Voices

The surreal moment when a Harlem choir sings Die Stem for Winnie

2018-04-13 22:22

Imagine this. You’re at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, the African-American heart of New York. It’s a place of worship “born out of rebellion against racial discrimination and its commitment to social justice”, according to its website.

You’re there for one of two memorial services to be held in New York for the “Celebration of Life” for Winifred Madikizela-Mandela. It’s stunning, a “show stopper”, to borrow from Ntsiki Langford’s tribute to her friend, Nomzamo Winnie Mandela. Lesedi Ntsane, the New York-based South African born jazz trumpeter, is there too. His music selection for the prelude is steeped in symbolism.

It’s a hymn by Xhosa prophet Ntsikana (1780-1821) who converted to Christianity, but was also the man who prophesied the arrival of white settlers in the southern tip of Africa.

Mama Winnie’s obituary is to be read by South Africa poet and activist Nozipho Sibanyoni, but she’s not there, and so pastor Reverend Dr Calvin O Butts III, asks The Harlem Voices to sing just in case she’s running late.

We are asked to stand for South Africa’s national anthem. Nkosi Sikelel ’iAfrika is sung and then we hear “Die Stem”.

Surreal. The anthem of apartheid South Africa is being sung in a Harlem church, with a history dating back to 1808, when “a group of African-Americans (12 women and four men) refused to accept segregated seating in the First Baptist Church of New York City”, according to its website.

I’m a little surprised. The church is steeped in the fight against racism in the United States, it supported the anti-apartheid struggle and is dedicated to Pan-African unity and I’m hearing “Die Stem”.

I looked up at the ceiling and wondered what Mama Winnie, “the woman who made racism a beast that bowed at her feet”, according to Sisonke Msimang’s tribute in Essence magazine, was thinking. I’m not sure how many of us saw the irony.

Granted “Die Stem” is part of South Africa’s not-so-new national anthem, but Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s memorial service was not an official government event, like the one organised at the UN, by the South Africa mission in New York.

The Harlem Voices could have stuck to Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. I doubt that any of the South Africans who were present would have taken offence. They included South Africa’s envoy to the United Nations, Jerry Matjila, Safika Holdings (Pty) Ltd chairperson Saki Macozoma and ex-national prosecutions boss Bulelani Ngcuka, the husband of former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the UN under secretary-general and executive director of UN Women.

But don’t get me wrong, the memorial service was definitely a “showstopper”, even though the Abyssinian Church website warns tourists that its church service is “not a gospel performance or entertainment of any kind”.

Many of those present on Thursday night, including UN deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed, heeded the call for the sisters to wear a “doek” to honour Mama Winnie. There were cries of “Amandla Awethu” and clenched fists and ululation, and it was the sisters, like Mohammed, Langford and Reverend Itang Hope Young who paid moving tributes.

Yet it was Butts who was the showstopper that night.

He told us that “Winnie understood that love was radical” and, as Kevin Minofu noted on Twitter, “White Supremacy” was mentioned more times than “God” or “Jesus”.

Thato Magano, also on Twitter, reflected on what Butts had said about violence and its role in taking on white supremacist rule in the world.

Butts had spoken about protecting the stories of black women from being distorted by white supremacist interests, the same interests that demonised Madikizela-Mandela by saying she had lost her way because she had a gun.

Referring to the prominent women in the US civil rights movement, he said: “Sojourner Truth carried a gun. Harriet Tubman carried a gun. Ida Wells carried a gun … These sisters were not crazy, they understood the nature of the struggle,” said Butts, adding that it showed they knew what it meant to fight.

“So don’t let anybody tell you about her having lost her way.”

It was a sentiment that had the approval from those at the memorial and was met with applause and several amens.

As Magano tweeted, Butts had shown “that black women consistently and continuously save the black nation, and others by extension, and had located Winnie Mandela with this history, urging us to take the baton”.

It was powerful and echoed what Mohammed had said about Madikizela-Mandela being a force multiplier. Those of us at the memorial were left in no doubt that in the case of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela “she did not die, she multiplied”.

It was left to “The Inspirational Voices of Abyssinian” choir to end the memorial service on an inspirational note. They led the people of Harlem and the many Azanians living in New York who had come to honour Mama Winnie in song. This time it was the civil rights anthem “A change is gonna come”.

Angela Quintal works for a press freedom NGO and is based in New York. She is a former editor of the Mail & Guardian The Witness and The Mercury, and has a regular blog titled Chronicles of an Azanian in New York. Follow her on Twitter

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November 18 2018