It was January 1990. South Africa was sweltering, its seasons the reverse of America's. But more than the weather was hot. Apartheid was still the law of the land: Blacks over here, whites over there, the country's state of emergency in effect, Nelson Mandela still imprisoned.
On the ground as a reporter, I learned quickly that the best stories were with the dead. And it was at the funerals where I first heard them: Those voices, coming from mothers and young girls, a trilling of the mouth and tongue, sweet long songs of heartbreaking beauty. I'd look to my left and a woman would erupt in song, then across from her a young man would erupt in a solo as the dirt was being shoveled over the wood coffin. And then the tanks would come and the soldiers would start pointing their guns and the funeral procession would disband and there would be dust in the air and the singing turned to shrieking. I had never witnessed anything like it. This was more than rhythm and more than blues. This was blood singing, singing to claim a spot upon the earth.
It all came back recently as I sat in a darkened theater in Washington and watched a screening of "Amandla: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony," a beautiful and haunting film about the role music played in the South African freedom struggle. The film, directed by Lee Hirsch with profound respect and insight, premieres here Friday.
The South African government was loath to admit Western reporters when I journeyed there 13 years ago. After months of effort, my passport got stamped in New York. There were no direct U.S. flights to South Africa at the time because of economic sanctions. So I flew to Lusaka, Zambia, via Dakar, before finally flying on to Johannesburg.
While going through customs, I was suddenly herded away by two security guards and hustled to a room of bare walls and schoolroom furniture. The two men, Afrikaners, yelled at me, then at each other, then they looked at my passport and yelled at me some more in Afrikaans. I didn't understand a word of it. I hunched my shoulders, praying inside they wouldn't put me back on the plane, back to the States. I pointed at my name on the passport, poking at my own name, identifying myself more and more. That was the rub: My dark skin color alarmed them. When I made those finger motions in the direction of the man clutching my passport, I was spread-eagled and searched, head to foot, foot to head. Then more yelling, and then after a while, I was shown the door. I was outside, in the open sunshine of Johannesburg, free to fetch the rental car, find myself a hotel.
Twenty-four hours later I was in Dobsonville, a squatter camp, at a funeral. Clayton Sithole had been a freedom fighter with the African National Congress. A freedom fighter one day, shoveled under red dirt the next. The ANC, Mandela's outlawed party, had been waging a guerrilla war against the white-controlled government for years. When not disrupted by the military, such funerals were often followed by massive political demonstrations. This time, someone stuck a tiny placard atop the casket. "The people shall govern," it said. Then this happened: A child, 10, maybe 11, hopped up on a chair. He did it like a man suddenly seized by the Holy Ghost in a Baptist church. He looked to be dressed in his Sunday best. "Shame on you, Africa," the child cried out. "Shame on you!" Fields of cornstalks wheezed nearby.
There was another funeral, in Katlehong, and another, in Guguletu, and another, in Soweto. Men, women, children. And always during the singing it seemed the South African soldiers would arrive in their big yellow tanks and everyone would have to flee. Some would be caught, arrested, tossed into the back of the big trucks that followed the tanks. And an hour would pass, the dead still lying in the coffin, and the crowd would emerge from weeds and ditches again to complete the burial. Those voices: So be le se lu Mandela. We will tell Mandela. Songs in the key of struggle. A song to Nelson Mandela, the young lawyer imprisoned 27 years earlier for leading the underground struggle for freedom. In 1990 it was a crime to have a picture of Mandela in your home, your car, your wallet. Yet South Africa's invisible man was everywhere. Children sang to a man they had only heard stories about. Mandela was a ghost who was a legend who used to walk the streets of Soweto in the flesh.
Jovial Rantao lived in Soweto. He was a reporter at the Johannesburg Star. Jovial was smart, black, brave, and steady. He'd been jailed for months as a youth during the 1976 uprisings in Soweto. More than 400 died during those uprisings, many shot in the back by South African security forces. But Rantao ran and escaped those bullets and the dying that went on that day. But one day, a knock on the door, and there he was, locked up, a child. Shoulder to shoulder in a cell with all the others. I asked him how in the world he survived. "We sang, man. All night long," he said. "Couldn't eat the food."
And now Rantao had grown up. He wasn't a victim. He was a reporter. He rode with music tapes stashed beneath his car seat, for the music of Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim and Miriam Makeba and so many others was also banned. You could wind up at Johannesburg Central Prison for playing the so-called revolution music; you could wind up breaking bricks on a place called Robben Island. Within days I was riding around with the music blaring from the tape deck. Approaching a roadblock, I'd pull off to the side and hide the tapes under the seat with something laid atop them. They were bootleg tapes, township voices, the freedom songs. Past the roadblock, I'd jam the tape back in, let the music play.
