Music/Popular Culture

Lucky Dube and the choice for Africa

Cast your mind back. Some banana republic. Perhaps it was Cuba, or some backwater in India, definitely anywhere in Africa.

You were traveling in one of those beat-up old vehicles that passes for public transport in the most impoverished parts of the world. And they had only one album playing at that tree-splitting volume so necessary for third-world travel.

It was Bob Marley playing, wasn’t it?

Except, sometimes, they had a second tape that would also be played. Round, and round, and round. Also reggae. Also loved beyond the singing of it. Maybe you never knew who that was?

That was Lucky Dube.

No, I’m not here to tell you how much I love his music. I don’t really connect to the soul of reggae. To the pride, or shape, or centre of it. Whether it was his ‘Soldier’, or ‘Prisoner’, or ‘Slave’, or ‘Different Colours – One People’; it certainly spoke to the desperately abused denizens of despotic poverty. But I do recognise talent and genius and passion when I experience it. And I do have the humility and admiration to admit it.

If anyone can lay claim to being a South African music superstar it was Dube.

Note that I use the past tense. On Thursday evening, 18th October, as the 43-year-old singer was dropping off two of his children in Rosettenville, Johannesburg, gunmen opened fire on him in an attempt to hijack his car. He died almost immediately. They fled without taking his car.

The senselessness of it. The outrage. The terrible, terrible, ordinariness of it all in a nation where 50 to 60 people are murdered every single day.

Think of Iraq. A war zone. According to Iraq Body Count some 36 people per day are murdered. South Africa is, by this measure, almost twice as dangerous as Iraq.

Yet here it isn’t single bombing outrages. It’s quiet, bespoke, single deaths, and families traumatised. On Dube’s website, the lyrics for ‘Celebrate Life’ – probably Freudianly misspelled – declare:

Liars’ cheaters, politicians and black stabbers

Making life a little bit more unbearable

Welcome to Africa, the place that eats its own.

Africa, what makes you so weak?

The reason for my silence over the past two months is that I was hired to conduct research into the health sector across Africa and analyse the situation. It is dire.

One can make all the sympathetic noises one likes. One can talk about the legacy of slavery, or the history of colonialism, or even of the Cold War. It doesn’t wash. It is hard to argue that Eastern Europeans suffered less from the interference of the Soviet Union or the US as a result of the Cold War than Africa. It is impossible to suggest that Japan’s being bombed into the Stone Age during World War II was more pleasant than colonialism which, at least, left a legacy of infrastructure and law behind it. It is downright silly to discuss slavery by the West which the British banned over 170 years ago, in 1833.

None of these things made President Thabo Mbeki, of South Africa, declare that HIV does not cause AIDS, or hire a mob boss to be head of the police service, or an alcoholic petty thief to be health minister. None of these things made Robert Mugabe, of Zimbabwe, destroy thousands of businesses in Harare, snatch productive farms away from people and impoverish his entire nation. Neither did it create the opportunity for the savagery in Darfur or the genocide in Rwanda, the war in the DRC, the ongoing troubles in Western Sahara or the abject silliness of Cameroon.

None of these things is justifiable.

Dr James Watson, co-winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize for identifying DNA, has been publicly disgraced following a recent statement in which he said that he was, “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa,” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours whereas all the testing says not really.”

He explains himself thus:

“There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically,” he writes. “Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”

Doing it to themselves

I don’t believe that Dr Watson deserves opprobrium for this statement, but neither am I as generous as he is. I don’t give Africans the excuse of saying, “Hey, the reason Africa can’t help doing these stupid, fatuous, self-destructive things is because they can’t help themselves. It’s their nature.”

I believe that, no matter how ill-informed, the events in Africa come about through free choice.

There is some matter of social engineering involved. The majority of talented and skilled Africans flee and can be found in Europe or America where they do extremely well. As the available pool of ability drops there is certainly something to be said for the difficulties that the remaining African population will experience. Certainly, but this alone doesn’t explain the self-destructiveness of the place. They’re like serially addicted Iraqi suicide bombers trying to find new ways to cause pain.

Yet there is something especially hypocritical about society’s peaceniks and charity freaks rounding on Dr Watson over his statements. People who are forever finding excuses for why Africa needs more sympathy or more money or more time are denying Africa the ultimate cop-out of being genetically incapable of achieving any better.

So what excuse do you want to give this troubled continent? Come on, I’m ready for you. And, no, this doesn’t mean I have lost hope in the opportunities here. Like those great columnists, Xolela Mangcu and Aubrey Matshiqi, I believe that it is the duty of analysts and commentators to express our outrage, and demand the accountability of our leaders for the betterment of society.

As Cornel West declared in ‘The Meaning of Mandela’: “No democracy can survive without the culture of criticism and dialogue and discussion and debate and contestation.” In another essay, he describes the role of the critic thus: “Criticism always presupposes something in place – be it a set of beliefs or tradition. Criticism yields results or makes a difference when something significant is antecedent to it, such as rich, sustaining, collective memories of moral struggle.”

In the mean time I join in the rest of the outrage over another senseless killing of another brave and talented soul. And I wonder, just what will it take before the South African people pay any attention to the price being paid by their support for its government’s social policies?

10 replies »

  1. “The reason for my silence over the past two months is that I was hired to conduct research into the health sector across Africa and analyse the situation. It is dire.”

    Thank you for your explanation. S & R was poorer for the lack of your posts.

    Keep up the good work…voice in the wilderness…

  2. God, it’s sad to hear about Lucky Dube.

    As far as what makes Africans self-destructive. . .

    I recently read “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa,” as readable a history book as you’ll ever find. The crimes King Leopold committed in the Congo are almost unimaginable.

    Western oppression was so overwhelming, that you might just as well ask why other groups the West has subjugated like American blacks or Native Americans have — if not on the spectacular scale of Africans — demonstrated self-destructiveness.

    As for the cause, we need more than free choice. Can you flesh that out, WH?

  3. Russ, I agree about the Belgians in the Congo. But how is that different from what the Japanese did in the Philippines or China during WWII?

    And “more than free choice”? There is virtually no free choice in the majority of African states other than the one that most Africans with talent exercise: the ability to leave and settle elsewhere.

    I’ve planned a post for a while on the nature of African self-destruction. It is an attempt to “flesh that out”, but – as yet – without any path to rectitude, which can be somewhat unsatisfying.

  4. You haven’t left and settled elsewhere. You deserve a lot of credit for staying when you don’t have to.

  5. This just seems crazy to me, Gavin – the equivalent of waking up one morning and hearing that someone had shot Michael Stipe at a traffic light.

    It says something deeper, though – that a man like Dube was out driving his own car rather than being chauffeured around by Blackwater style guards like most western music stars makes him even more impressive – and his tragic murder even more poignant.

  6. There are an awful lot of super-talented, reasonably famous people in the world … and most of them don’t have Britney Spears-style super-egos to go with it.

    So, I suppose it could almost be said to be unusual if more of them didn’t have experiences (like car accidents, etc) that happen to the rest of us.

    Still, Dube’s murder is only the most high-profile death to crime in a long line of death’s to crime that happen here. I don’t think it will, but I hope, that it makes the state more aware of the anger that ordinary people feel towards the ineffectiveness of our police “service”.