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On hope, hardship and the ‘Jerusalema’ phenomenon

“Mom,” said my teenage son, Al, on Saturday morning, “it sounds like a pre-teen party happening in the kitchen.” Listening to Carl Wastie’s KFM Top Forty Hits blasting from our radio, I hung in there to see if my song, Jerusalema, would move up from the number six spot, which is where it had entered the charts the week before.

What a week it had been. Up and down and all over the place, particularly the nights, when I suffered the 3am blues, feeling fear rising as a physical sensation in my body; a stranglehold at my throat, the walls closing in, the silence oppressive, stuck, in a lockdown limbo.

A couple of nights ago I thought, why am I so hell-bent on getting through the night without talking to anyone about my panic? And what’s the panic about anyway? Aren’t things getting better? How can I go from jiving to Jerusalema one minute, to slumping on the couch the next, channel-hopping from one inane American TV show to another, watching reality show rubbish that drags me deeper into depression?ADVERTISING

I blame that peculiar 3am stillness. When I think of the slain cop Charl Kinnear, and of the wasted bucks spent on those ridiculous ambulance scooters that look like props from some old World War 2 movie, and I see the queues, in my mind’s eye, growing ever longer, of men at the side of the road waiting for piece jobs. And I have damp in the walls from the rain, and bills to pay.

My take is that surely I am – or perhaps we, as a nation – in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder, as from one day to the next, when hard lockdown started on 26 March, the world as we knew it froze. A terrifying jolt, if there ever was one. Those of us over 50 faced our mortality. We imagined corpses lining pavements, a million graves were dug in Gauteng… We couldn’t drink, we couldn’t smoke, we stayed within our four walls. We hid our faces, suffocating behind masks.

At 03:03am, I WhatsApp my therapist. Can I make an appointment for tomorrow? Do you have a space? Her response, unfortunately not. Yesterday we had a surge in crisis calls. The global depression is affecting many: many are feeling a huge sense of displacement, of loss and being lost, feeling disconnected, showing a loss of appetite for what life has to offer. Be gentle with yourself.

Rather than letting out a wail that I can’t be accommodated (which would alarm the neighbours who’d possibly call the security service), I felt relief. Not that I ever considered myself to be “the only one”, I’m not quite a narcissist, but it is clear that many people – even as lockdown eases, and the expectation is that we should get back on track – are suffering. Paradoxically, even as we move to a more normal way of being (the skies are opening, we can buy booze on Fridays) many of us must learn how to accept our changed circumstances and find our feet as the matrix, even now, continues to shift. The world, it seems, is out of soft landings.

I think again of the pleasure I’d felt, just the day before, as I’d watched yet another Jerusalema dance challenge, the Fish Hoek High School “Reds’’ this time, joyful matric pupils having a jol, in collaboration and celebration, on their school field. I’d been on the verge of breaking out into dance myself, listening to the gospel-house fusion song by South African DJ, Master KG. Nomcebo’s voice was so lyrical and heart-rending, and the laughter and the moves of the young people touched me deeply.

“It’s so amazing,” said Master KG in an online interview, “to see people showing love.” After an initial candid video of a group of Angolan friends practising the choreography went viral in December 2019, the song and challenges have had 50 million-plus YouTube views: that’s Big Love. 

Online youth magazine Zkhiphani’s Mandisa Ntsindee reports that Jerusalema “has reached heights no other South African song has in the past”, showcasing Nomcebo as a “powerhouse vocalist” in a song “that is fiercely ours”.

The dance challenge has been taken up in all quarters of the globe, by Transylvanian dance troupes; Austrians in Heidi outfits; lawyers in suits and robes; primary school kids; and health workers during the worst of lockdown. I’ve watched the Malelane SuperSpar staff in action, the Tshwane Metro Police do it to a brass-band cover of the song, puppies and babies on YouTube bopping to the tune, and for the cynical, there’s even a Kiffness parody.

