The Abantu Book Festival 2016 opened with a moving opening ceremony in the Soweto Theatre in South Africa on December 8th 2016. The event emceed by Lebo Mashile was marked by song from Zuko Collective, a poem from Koleka Putuma and a keynote address by Gcina Mhlophe.
It’s been a long time in the making and the first official black festival in South Africa was finally in Soweto. People had flown in from across the world to enjoy Southern Africa’s unique hospitality and to possibly be witnesses to history.
The Soweto Theatre was filled to the brim with eager faces of all ages, hues, differently abled, sexualities and other categories. They all had that one thing in common. They were almost all black.
The events kicked off with a performance by Zuko Collective a band that emerged in recent times because of their reimagined version of the South African national anthem Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica. Their version wasn’t like you would see from say a Beyonce singing the US national anthem with high keynotes that to show off one’s vocal prowess. This version of theirs was a more inclusive one and referenced the old anthem without the tinkering of the negotiations of the early 1990s that bequeathed South Africa a hybrid anthem of the Afrikaner, English and Black. It was a long overarching cry for the continent that its residents live in. The band started singing and the anthem, which is longer that your typical one had the crowd joining in. It was almost like the first act in a religious ceremony that I was witnessing as hands punched in the air and feet stomped and emotions were poured out onto that floor.
Then Lebo Mashile invited the keynote speaker Gcina Mhlophe the Durban based artist who has been all over the world telling stories from her country. She spoke about growing up and being a member of her mother’s army and the two words that were needed to survive her childhood, ‘ewe mama’.
She spoke of her favourite places as she grew up. Like a waterfall in her home village where she could be herself without the world asking her of anything. Like under the gum tree in high school where she got her love of reading. Like a public toilet in Orange Grove in Johannesburg when she was an adult new to the big city. Like now at a desk in her Durban home facing the Indian Ocean.
She grew up listening stories around the fireplace and on the radio; these occasions were not just for children but for adults as well. Then stories today don’t build today as they did then.
She spoke about those who had come before us. Nokukhanya Luthuli who was the wife of Albert Luthuli. When Albert had been chosen to head the ANC he had to the surprise of all asked to talk to his wife before doing this duty. A wife that was universally referred to as the mother of light.
She spoke about Nokutela Dube the wife of John Dube, the firdst President of the African Nation anthem, who set up a school for fashion and nutrition. Nokutela is credited with popularising the original Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrica written by Enoch Sontonga in much the same way #FeesMustFall protestors have done for the Zuko Collective’s re-imagined version.
Through it all she quoted people in person, in song and in dance. Miriam Makeba. Jeremy Taylor. Iranian poet Rumi. Ben Okri. Maya Angelou who she met in London.
She spoke about the importance of this festival as the stories that were coming from here were not for CNN. Not for BBC. Not for Al Jazeera. They were for abantu. The people of Africa.
She closed by asking that all work hard at being Abantu in free South Africa. She also asked that the audience make it their business to love their mother tongue.
The evening ended with Panashe Chigumadzi giving an emotional vote of thanks to her colleagues Thando Mgqolozana, Nontobeko Dlamini and the rest of the team. We were officially starting the festival and in the words of Gcina Mhlope, it looked like it would ‘be-yoo-ti-ful.”