and keys
Prison security and walls
Prison itself could not imprison my mind

My mind is impenetrable
My mind is indomitable
My mind is invincible
Yes my mind is extraordinarily powerful

Ijuba lakhal’ emthini
Ijuba lakhal’ emthini