I first visited South Africa in 1999 when I was working at LIPA and Lee Higgins, our community music tutor at the time, had been involved with various ISME activities and had come back enthused about what he had seen and heard and made a very persuasive case about why LIPA should be out there and how it might be a great source of potential undergraduates for our course in our august institution.
Whilst LIPA released some funding to pay for a market research trip for the two of us, we realised very quickly that asking potential students to pay what in some peoples case would have been the equivalent of a life times earnings to study for a three year degree programme was a form of optimism which bordered on the deluded. Of course, there would have been some students whose parents could have paid – but they almost certainly weren’t going to be from the black families who lived in the townships of Cape Town that we visited. And sure – we could dream about sponsorship of talented black musicians by benign white multinationals all we liked – but the fact is that going on a student recruitment drive to South Africa in the late 1990s was a potentially ridiculous mix of idealism, naïveté and market forces.
What wasn’t ridiculous though was what we did find. We went looking for students and sources of institutional income and instead found people and places and sights and sounds and colours and textures and atmospheres and politics and religions and a place on earth which was simultaneously heaven and hell and which blew apart our preconceptions of notions of community, of music, of Black and White and of good and evil.
Mandela of course infused the air we breathed, the ground we walked on, the talks we talked and the music we listened to. We saw, heard and felt Isicathamiya; we heard Xhosa and Zulu, we wondered why there had never been a civil war in South Africa and we were astounded. In fact, there wasn’t one single day when we weren’t astounded by something or another.
That first visit led to several future visits which became less about attracting the South African Rand to the coffers of LIPA, and more about wider educational and cultural exchange between artists and teachers but the astonishment we felt during that first visit continued to dance around our footsteps as we met many inspirational people whose lives were also infused by Mandela’s presence – or absence, given the amount of time he had been incarcerated on Robben Island.
I don’t really want to say RIP Nelson Mandela as there are millions more saying that right now much more authentically from places that can still astound. His death not only opens up other ways of being astounded by the stories of South Africa: but also how we live our own lives in places which may be thousands of miles from Cape Town but which may as well be on Mandela’s doorstep given the racism, bigotry, fear and ignorance which are still evident everywhere you look and tread.
So I hope his family and people find some peace once he has been laid to rest; but for the rest of us, Insha’Allah, we could do a lot worse than to allow ourselves to be constantly astounded at the world we continue to live in and infuse some of his spirit into disrupting those worlds.