There's a scene in Hirsch's film of Masekela talking about life in exile. And he's talking about being in New York, 1961, sitting in Central Park, a broke musician missing home, even if home is bloody and unforgiving and dangerous. He's remembering how he'd sit in Central Park and talk to himself in Zulu, his father's language, then Xhosa, his mother's language, then in English, which he was learning, and he'd be all these people, his mother and father, transporting a conversation back and forth through time and Soweto. And he tells the camera: "Some people looked at me and said, 'That's a crazy man.' " An exile, working on his songs, trying to keep his sanity upon the grass of Central Park.
Hirsch himself is a 32-year-old college dropout who spent nine years making "Amandla" ("Strength" in Xhosa). Home is Long Island, but he spent years in South Africa, making music videos, putting the money earned from that into his budding film. He'd roam the townships, listening to the voices. A companion soundtrack to the movie has also been released. "I heard the music as beautiful," he says. "Film became the vehicle. I'm sort of a failed musician." Over beers he'd befriend members of South Africa's once notorious security forces, picnicking with them, getting it all down on film. He begged the great Miriam Makeba to sit for an interview. Hugh Masekela invited him to his farm outside Johannesburg.
My friend Rantao would take me to the shabeens scattered throughout the townships. They were little tin-roofed cafes attached to homes. Imagine a garage, drinks on a table, heaps of fried fish. Often someone would ask me about Harlem. Music would be wailing. Every now and then someone would hustle to the door and check with the lookout man or woman. Everywhere there was music, danger could erupt. So be le se lu Mandela.
At another funeral -- it was for another freedom fighter, found hanged in the local prison, suicide said the authorities, lies said the family -- there was another spasm of pandemonium. The tanks were coming, a roadblock was being put up. A black Mercedes pulled alongside my car. Inside was Mbongeni Ngema. America would come to know him from his musical "Sarafina." We raised our voices high through the dust and tank noise and I got a phone number. Soon after I met him at the Market Theatre in downtown Johannesburg. I asked him just how he found the kids who sang so rapturously in his productions. He said he just went into the townships, listening. He'd offer them room and board on Pine Street, near the theater, and they'd come to his school, which he referred to as a "camp." They'd left homes and mother's porridge and hopped on jitney buses, all to sing at something other than a funeral. Sometimes Ngema would expect a recruit on a certain day and the child wouldn't show. Maybe the next day. And the next day would come and go also. Ngema would come to find out they weren't coming. They were beneath the red dirt, dead.
I'd sit outside, beneath large jacaranda trees, and listen to children singing, and men singing, and women singing, howling. If it had been New York with a stage and a curtain, it would have been Broadway. But it was South Africa and red dirt and big yellow tanks and unknown and defiant voices. On some recruiting trips Ngema would see children singing at a funeral and a rock would be thrown at an approaching tank and the firing would start. And the children would just drop, like lambs.
One of the earmarks of Hirsch's film is the documentary-like footage he has uncovered of uprisings. Of protest marches. Of the gallows where many of the freedom fighters were hanged. There is Miriam Makeba, talking about how she never got a chance to show her daughter, born in exile, a free South Africa. The daughter died before freedom came. Masekela spent a lot of his exile in London. At night, in exile, Africa was the pillow on the bed.
On Feb. 10, 1990, the news began to spread. Mandela was going to be released from Victor Verster prison after 27 years, having been a ghost and a legend, having become an international symbol.
Masakela, that "bum" in Central Park, wrote a beautiful song -- "Free Nelson Mandela" -- for him.
The night before his release I stood in an alleyway in Soweto talking to Andrew Mlangeni. He'd been a ghost, too, gone from Soweto for 25 years, imprisoned, an aging freedom fighter now home. Home amid the blood and the unpredictability and the barefoot children. Then my friend Rantao arrived and told me and Mlangeni to follow him. And we did, climbing a little hill at the end of a road.
The sight was faint at first, like a hymn. In the distance, candles were being held aloft and the tiny flames were flickering in the darkness. There were children, hundreds and hundreds, most barely taller than the weeds they were walking through, and they were singing -- "We love you Nelson Mandela, O we love you Nelson Mandela." They kept singing and kept coming, breaking the law with every note and getting closer and closer. They were coming to Mandela's home. They'd never seen the man. They'd lost mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles and sisters and brothers.
I looked over at old Andrew Mlangeni. Crying. I looked over at Jovial Rantao, in his own Soweto, about to be truly free himself. Weeping. The invisible Mandela was coming home. Candles were flickering, children singing. I was scribbling notes in the dark. No tears for me. None at all. I was the hard-bitten reporter, come all the way across the seas. I had to keep my emotions in check. Hard and true and objective. Children at my feet singing about an imprisoned man wouldn't touch my emotions. That was just rainwater coming from the dry sky touching my cheeks. Rainwater.