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.

I shall be released…

I shall be released…

Nelson Mandela released

February 1990: Nelson Mandela walks to freedom

Standing next to me in this lonely crowd
Is a man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shout so loud
Crying out that he was framed
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

It was one of those curious coincidences that seems to happen surprisingly often. The last few days have brought the news that the British Greenpeace activists are back in the UK after their incarceration in a Russian jail on charges of ‘hooliganism’ following the Arctic oil drilling protest – and that Pussy Riot activists Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova had also walked free from prison, pledged to devote their energies to changing the political system in Russia and improving conditions inside its prisons. At the same time, I reached this moment reading Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom – his own account of the afternoon of his release from prison on 11 February 1990:

By 3.30, I began to get restless, as we were already behind schedule. I told the members of the Reception Committee that my people had been waiting for me for twenty-seven years and I did not want to keep them waiting any longer. Shortly before four, we left in a small motorcade from the cottage. About a quarter of a mile in front of the gate, the car slowed to a stop and Winnie and I got out and began to walk towards the prison gate.

At first I could not really make out what was going on in front of us, but when I was within 150 feet or so, I saw a tremendous commotion and a great crowd of people: hundreds of photographers and television cameras and newspeople as well as several thousand well-wishers. I was astounded and a little bit alarmed. I had truly not expected such a scene; at most, I had imagined that there would be several dozen people, mainly the warders and their families. But this proved to be only the beginning; I realized we had not thoroughly prepared for all that was about to happen.

Within twenty feet or so of the gate, the cameras started clicking, a noise that sounded like some great herd of metallic 5easts. Reporters started shouting questions; television crews began crowding in; ANC supporters were yelling and cheering. It was a happy, if slightly disorienting, chaos. […]

When I was among the crowd I raised my right fist, and there was a roar. I had not been able to do that for twenty-seven years and it gave me a surge of strength and joy. We stayed among the crowd for only a few minutes before jumping back into the car for the drive to Cape Town. Although I was pleased to have such a reception, I was greatly vexed by the fact that I did not have a chance to say good bye to the prison staff. As I finally walked through those gates to enter a car on the other side, I felt – even at the age of seventy-one – that my life was beginning anew. My ten thousand days of imprisonment were at last over.

It’s pertinent to recall Mandela’s release at this time; it was he, after all, who wrote (also in Long Walk to Freedom):

It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina (left) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Speaking to the Guardian soon after her release from prison, Pussy Riot activist Maria Alyokhina said that she and  Nadezhda Tolokonnikova now plan to launch a project which will fight for the rights of inmates in the Russian prison system:

I decided to become a human rights activist when I realised how easy it was for officials to make a decision and force women to be examined in the most intimate parts of their bodies.  Russian officials should not stay unpunished, they cannot have this kind of absolute power over us. Russia is built along the same lines as a prison camp at the moment, so it’s important to change the prison camps so that we can start to change Russia.

Alexandra Harris

Greenpeace activist Alexandra Harris

Meanwhile Greenpeace activist Alexandra Harris spoke about how the Arctic 30 had been treated in jail. Prison conditions in Murmansk had been difficult – they were held in a cell for 23 hours a day and shared a toilet without a cubicle with three others. But, she said, they were treated better than Russian prisoners:

Because the world’s watching us and they’re scared of what we’re going to say now. There was no physical violence towards me but it was torture – we spent two months in a Russian jail cell and 100 days detained for a crime we didn’t commit. It was obscene, a complete overreaction on the part of Russia, and we should never have been there.

Fellow-activist Anthony Perrett said:

It was worth it. I think we brought the world’s attention to the fate of the Arctic and that’s difficult to do because it’s so far north. All the science is telling us that if humanity carries on as it is doing, in 1,500 years the planet will be dead. I don’t know how big a price you have to pay for that. The price we paid was jail.

I’d like to salute these ‘unharmful, gentle souls misplaced inside a jail’.

Robben Island prisoners break rocks, 1964

Robben Island prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, break rocks, 1964

Mandela returned in 1994 after being elected president.

Mandela returned to Robben Island in 1994 after being elected president.

See also

Mandela: his long walk has ended

Mandela: his long walk has ended

Nelson Mandela

An inspiration for all who sought justice and equality: Nelson Mandela.  For many long years a symbol of racist oppression, then came that moment that lives in the memory when he walked free from prison.

Perhaps nothing sums up the man’s dignity and grace better than the closing passage of his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom:

I was not born with a hunger to be free. I was born free – free in every way that I could know. Free to run in the fields near my mother’s hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my village, free to roast mealies under the stars and ride the broad backs of slow-moving bulls. As long as I obeyed my father and abided by the customs of my tribe, I was not troubled by the laws of man or God.

