Saturday, May 24, 2008

Umshini Wami

It's perhaps too easy to simply blame the outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa last week on people's being riled up, and finally provoked to action by war-songs. It just sounds too much like the contact-era fantasies of European explorers encountering "fierce Zulu warriors" gaining strength from "savage songs and dances" to be really something one can take at face value (Christine Lucia's book The World of South African Music: A Reader reproduces some of these early writings on first contacts between Africans and Europeans in South Africa). And of course, the history of the song in question is much more complicated than the title alone, or it's connection to Jacob Zuma makes clear. But my interest was peaked when the Mail and Guardian yesterday drew the apparently obvious connection between xenophobic attackers singing Zuma's signature tune, and the ANC president's comments about dealing with the influx of foreigners. And no one even mentions the sexual suggestiveness of a song in which the "machine" in question is overtly phallic, and representative of the type of masculine aggression and power that got Zuma into trouble not too long ago.

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