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Singer Ngema weaves strong anti-India sentiment in a song that he says mirrors their society
Mbongeni Ngema was for most parts considered an honourable man, until a few weeks back when he sang a song full of lyrical venom against the Indian community.
Known for his gutsy plays during the country's dark apartheid days and acclaimed worldwide for his singing prowess, Ngema's song Amandiya (Indians in Zulu) on his recently-released CD Jive Madlokovu has Indians fuming.
Amandiya begins ominously—Oh brothers, oh my fellow brothers/We need strong and brave men to confront Indians—and then portrays Indians as oppressors worse than whites (see above). Angry Indians surely were. But the song also brought back memories of the 1949 and 1985 riots between Indians and Africans in Durban, goading lawyer Ramesh Jethalal to move the Durban High Court against the song's unrestricted sales and distribution. The South African Human Rights Commission too stepped in, branding Amandiya as constituting "hate speech". The commission is also investigating an incident where the attack on an Indian shopowner in Durban by blacks has been attributed to Ngema's song. Jethalal's legal action prompted the South African Broadcasting Corporation to ban the song from getting air-play. The CD's sales have now been restricted to those over 18.
But the furore hasn't ruffled Ngema, nor made him repentant. He says: "All I wanted to do was stimulate public debate about the issue of Indo-African relations. As an artiste, I have the right to mirror society as I see it." But the public outrage against the song had Mandela summoning Ngema. The singer emerged from the meeting singing a conciliatory tone, agreeing that his song had gone "too far" and stereotyped all Indians. "Not every Indian behaves the way the song alludes to but in five minutes of music you can't say everything you want to," he remarked.
Most intellectuals, though, don't think Ngema can invoke freedom of expression to justify his song. Prof Adam Habib, director, Centre for Civil Society, University of Natal, recognises Ngema's right to "mirror society as an artiste", but wonders whether the singer can ethically justify mirroring the Nazi ethos which, in the 1930s, sanctioned the murdering of Jews. "Ngema should be branded racist," he fumes. "There's no difference between the message in his song and those that came from apartheid architects."
Habib also accuses Ngema of branding all Indians as exploiters. "There's a large Indian working class that shares the same concerns and hardships as its African counterpart," he emphasises, accusing Ngema of "manipulating ethnic identity to make a fast buck".
The controversy over the song prompted a two-day Indo-African race symposium in Durban. The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) politician Gladwin Ndlela condemned "the recent hate speech against fellow South Africans of Indian descent, one of whom shamefully includes a person professing to support our party". This was an obvious reference to Rev Alex Fakude, a self-professed IFP organiser, who had described Indians as "untrustworthy" and a community that was "breeding like flies".
But the symposium's success had Ngema boasting that his aim of getting both communities to "talk frankly and openly" had been achieved. "People poured out their hearts. It is the song that led to this dialogue," he said, as sales of his CD at the symposium venue rocketed. Earlier, Ngema had bragged that the controversy had saved him a fortune in marketing his latest CD release.
Ngema insists his song articulates the sentiments at the grassroots. But street-vendor Vincent Khumalo counters, "This is a matter of class, not race. It is not only Indians but capitalists and businessmen of all races, including blacks, who're guilty of exploiting workers for profit." The poor don't need a Ngema to know who their enemies are.
Published in OutlookIndia