Any interview with Mbuso Khoza is both a wide-ranging history lesson and an remarkable exploration of a myriad of pertinent societal issues which occupy his mind daily – from sharing his thoughts on subtle yet key differences between heritage and culture, religion and tradition and everything else in between Mbuso Khoza is a Griot, a modern-day philosopher and public intellectual who sees his role as one of educating the nation through his work.
I sat with him at News Café, Rosebank in Johannesburg to delve into his mind and get to know a little bit more about his critically acclaimed musical theatre show Battle of Isandlwana Lecture which makes a comeback to Joburg Theatre after a sold-out show at the same venue in January 2019.
Q – Mbuso, as a historian, musician and all-round creative, what does the Battle of Isandlwana as a battle of such great historical significance do to and for Africans today – why are these kinds of stories important to be told and re-enacted as you are doing now.
A – It gives us hope as Africans, that a technologically superior British Army could be defeated in such a way by Zulu warriors who had only spears. In the modern day we need a unity of purpose, that is the most significant aspect of this for me. As the warriors prepared for this battle, they had to tell their families and friends that they might not come back alive – so the selflessness of these warriors having been promised nothing but yet went into this battle full of hope knowing they were fighting for their land and future. I position this particular set of events as not only a South African but an African victory, because all of us in Africa were affected by colonialism – it is a milestone in African history and says if our forefathers were able to conquer the British it means that we are capable of achieving even more. We need to not just talk about the battle but about what happened to different tribes who were forced to move as a result of the wars – e.g the Ndebele who with King Mzilikazi settled in what is now Bulawayo in Zimbabwe – hence for me this is also to debunk things like xenophobia that we are fighting people who are a part of us but just living elsewhere.
Lessons and aftermath are that not everything can be solved with violence – it stirs us spiritually so that in future we find alternative ways of resolving conflict. In fact, it is said that King Cetshwayo tried very hard to say let us resolve this through peaceful means but the British Army refused because they thought they would vanquish the Zulus in battle. When we talk of colonialism it is important to realise that Christianity colonised us – that Christianity was an instrument for our colonisation hence when we approach it, we must put a distinction between Jesus and Christianity. The missionaries at that time used the ideology to inculcate other values in those whom they encountered so even the music that they came which is highly harmonised was something foreign to our forms of singing and feting our heroes. The production thus takes the form of amahubo (hymns) sung by Afrikan Heritage Ensemble and narration.
Q – When a person comes to watch this production one may be forgiven for expecting that it will be a celebration of the triumph of the Zulu nation, but you are saying this production goes beyond that? And also you speak of solving issues through non-violence yet this production is about a very violent and bloody act – is that dramatic irony or one of the ways you as a creative sees as a way to grab people’s attention but when they attend they experience something else?
A – Yes, it is deliberate in that when audience members book their tickets, they expect to see the full military might of the Zulu nation, Zulu warriors dressed in full military regalia, etc but that is not my focus. My job as a musician is not to glorify any tribe or political party, but make people fall in love with their Africanness. I also can’t overlook my history but go further in that I believe we need to instrumentalise our history to mobilise people into loving themselves – it’s an important job for me so that when our children look for who they are, even if much has been distorted but at least what remains of history will serve as a navigation system into who they are as African people.
You see we have been taught to pray, but why did missionaries not pray but fight us when they got here? In Africa we didn’t have religions in the way they are understood in the Western world but ours was more of lifestyle – that my child is yours, that the village raises children but in churches those things were deliberately decimated – even in music and language, we left the things which made us who we were – our people were taken to be educated in missionary schools, etc and so our history and national anthems must speak of pains and triumphs of the country and not these hymnal kinds of national anthems we have.
The question is was I left alone as an African to develop at my pace and understand the world in my own way – but that is not what happened.
Q – You speak of music and its power, when Fees Must Fall happened activists were singing what they called the ‘decolonised anthem’, so what happened there and of course you know your views are quite unpopular? Some African countries still sing versions of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“God Bless Africa”) as composed by Enoch Sontonga who was a South African, so what happened here that you say that there is no anthem in South Africa?
A – Well, I am not here to be popular. I am here to make a change – to contribute towards the enrichment of my history and ascribing value to our heritage and culture – and also to be able to put a distinction between history, culture and heritage. People go out and say it’s Heritage Day, but what is heritage, what is history and what is culture and what are traditions? History is a means, an intervention to document sets of events then later on culture is born – later when those cultures are not applicable to the times we keep them as heritage and so how do we preserve and present these things and make them subjects of daily consumptions? The sad part is people have turned culture into commodities that please tourists – they over exaggerate things just so as to fit into the expectations of tourists, so they get a few dollars. There is a difference between used experiences and lived experiences, lived culture and used culture so Isandlwana Lecture seeks to address all these challenges and so we put our culture into perspective and present it as an intellectual discourse – not just present ourselves as entertainers.
Q – I want to bring in the notion which I know you are very aware of as a historian that ‘until lions have or become their own historians, stories or history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’ – it seems that is in a way what you are seeking to do here with this production?
A – The biggest problem is that our forefathers were not writing their history as they were moving from one place to another – but they still made sure that they tell our stories. So, through this production I am hoping to show that even the notion of a ‘lecture’ which is from academia, can still be taken and used in a way that is understandable to our people and not just those who have been to university. So, for me the lions are now becoming their own historians and telling their stories and if you ask me this is long overdue!
Isandlwana Lecture: Narration through Song will be presented by Mbuso Khoza featuring Afrikan Heritage Ensemble at The Joburg Theatre from 24 – 26 January 2020.