Henry Rollins: The Column! South Africa's Present and Future
[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]
A few hours from now, I will be climbing onto the stage at a venue called the Bassline, here in Johannesburg, South Africa. This will be my third time performing in this country. The audiences have been, in all the cities I have played here, really good. South Africa is a relatively new stop on my tour. I now come here after my shows in Perth, Australia. The 11-hour flight and time change leave me a little dazed for a day or two, but I turn around pretty quickly.
I'm currently staying in a place called Melrose Arch. It looks like a gated city-state. I think I am put up here for insurance reasons, or perhaps it gives my great promoter John one less thing to worry about. The bodyguard, Zenzo, he's definitely part of the insurance package.
Yesterday was a day off. I went with Zenzo to Soweto (South West Townships) and we walked around for quite a while. Most interesting was visiting Nelson Mandela's old home there.
With every visit, I learn a little more about the amazing Mr. Mandela and always wonder if this will be the last time I will be in South Africa while he is alive. He is over 90 now. I have stood in his prison cell on Robben Island, where he spent 18 years, been to his foundation building, read from some of his Robben Island-era notebooks and had a chance to check out his office. Behind Mr. Mandela's desk were two photographs, one of him and President Clinton and one of him and a pre-presidential Obama. It's an indescribable feeling being in and around this kind of history and the aura of Mandela. He is in the air; he is everywhere here.
Most moving was the monument dedicated to an event called the Soweto Uprising, which took place on June 16, 1976. Thousands of students took to the streets, protesting the Afrikaans Medium Decree, which forced schools to use Afrikaans for a majority of lessons, English for lesser subjects and indigenous languages for religious purposes. A 13-year-old boy named Hector Pieterson was shot and killed by a policeman. The famous image of his body being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo is on display at the memorial. It is a hell of a thing to look around the sprawling Soweto under the blue sky and try to imagine all of this going down.
There is a song from here that I have heard sung twice, once in a church in the Imizamo Yethu township in Hout Bay (near Cape Town) and once in a backyard in Langa, a suburb of Cape Town. The name of the song is "Senzeni Na?," which basically means "What have we done?" The title is spelled differently, and the lyrics are sung differently, but a man named Afrika Monie from the aforementioned township told me it basically goes: "What have we done/What have we done/Our only sin is the color of our skin."
It is a powerful and sad reminder of what was. When you hear it performed right in front of you, it's as full-on a musical experience as you can ever hope to have.
The history of apartheid-era South Africa is incredibly sad and at times infuriatingly incomprehensible. That being said, I have found the people to be very upbeat. While it could just be me wanting things to be better and better here, they do seem to be, every time I come.
My first introduction to African music was by my mother, who bought the Pata Pata album by the great Miriam Makeba when it came out. Now THAT is an album. What a voice.
Songs like "Maria Fulo," "Click Song #1," "Ha Po Zamani" and the title track are indelibly seared into the front of my brain pan. Makeba passed away in 2008. For many years, she was not allowed to return to her native South Africa because of her anti-apartheid stance. Her voice, along with the voices of Gladys Knight and Dionne Warwick, raised me. I tried to meet Ms. Makeba many years ago but was unable to do so. (On a fan boy side note, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and I were talking about the Pata Pata album once, and when it was rereleased on CD I bought an extra copy and sent it to him. Mr. Gibbons is a man of distinguished and eclectic musical appreciation!)
As I stated before, South African history has a lot of tragedy, as does American history. Still, the overall feeling I get when I am here is an incredible, roaring optimism. You will meet some amazing people here.
I have been doing a lot of press for the upcoming shows in Cape Town, Durban and here tonight. Some of the strange, hard-to-answer questions I have been receiving include this one, from my hot friend, Christy: "It may seem like a silly question, but considering you don't want to get married nor want to form strong attachments -- how's your sex life? Do you have a fuck buddy in every country? A man has needs, after all...."
Another: "If we buy tickets to Canada, will you join us in hunting down Nickelback?"
Also, I am asked, basically, what do I think of South Africa, then, now and tomorrow. I tell them that the preamble to their Constitution is one great piece of writing and that I look forward to seeing what the country does on the road ahead. Really, this place is all about the present and the future.
I am looking forward to the show tonight. I am very inspired by an email that was sent to me yesterday from someone here: "Thanks for coming back again. Thanks for not judging us."
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