“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
Arguably every country has its heroes. Children grow up learning the names and deeds of their nation’s heroes. In Johannesburg this morning, the Gustavus Symphony Orchestra learned something of the South African heroes who changed the course of a nation and are writing the history of that same nation today.
Few would argue that it’s a tragedy.
After breakfast, the Symphony ventured into one of the most well-known townships in South Africa: Soweto. Soweto, South Western Townships, and home to nearly half a million black South Africans, was also the home of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela. In 1962, Mandela was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment on Cape Town’s Robben Island for charges ranging from inciting miners to strike and sabotage.
The township erupted in violence on June 21, 1976, after years of protests and decades of oppression under the apartheid regime. What happened next is not clear, but when the police stopped firing, 69 were dead. Hector Pieterson, a 13-year-old boy from the township, is believed to be the first to die. The photo of his dead body being carried from the scene made international news and directed a spotlight on the South African government which it found impossible to extinguish. This young man became a martyr for the struggles that continued throughout South Africa.
One year later, African National Congress member and Black Consciousness Movement founder Steven Biko was arrested on charges of terrorism in Pretoria. Held and tortured for 3 weeks, Steve Biko died on September 12, 1977 and, like Hector Pieterson, became a central martyr in the fight against apartheid.
Bishop Desmond Tutu, another native of Soweto, was an Anglican priest in South Africa who was appointed the first black Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg and later the first black Archbishop of Cape Town. His high profile offered him great visibility internationally and his fight for civil rights. Jailed briefly in 1980, he continued to speak out against injustice. Following the first democratic elections in South Africa which elected Nelson Mandela as president, Bishop Tutu came out of retirement to co-chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and helped pave a non-violent path from apartheid to democracy.
This morning the members of the Symphony spent time in Mandela’s house and the Pieterson Civil Rights Museum in Soweto. We walked on the streets where Mandela, Tutu and Pieterson walked and tried to imagine this level of injustice and violence based on the color of one’s skin. We heard the words of the black freedom song, “What have we done? Our crime is our blackness.” We saw the photos and videos and read the words. And we tried to imagine.
Our morning of discovery in Soweto was followed by an afternoon concert at the Cape Gate Miagi Center for Music in Soweto. Unlike our concerts at schools in the Cape Town area, most of the students attending the concert were string musicians and were eager to show their knowledge as Conductor Lin called questions out to the audience about the music and the instruments. A number of adults from the community and the members of the Companion Tour helped fill the small auditorium. Following another successful concert, the Conductor again invited the students in the audience to meet with the Gusties and the instruments. Yeah. Pandemonium. Again. For more than 45 minutes, the students ran from one instrument and musician to another to visit, play the instrument, get autographs or photos. The enthusiasm was palpable in the small concert hall.
It’s difficult to reconcile the two halves of our day.
For South Africa, the story of its heroes is tragic, yes, but the larger story is not a tragedy. The names of those who struggled against apartheid and paid a horrible price are not forgotten. Those who survived, like Mandela and Tutu and many others, are today writing the story of the new South Africa. As we have learned in our short time in South Africa, there are many obstacles ahead, many struggles. It is not an easy battle. But the people of South Africa are working together to make their future bright.
South Africa will continue to look for heroes. For the young musicians who attended this afternoon’s concert, the Gusties who performed Copland, MacDowell, Chadwick and John Williams may now be their heroes — at least for a few days. Their parents and teachers who push again overwhelming odds each day are certainly in that category, as are the dreamers who have built this first-ever music school, and the leaders who are writing the history of a new South Africa.
Miagi is an acronym for “Music Is A Great Investment.”
That sounds pretty heroic to me.