Jan 04 2014
Songs of freedom

Songs of freedom

Songs of freedom, by Khaya Witbooi.
Oil and spray paint on canvas, 150cm X 100cm, 2013

It is a prominent characteristic of South African culture to express its emotions and experiences in songs. Protests, joys and times of mourning have all been captured in the lyrics of relevant songs.

One example is a song called “Shosholoza”, a theme song for our first Rugby World Cup, embraced by all as it marked a place in time where our rainbow shined the brightest. Everybody knows the song and it is still spontaneously being sung at big sports events.

Our national anthem is also unique in its expression in that it is a combination of two songs representing two different worlds that were at conflict in the past. Listening to it, one will conclude that our endeavor to make us one has been pursued with great effort. Yet, the meaning behind our multilingual anthem only really makes sense when one makes the effort to understand the different languages used in the song. It is then that the pride expressed in the anthem can best be appreciated.
The Afrikaans and English parts were taken from a song that was used as the official national anthem during the Apartheid years. The Afrikaans part is still easier for the Afrikaner to relate to just like the various other parts are easier to relate to for the speakers of the languages it is sung in.
It’s not a big deal, yet when we protest, it is almost at the expense of each other’s sense of security. Despite the ideals expressed in our national anthem, our protests have not changed in manner.

We still burn schools and hospitals to fight inadequate housing and medical care. Is it because we still find ourselves in the same circumstances that we did in during our painful past?
So when we sing “Umshini wam” (“Machine gun”) to mobilise our people to move as one, do we also really imply that the killing of Boers would satisfy us and restore everything we have lost to the past regime?
If the national anthem symbolizes our acceptance of each other’s differences and commitment to co-exist in an environment where every colour has a place, like in a rainbow, then maybe we need to face our struggles as one. If we act as a rainbow then our beauty could overcome the threat.

It is time that we bestow a new gist to our songs, as the war is not Apartheid itself anymore but the effects thereof. Perhaps a new gist where “Umshini wam” represents a weapon that does not threaten people but combats the common threat. We are faced with corruption, poverty, crime, police brutality and abuse of woman and children thus we still need “Umshini wam”, a song that can be sung by all who feel threatened by the above and not by another race.

In the piece I have chosen to use an African woman encapsulate our frailty as a nation. The use of a saw in the place of a bow and the machine gun instead of a violin is meant to give a sense of music. Only here the intention is to destroy the notion that “Umshini wam” refers to the same enemy or method it did to in the past. The enemy now has a different identity, and the method we use to deal with the situation does not literally refer to the use of a machine gun.

Not only do we have to do away with violence, we also have to change the way we do things.

By Khaya Witbooi
Cape Town 2013

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