It was only when I began to learn that my boyhood freedom was an illusion, when I discovered as a young man that my freedom had already been taken from me, that I began to hunger for it.  At first, as a student, I wanted freedom only for myself, the transitory freedoms of being able to stay out at night, read what I pleased and go where I chose. Later, as a young man in Johannesburg, I yearned for the basic and honourable freedoms of achieving my potential, of earning my keep, of marrying and having a family – the freedom not to be obstructed in a lawful life.

But then I slowly saw that not only was I not free, but my brothers and sisters were not free. I saw that it was not just my freedom that was curtailed, but the freedom of everyone who looked like I did. That is when I joined the African National Congress, and that is when the hunger for my own freedom became the greater hunger for the freedom of my people. It was this desire for the freedom of my people to live their lives with dignity and self-respect that animated my life, that transformed a frightened young man into a bold one, that drove a law-abiding attorney to become a criminal, that turned a family-loving husband into a man without a home, that forced a life-loving man to live like a monk. I  am no more virtuous or self-sacrificing than the next man, but I found that I could not even enjoy the poor and limited freedoms I was allowed when I knew my people were not free. Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.

It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.

When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.


It was 4.16pm South African time (around 2:00pm for those of us watching live through the tears in Britain) on Sunday, February 11 1990, when Mandela finally came out of prison 27 years, six months and six days after he was captured.  Later, after being driven into Cape Town where he spoke – for the first time as a free man – to a huge crowd of 60,000 gathered in front of the city hall.  In his address he revisited his speech at the Rivonia trial so many long years before:

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 opportunity. 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.

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The Boy in the Bubble: Paul Simon, sanctions and Graceland

The Boy in the Bubble: Paul Simon, sanctions and Graceland

Sometimes a wrong action can have a positive outcome…

Sometime in 1984, seeking musical inspiration following the critical and commercial failure of Hearts and Bones, Paul Simon was entranced by the sounds he heard on a cassette he played repeatedly on his car stereo and labelled Accordion Jive Hits, II.  Using his record industry contacts, the source of the unidentified music was located in South Africa, and a recording date was set up for Simon in Johannesburg with three of the groups on the tape: Tao Ea Matsekha, General MB Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters, and the Boyoyo Boys.  In 1985 Simon flew to South Africa.

He could not have been unaware of the implications of what he was doing.  The brutal apartheid regime had entered its most vicious phase.  Economic sanctions had been extended in UN-approved cultural boycott which had been in effect since December 1980. The wording of Resolution 35/206 was explicit:

The United Nations General Assembly request all states to prevent all cultural, academic, sporting and other exchanges with South Africa. Appeals to writers, artists, musicians and other personalities to boycott South Africa. Urges all academic and cultural institutions to terminate all links with South Africa.

And it wasn’t just political activists who had been galvanised by the appalling situation in South Africa. Previous years had seen a batch of songs attacking the brutality of apartheid, from Peter Gabriels’ powerful ‘Biko’ and Jerry Dammers and the Special AKA’s classic, ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ to Stevie Wonder’s ‘It’s Wrong’.  Moreover, there were active campaigns to stop musicians performing in South Africa, and at exactly the moment that Simon flew into Johannesburg, musicians such as Dylan, Springsteen and Bono, joined Steve Van Zandt’s Artists United Against Apartheid to record Sun City, attacking those who performed in the South African entertainment complex in the so-called ‘homeland’ of Bophuthatswana:

Twenty-three million can’t vote ’cause they’re black
We’re stabbing our brothers and sisters in the back
I wanna say I, I, I ain’t gonna play Sun City

As he planned his trip, Paul Simon consulted his close friend, the veteran civil rights and anti-apartheid campaigner Harry Belafonte.  He told Simon to go and talk to the ANC.  Simon preferred to ignore his advice.

Simon made the musical odyssey that resulted in the classic album Graceland without having received permission from either the UN or the African National Congress to enter South Africa.  Many feared that his blatant disregard for the boycott might undermine the anti-apartheid movement.  Jerry Dammers, then heavily involved with Artists Against Apartheid, was among those outraged: ‘Who does he think he is? He’s helping maybe 30 people and he’s damaging solidarity over sanctions. He thinks he’s helping the cause of freedom, but he’s naive. He’s doing far more harm than good’.

These issues were brought back into sharp focus by a remarkable documentary broadcast last week in BBC TV’s Imagine strand, and available as a DVD extra with the remastered Graceland 25th Anniversary EditionUnder African Skies, directed by Joe Berlinger, starts out as a conventional rock documentary, celebrating an iconic album’s quarter-century by following Paul Simon as he returns to Johannesburg to renew acquaintances with the musicians who joined him on Graceland, and with them to perform an anniversary concert in a free South Africa.