When I posted the “Fish Hoek Reds’’ YouTube video on Facebook, my friend Renée responded: “This made me weep for happiness at the loveliness, and deep sadness at the generations of youngsters who were denied the privilege of one another’s companionship”. She added, “We’re hooked – even in Rome, and I love the song and the challenges – it fills me with hope and I can’t help thinking we should all dance our way to new solutions.”

Kobie wrote: “How fabulous are these young people! The world can only get better.”

On “hope” in particular, Hester wrote: “My beloved late father (who suffered immensely during the Abyssinian Campaign in World War 2) taught me that there is always hope, especially in a hopeless situation. The trick, father would say, was to befriend hope. Watching these young people dance fills my heart with joy.”

Even President Cyril Ramaphosa commented on the phenomenon, ending his heading-for-Level-one-lockdown speech on a good note, praising “the song Jerusalema, that I love so much”. I perked up at that point. I thought all is not lost. We may be facing the pandemic of corruption, we have an unprecedented number of unemployed, we don’t have a rail service, the nation is starving — but we all like Jerusalema.

The president has referred before to an inspirational song. At Ramaphosa’s inauguration, he revived Hugh Masekela’s ballad, Thuma Mina, as a sort of anthem. “I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around”, CR promised to triumph over poverty. 

“I wanna be there! Send me,” he said, bright-eyed, encouraging citizens and residents to join the Thuma Mina revolution, to do what we could towards solidarity.

The song ironically took on a cynical meaning in hard lockdown. I wondered if CR was as keen on the lyrics: “I wanna be there for the alcoholic, I wanna be there for the drug addict…” He was there, granted, he and his government: stealing from civil society, the homeless, the jobless, the sick, and the hungry, as emergency funds were yet again siphoned off to line cadre’s pockets.

And now we move on with Jerusalema. “Guard me,” the lyrics repeat. In times of difficulty, the lyrics intimate a plea for guidance and protection. This too shall pass.

But when? If ever? The intensity of the lockdown of the past six months, the struggle for motivation, the exhaustion, the longing for those who may have died, the loss of jobs, the concerns for the economy, the heart-break for children who have lost out on schooling – in my case my son has had no matric dance, no camaraderie heading towards exams – it all takes a toll. With the general sense of renegotiating our way of being in the world, no wonder that in the quiet of the night, with not even the wind for noise, the worries take hold.

As psychologist Aderyn Exley noted, we could do worse than to be aware of “the invisible threads that weave a reality that we all share and feel in some form or another”. That reality is the hardship, but it is also the hope.

In the kitchen, as Carl Wastie moved closer to crowning the top hit of the week, I said, “Al, I bet Jerusalema’s number one. C’mon, I’ll bet you a hundred bucks.”

He wouldn’t match me.

“Aha! You think I’m right!”

“Ma, it’s hardly a big deal, there are thousands of dance challenge songs out there.” 

“But which,” I countered, “are South African? We need this right now.”

Sound for me is essence; certain music, and songs, resonate on a soul level, uniting those receptive to the song’s specific frequency. The clarity, the purity, coupled with the almost seductive intimations of spirituality induce me to “rise above” when I hear it. How wonderful that Jerusalema brings so many people closer. And to see the dance moves performed across the world, as Nomcebo’s voice echoes in foreign streets, is intoxicating.

Doing dishes, scrubbing the counter, the now familiar scent of bleach rising, I waited still. Al ate lunch. Along with Carl, we counted down to number six, then five, four, three, two… CR came on air then, saying, by way of an introduction: “And there can be no better celebration of our South African-ness than joining the global phenomenon that is Jerusalema dance challenge. So I urge all of you to take up this challenge on Heritage Day and show the world what we are capable of.” 

Frankly, I’d rather Ramaphosa arrested corrupt politicians and threw some butts in jail to show what we are capable of, but hearing the song, the Number One song, made my heart glad (for the moment).

My boy and I, not quite breaking into the moves, at least grinned at each other as we listened to Jerusalema.

(First published by Daily Maverick)

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