This is an appropriate moment to celebrate the contribution one of the nation’s greatest figures has made to South Africa’s cultural life, writes Gwen Ansell

AS I write this column, former president Nelson Mandela lies in a critical condition in hospital. By the time you read it, the situation may have changed. But this is an appropriate moment to celebrate the contribution one of the nationʼs greatest figures has made to South Africaʼs cultural life.

Discussion of the gains made since apartheid ended tend to focus on structures of governance and democracy. But during apartheid, arts censorship flourished, and artists who worked outside and across the regimeʼs narrowly defined ethnic definitions were denied airplay and opportunities to work. It was this that drove many of our best musicians into exile, and it was the end of apartheid that brought them home.

Mandela was aware of these issues. As a young Johannesburg lawyer, he socialised amid the political ferment of Sophiatown. He attended the concerts of those players, and they in turn played benefits to raise funds when he and his African National Congress (ANC) comrades were on trial.

After he was imprisoned on the savage lime-quarry prison isle of Robben Island, he inspired music in South Africa and around the world.

Here, songs ranged from the pop of Brenda Fassieʼs Vulindlela and Black President to the moving lyrics of Johnny Cleggʼs wistful Asimbonanga. In exile, in the ANC camps, a whole canon of struggle songs rang with his name.

And in countries from England, to Brazil, to the Democratic Republic of Congo and further, artists dedicated lyrics to his cause and his liberation. In the years that followed 1990, more composers began to draw inspiration from his heroic story and it moved into the concert halls, with works such as Cape Town Operaʼs 2010 Mandela Portrait, and Bongani Ndodana-Breenʼs oratorio, Credo, based on the Freedom Charter and set to premiere this year on the United Nations International Nelson Mandela Day on July 18.

The canons of popular music, jazz and concert music, and above all the freedom of artists in South Africa to
create such music, have been immeasurably enriched by a life nobly lived.

SOME of that music may be heard in Grahamstown, where the National Arts Festival opens on Thursday.

A detailed programme is available from

In jazz terms, this year at the festival will be a very good year indeed, with veteran South African players who
have contributed to the canon, such as guitarist Menyatso Mathole, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa and
saxophonist Barney Rachabane, all billed.

But Johannesburg will also host events this weekend that are likely to prove worthwhile and intriguing.
On Thursday, the annual Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism, hosted by the Wits Institute for
Economic and Social Research, goes into musical mode. At midday there is a public discussion including
composer Neo Muyanga, the Egyptian El Warsha performance troupe and the DJ Collective South by South
on the issues around aesthetics in protest. This takes place in the Wits Music Room, University Corner, on Jorissen Street in Braamfontein, and will present ideas being discussed in the workshop.

On Saturday at 3.30pm, there will be a public performance continuing the theme. For full details, e-mail
On Sunday, there is an opportunity to hear from artists en route to Grahamstown: Spanish sound artist and composer Francisco Lopez and a band of improvisers, including trumpeter Marcus Wyatt, guitarist Reza Khota, vocalist-trombonist Siya Makuzeni, pianist Jill Richards and more.

The event, dubbed Untitled 310, takes place at the Goethe Institute from 4pm-5pm.

As for Grahamstown itself, jazz may be found at multiple venues.

The main jazz festival venue is the Diocesan School for Girls.

This year, thereʼs an additional venue: a late-night jazz café at the Lowlander in St Andrews College, hosting one 9.30pm formal session, followed by a jam session.

In addition, the Eastern Capeʼs department of arts and culture will present city and provincial bands every
evening at 7pm in the Dakawa Cultural Centre on Froude St.