Grazing in the Grass

I last wrote about Southern Africa in a piece in November ( . Then I was joyous that Zimbabwe was seeing the back of Mugabe. It is with sadness that my return to an area where I have many happy memories and experiences is to mourn the passing on Tuesday of Hugh Masekela.

I knew of him mostly as a musician and had little knowledge of how deeply he was involved as an anti-apartheid activist. It is only as I read the obituaries that his role is fully established in my thoughts. While I was reading them my thoughts drifted back to the early days of the 1970s and early 80s of the struggle against racism.

Twice I worked in Africa, in Malawi. I was never an activist against racism, but I was a supporter of the struggle, particularly after I experienced racism first hand when a mixed race Indian girlfriend and myself were refused entry into a bar in Salisbury, because she was deemed coloured.

By the time of my second visit Annie and I were engaged and just before we were married we visited an apartheid ruled South Africa before the transition. We flew down from Blantyre to stay with English friends in Johannesburg and there were three moments that stay with me.

It started as soon as we touched down.

First, was a confrontation with passport control as I stood in front of a large, uniformed Afrikaans. It is a shame that you can’t hear me telling this story because my impersonation of the accent is really very good.

‘What are you doing here?’ he asked. I was working in a black ruled country, happily working for a black finance director and everything worked well. They were good times but now, here I was a white man landing in white South Africa.

‘Holiday?’ I said very unsure of the right answer. The truth is always best.

‘Why?’ he barked. This wasn’t the greeting I expected.

My second moment was as we relaxed at Peter’s house into a life of sun and poolside beer. One of his friends rushed in and beckoned Peter for a quiet and private chat. There was a lot of gesticulation before his friend left.

‘All OK,’ I asked of Peter.

‘Not really.’ Peter said,’ he has just been signed up to the police reservists and he shot a black man. It was a suspected robbery and the black man ran away and he shot him.’

I was shocked. The police in London hardly ever used a gun, they didn’t routinely carry any guns, and it would never be a reservist. Guns were only for trained specialists.

‘I guess he’s in real trouble,’ I said, ‘killing a suspect.’

‘Oh, that’s not the problem,’ Peter said, ‘he has only just finished his gun training, but he missed and only injured him. That’s why he’s worried.’

There was no answer to that other than thoughtful consideration.

My final observation was a trip to Soweto. Despite Peter’s better advice Annie and I wanted to go to the black township in the suburbs where previously there had been uprisings and unrest.

I’m not sure why I wanted to go but there was a sense that it might be an opportunity to tell one or two people that there were people in the West who understood. It might have been a futile gesture but one I wanted to make, but the only way we could get there was on a government organised coach tour. It wasn’t what we wanted but it was a chance we took.

We bought our tickets and in an air-conditioned coach we cruised slowly through Soweto. We cruised past neat bungalows with children playing in the front garden, our journey was being carefully managed accompanied by a sickening, saccharine sweet, running commentary from a tour guide.

Again, my impersonation of a Boer would help. As the coach slowed to a very slow walk, he said, ‘and here you can see,’ pointing at the bungalow, ‘what a black can do when they work hard and really want to.’

At that point I stopped listening. I was far too angry.

If I was angry from my minimal contact I can only imagine the anger of Hugh Masekela.

I saw the discrimination and inequity and did nothing.  Mandela, Masekela and many others, took the fight to the front line and right to the heart of government meaning that they and their families were exiled, imprisoned, tortured, or killed for their cause.

Masekela left South Africa, exiled, in 1960 after the Sharpeville massacre when 69 protestors were shot dead. He arrived in London to study at the Guildhall School of Music presumably carrying his first trumpet, given to him by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, but he was never anything but a freedom fighter.

He left South Africa at a time when the colour of his skin meant he was no more than a second-class citizen in his own country. He fought for the freedom of his people while being recognised as a great musician. He wasn’t just a cult, jazz musician. He spoke to a wider audience and in 1968 he had a chart number one in the USA with his version of “Grazing in the Grass”. He was known as South Africa’s Father of Jazz. His song Soweto Blues became the heartbeat and soundtrack of the anti-apartheid movement.

Much later and now married, on a winter’s evening, Annie and I heard him play at Ronnie Scott’s club in London. I saw and heard a great musician. Now I regret that I didn’t also recognise the great social campaigner. He wasn’t just a great musician he was a great man.

Hugh Ramapolo Masekela.

Born, 4 April 1939, Witbank, South Africa.

Died, 23 January 2018 (aged 78) Johannesburg, South Africa.