But very soon the film shifts gear from pop-promo into a subtle debate about the individual freedom of the artist versus the realpolitik of a people’s struggle for liberation. At first, Simon comes across as something of a Boy in the Bubble – blithely out of touch with the political realities of apartheid, concerned only to track down the rhythms that have delighted him in order to re-record them as a stimulus to his songwriting. Testimony makes clear how he went ahead with his mission, ignoring the pleas of those more attuned to social and political realities.  Simon even admits candidly to encountering and briefly accepting the racism of white recording studio technicians towards the musicians they are recording. It’s a startling admission, and testament to the clear-eyed nature of a film that does not gloss over the shortcomings of the star and its centre.

Of course, Simon was no racist.  He was, in his own estimation, simply an artist doing what he had done on all his solo albums – pursuing the joyous sounds that he found in musical traditions beyond Anglo-American rock and pop. What saved Simon in the ensuing controversy, and what turned the terms of the political debate around, was the wholehearted commitment of musicians like guitarist Ray Phiri, the Kumalo brothers, and Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo to his project – and of the exiled South Africans Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba who joined him on stage the global tour Graceland tour of 1987.

Graceland had threatened to blow a gigantic hole in the sanctions that had isolated the apartheid regime and endowed it with pariah status.  But the sheer brilliance of the music that sprang from the studio collaborations, the blending of traditions – and the way in which the album and the ensuing tour showcased South African culture and publicised the nature of apartheid – turned misguided action into triumph.  Moreover, the irony of a policy that seemed, in Ray Phiri’s words when he was advised by the ANC to leave a recording session in London and return to South Africa, to victimize the victim, was crisply illuminated.

In the film, Paul Simon continues to rest his case on the right of artists to express themselves, free from political pressure.  He sticks to a steely belief that artists shouldn’t be treated as if they work for politicians.  Back in 1986, in response to the ANC’s stance of, ‘You went to South Africa but you didn’t ask us, you need to ask the ANC’,  Simon retorted: ‘So that’s the kind of government you’re going to be? Check our lyrics? Fuck the artists like all kinds of governments have done in the past?’  The musicians who speak in the film all echo this sentiment of the power of artistic expression to transcend political oppression, and the ability of artists from widely differing circumstances and traditions to find a shared voice with which to communicate.

The core of the film’s political discussion takes place in a good-natured encounter on a Johannesburg sofa between Paul Simon and Dali Tambo, son of ANC leader Oliver Tambo who was the London-based exile who directed the cultural boycott. The pair agree to tell each other their side of the story. The film’s director, Joe Berlinger presents both sides of the story in a balanced way. Tambo crisply articulates the view of many black South Africans who saw a rich white man violating and pillaging South African culture for his own gain:

At that moment in time, it was not helpful. We were fighting for our land, for our identity. We had a job to do, and it was a serious job. And we saw Paul Simon coming as a threat because it was not sanctioned by the liberation movement.

Simon makes it clear where he stands to the end, saying ‘the power of art lasts. The political dispute has gone, but the music still lasts’, but in the last scene of the film Simon and Tambo apologise to each other, lean across, and hug.

The film leaves the viewer with the sense that are no easy answers here. Can art exist in a bubble, as Simon insists? This is not a historical question, relevant only to the issues of a quarter of a century ago.  Sanctions remain a crucial weapon in challenging injustice – think of Syria today, or those who argue for a cultural boycott to isolate Israel over its treatment of Palestine.  And, as the series Have You Heard From Johannesburg, shown on BBC 4 earlier this year, demonstrated, the worldwide struggle to isolate and destroy South African apartheid contributed hugely to the regime’s demise.

It is impressive is that Paul Simon allowed Berlinger to make such an unflinching film, containing as it does far more criticism than most celebrities would tolerate, and that he had the mettle to face the issues in an open and honest discussion with Dali Tambo.

But then I remember how I first heard ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ on the car stereo, and having to pull over while the track played, so intoxicating was its sound.  Like millions of others I adored Graceland, and through the late 1980s it seemed to do more to promote world music in general and South African music in particular than anything else, bar the Andy Kershaw radio show.  It’s still an album that makes the hairs rise on the back of the neck – and that’s down to the combination of Simon’s clever, New York lyrics with the rippling rhythms of Ray Phiri’s guitar,  the infectious beat of the Khumalo brother’s rhythm section and the shimmering harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

In Under African Skies, Paul Simon tells how the release of Graceland was postponed for several months in 1986. But he, along with  Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Soweto Rhythm Section had already been booked to appear on Saturday Night Live. On that trip, Ladyship went into a studio and recorded ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’, going on to perform it with Simon on the TV show a few days later.  Watch a video clip of the performance here:

Paul Simon – Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes…

In 1987 the Graceland tour, with Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela reached Zimbabwe.  Here are some highlights:

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 
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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