I wanted to tell Mandela I miss that place

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si simphiwe danaETCH_CITY_E1 INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS Simphiwe Dana performs on the set of music show Afro Cafe. Red Pepper Studios, Linden, Johannesburg. Picture: Jennifer Bruce

I’ve got nothing, but then I got something

Unlike Moses, I made it to the promised land

Never thought it possible

To be free to be me…

When I was still stumbling my way through music writing in the Joburg underground music scene, someone who would be a good friend after, invited me to perform for Madiba on his 84th birthday. Those days I was battling to find the right string of words to express all the emotions.

Words and emotions. Lyrics and melody. It was so intense. Intense because I wanted to sing. And I couldn’t write, something was locked in. And it made me feel inadequate in a different way than I was used to. Different because I felt powerless to change it. When you have faith in yourself, it builds an inner strength. You tend to believe there is a solution for every problem and you have the capacity to find and orchestrate that solution. When doubt sets in it can paralyse you.

I had this scrapbook where I would scribble my melodies. The melody was there, the expression was there, but the words would not come.

I sang the song for him.

I’ve got nothing, but then I got something

Unlike Moses, I made it to the promised land

Never thought it possible

To be free to be me…

How did the song continue? For the life of me I cannot remember. Someone asked me if I would ever perform the song. Would I ever record it?

I would go to open mic sessions, as scared as I was of getting on with unfinished songs on these stages that gave birth to so many artists. Something told me that was where the solutions to my predicament were to be found. Throwing myself right into a tussle with life. Each time I would find the courage to rid myself of my fears, get on that stage and hope for a miracle.

The day I sang for Madiba, what an honour. I knew the valleys and hills he came from. They were my playground, too. Time passes slowly in nature. If undisturbed a tree can outlive us many times over.

And here we were. Scrubbed clean and looking fancy in our tailor-made outfits. I wanted to tell him, I remember the whisper of the wind as we slid down hillsides on cardboard pieces. I remember the song of the waterfall, as the water battered the melody into me from up above.

I remember running through the air, just running because it elated me, how I felt alive.

How wonderful it was. I wanted to tell him I missed that place. I wanted to tell him that I wanted to go back to that feeling, but I did not know my way there.

I was always surprised by the warm reception I got for my songs back then. They were always unfinished stories. But the audience seemed to say: “Go on now, you are great, you are amazing.”

So I got on and got by with my writing. I kept pushing. I am thankful for this push from the audiences. Had it not been for the nostalgic smiles I feel whenever I sing, making me realise we walk together, we are connected, therefore I am on the right path, it might have been difficult for me to continue.

Deep down I will always be a child from the village.

The world the city showed me was too big even then. It was overwhelming.

I could not run through this world and feel the wind in my face. I had to slow it down to a walk and watch my step. The world was so big yet so crowded. Littered with all kinds of unfulfilled hopes and dreams. And I dared try fulfil mine.

And the audiences cheered me on. Maybe it was all these anxieties of standing at the open door of wherever you want to go but not having a map to your destination, that locked in the words to my melody.

The words were a map. Each song would be a journey. The melody, my life. How I experience the journey.

I thank Tata for the authority to feel free. Thank him for my human right to self determination.

A friend was telling me how a trip to Palestine made her understand for the first time what apartheid was like. She came back saying she was in awe of what our country had achieved. She made me realise you have to know how bad it was to really understand the cost of having what you have.

Standing at the open door. The door is now open. When you go through you will find a new challenge on the other side. The door is not to the promised land. This is the long walk to freedom. I hear the crowds cheering. Giving me a standing ovation: “Go on now, you are great, you are amazing. Do not be afraid anymore. Yes, there are dragons that still need to be slayed, but only a mind with the authority to be free can slay them.”

Madiba’s passing has evoked the nation’s nostalgia. We remember standing at that door with Madiba. We remember the black collective dream of freedom. The giddiness we felt from our lofty ideals. Lofty ideals that we now feel are only cast by Madiba’s shadow. Back before we found the “individuality” in our ubuntu. Just before the colours of the rainbow faded into gloom and distrust.

Madiba was our home, our refuge from the ugliness of the world.

He was the best part of ourselves. Inside his words and his sacrifice we felt safe, we could build a new world. We are Madiba’s people.

We now remember the dream and we cannot find a moral compass. The dream cannot be anchored. And a president gets booed. Shocking. But that is wherefrom, the backlash. Because of Madiba’s passing, we caught a glimpse of the dream, and we did not recognise ourselves in it. In the dream we are emaciated versions of ourselves in stature and form. We have shrunk in our compromised morality.

It is the nostalgia eating away at us. A nostalgia that predates 1994. Remembering the cost, in blood, of the 1994 moment.

Remembering the dream. Realising that the dream is running away from us as we stay mired in the day-to-day hustle of manoeuvring poverty politics.

It is this nostalgia that is making us irritable and we lash out and shock ourselves.

“Then vote EFF, dear,” says an irritable young man. He has the authority to be free, but he won’t allow the same authority in others.

“But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest. To steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment… I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” – Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

The long walk is littered with sacrifices and betrayals and the sweet song of struggle. Some have died along the way. Some die everyday. There are many more hills, there are many more doors to walk through. This is an unfinished story. We each hold a piece of the dream, that is the only way we keep it alive.

The more of us forget the dream, the less of the dream there is to share with all of us. There are many more hills.

There is no us and them. No Marikana. There is only an Africa which is at peace with itself. The peace I felt when it dawned on me that a song is a moment freely expressed. An imperfect perfect moment.

That day I peeled myself off the ground, shook myself back into imperfect shape and decided that I liked myself in my imperfections. I felt the wind that day and my soul lifted. And I felt each heartbeat, for the first time in a long while. I was unique in my imperfections because I was alive.

I wanted to celebrate myself, give myself a pat on the back. I was alive, free to stumble along in life and learn my lessons and capture my moments. I did not need to hide that which makes me human.

That is how I walked through the door. I looked around in this strange new land and saw the hills rambling into the horizon.

I have now rested and there is an impatient readiness to continue the journey.

The mistakes have been plenty, yes, but the dream has been awakened anew. On the other side of each of those hills is a new portion of peace. Dare I linger.

My long walk is not ended.

* Dana is a musician.


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