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South Africa’s solution is ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’




When Nelson Mandela died, masses of people gathered outside his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, and rather than standing mournfully on the pavement, sang praise songs and danced in the street to celebrate his life, despite their feelings of loss. It was a natural expression.

Today’s political chaos in South Africa has not produced our own “Dylan” yet, but interspersed among the people protesting the situation are poets and balladeers who we will hear more of in the future.

In Dylan’s heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s, students and hippies promoted free love, slammed the establishment, protested against the older generation’s wars and hypocrisy, smoked pot and used LSD to get high. And they saw themselves as the vanguard of a better world.

South African students protesting today for fee-free education and a better South Africa are not always clear in their goals, partly because they are young and unformed – like the American students of the 1960s were – but are acting on instincts echoing Dylan’s song: “The Times they are a-Changin’”. 

The naiveté of some members of the “Fallist” student movement is epitomised by a video clip posted on YouTube last week which by Monday had garnered 430 000 hits, in which an impassioned student tells the UCT science faculty that it should “decolonise” science by doing away with it entirely and “starting all over again”.

Science is a product of Western modernity and should be scrapped, “especially in Africa” she said. She cited a place in KwaZulu-Natal called Umhlab’uyalingana where they believe that through magic “…you are able to send lightning to strike someone”. Scientific explanations don’t work, she says, “because it’s something that happens”.

Laughs aside, what is happening among the youth has a serious angle. Despite their excesses and even violence, and their often misplaced energies, this born-free generation sees historical wrongs done to blacks through white supremacy and the colonialism which gave it its power, and want to rectify it. They are challenging the status quo of blacks’ economic exclusion and cultural oppression by “Western colonialists”. These are noble goals, even if understood somewhat simplistically in this complicated country.

Dylan rose from the crucible of angry American students. Now 75, he was raised in a Jewish community in the state of Minnesota, attended Zionist camps in Wisconsin, became a born-again Christian in the 1970s, and returned to his Jewish roots in the ’80s. He held his eldest son Jesse’s barmitzvah at Jerusalem’s Western Wall in 1983. In later decades he participated in holiday services at Chabad synagogues.

It is an understatement to say we live in crazy times worldwide, epitomised by the buffoon Donald Trump coming close to being the president of the world’s most powerful country, and South Africa reeling under our own version of Trump in President Jacob Zuma.

Many South African students have never heard of Bob Dylan, and would instinctively regard him as a Western colonial import. But his iconic songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War” apply here as much as in his 1970s America.

Dylan’s young generation didn’t succeed in changing the world – the success of today’s Trumps and Zumas testify to that. But he held up a searing mirror to society. With their often-irrational fury, South African students are now doing the same. Their youthful passions are worth working with, rather than rejecting.


Read Geoff Sifrin’s regular columns on his blog

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