Henry Rollins!

Henry Rollins: The Column! South Africa's Present and Future

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Thu, May 24, 2012 at 4:00 AM

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[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."

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