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Searching for Sugar Man has won the Academy Award for the best documentary. In South Africa there has been significant debate about whether the documentary overstates the role of Rodriguez in liberating the minds of South Africans. What empowered the transformative impact of Rodriguez music? What truth did it help to surface? Why, in particular, did his music stir the souls of so many young Afrikaners in South Africa during the 1970s?
Of course, Rodriguez’s music touched different people for different reasons. Some loved the references to drugs; some liked the melody; others found his anti-establishment message “cool” during adolescence; while a group of people liked the misogynistic quality of his songs and references to sex in the repressed South African society of the 1970s.
According to Max du Preez, Rodriguez’s music came at a time that young Afrikaners were yearning for something different. They were ready for social commentary in music. There were a few hard-core fans of Bob Dylan (and Donovan) among Afrikaners during the 1980s, but it was Rodriguez rather than Dylan who became huge in South Africa.
“You couldn’t have designed a better audience for Rodriguez than the Afrikaans youth during the seventies and eighties” says Dr Morne Mostert of Stellenbosch University Business School. “The English community of South Africa used the Afrikaans community as a convenient scapegoat, blaming us for apartheid. We had no one to blame. Young Afrikaners were seeking an escape from the uncomfortable psychological pressure where so many of us felt that we were not part of this system. So the anti-establishment consciousness Rodriguez expressed, helped us find an alternative way to live with ourselves.”
For Marthe Muller, chief operations officer of South African Women in Dialogue, Rodriguez’s music was “calibrated to our particular kind of pain”.
“His lyrics allowed us to be human and gave permission for Afrikaners to feel their humanity and to heal the sense of shame we felt at the time. People were immobilised by a system they were participating in but could not change. There were many intelligent people who did not know how to be in protest.”
With an oblique reference to the epic poem Raka by her grandfather, Afrikaans poet NP Van Wyk Louw, Muller said, “Shame had closed around us like an African hut” (the original quote from the poem is: “but the fear closed around their hearts like a hut”).
Dina Oelofson, an organisational development consultant, had a slightly different perspective. She spoke about the sense of suffocation she felt as a teenager and young adult. “Rodriguez could talk about a system from outside the system but still gave Afrikaners courage. We were insiders in a system created by beloved people in our own families.” Underscoring the cultural and psychological complexity of “living a systemic prison”, she described the great sense of longing she felt for freedom and fairness. Rodriguez’s words gave her permission to feel angry.
But what else might explain Rodriguez’s popularity with younger Afrikaners? His lyrics are anti-establishment but they are dystopic, not the utopian lyrics of a John Lennon. While both Lennon and Rodriguez offered critiques of society, Lennon’s vision in the music and words of Imagine speak to an optimism that may have been difficult for young Afrikaners to access at that time. Mostert suggests, “when you don’t have hope you can’t begin to imagine or describe an ideal state.”
Rodriguez songs like Establishment Blues not only provided critical political commentary, but expressed a sense of powerlessness and frustration.
Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected/Politicians using people they’ve been abusing/The mafia’s getting bigger, like pollution in the river. The anger in Rodriguez’s lyrics resonated deeply with Afrikaners both because of the particular socio-historical circumstances and psychological and cultural wounds that entrapped them.
For Oran Cohen, a singer-song- writer, “in South Africa some of us could take in the dissonance of his songs because we were corrupt and dissonant. His music is so honest and brutal.”
Searching for Sugar Man alludes to the significant impact of the Voëlvry Movement of Johannes Kerkorrel, Bernoldus Niemand and Koos Kombuis of 1989 onwards. Influenced by Rodriguez, this music was anti-establishment, anti-apartheid rock. It became the Afrikaner’s own rock revolution and laid the psychological ground for Afrikaners to feel both proud of themselves and be anti-government.
Most Afrikaans people I interviewed spoke of the courage Rodriguez gave to the Voëlvry musicians. But they added that the ultimate transformation of political consciousness, while sparked by Rodriguez, required the Afrikaners’ own musicians to take it to another level.
In speaking to Afrikaners, I felt humbled by my lack of understanding of the difficult psychological and cultural wounds they faced, then and now. I came to understand that it was simply less complicated for politicised English speaking South Africans to express their opposition to apartheid and to oppose an unjust system they believed they did not impose.
Rodriguez’s own passion for truth helped to heal the psyches of young Afrikaners yearning to face harsh truths. The transformative power of his music lies in the courage and voice it gave to people ready for a path of redemption. For Dr Peter Gabel, associate editor of Tikkun Magazine in California, the documentary offers “testament to sticking to the truth in the face of surrounding denial of that truth. In that sense Rodriguez is a movement singer who speaks of the universal truth. He is saying ‘come on, here’s reality as it is, it’s not good enough’.”
The unbelievable twist of fate meant that because of the determination of the documentary’s heroes Stephen (Sugar) Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom to find one of South Africa’s important musical healers, a fairer fate boomeranged back to a humble man languishing in obscurity in Detroit.
The late James Hillman, a Jungian psychologist, explained that it is through the naming and healing of the psychic wounds that consciousness and transformation take place. My own interviews amplify the thrust of the movie – Rodriguez’s music helped to heal wounds silently held by young Afrikaners.
Residues of the salty wounds are still there. Marthe Muller suggests that the next layer of the scab needs to be removed for more reconciliation to happen in South Africa.
In Africa there is an Nguni word, Ubuntu. Nelson Mandela embodies it. It is communally expressed humanity. In short, it says, your pain is my pain and your salvation mine, ours. The power of music and this story of our communal healing across time and space speak to an unforgettable legacy of transformation in a small country in a dramatic way. My imaginary Academy Award went for the co-created humanity Rodriguez and South Africans gave to each other and which the film now gives to the world. We still have a lot of work to do here. I long for the enthusiastic energy for us to walk the extra mile in our mutual understanding.
l Zimbabwean-born Barbara Nussbaum www.barbaranussbaum.com is an author, speaker and creative consultant offering music for team building. She studied at UCT from 1971 to 1973 and the London School of Economics, and lived in the US before returning to South Africa in 1992. She co-authored Personal Growth African Style (Penguin S Africa 2010) and her articles have been internationally published by the World Business Academy in the US and Resurgence Magazine in the UK.