HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Senzeni Na? What have we done, and when will we be free?


Chris Hani was assassinated by Janusz Waluś, a Polish immigrant and conservative in April 1993 during the unrest leading up to South Africa’s imminent transition from apartheid rule to democracy.

On that same day, a Zimbabwean poet by the name of Albert Nyathi wrote a song with the title Senzeni Na? (What Have We Done?) But that’s not the first time a song with the same title chimed mournfully through a troubled South African landscape.

As with all folk songs, no one really knows how to trace them to their original compositional roots. They’re just passed on from generation to generation, their meaning morphing on with the times, their melody fulfilling the need for a crutch, a song for citizens to lean on when no other definition to describe moment in time or a feeling will suffice.

In the case of Senzeni Na?, the song is commonly associated with the Xhosa and Zulu people of our nation, sung at demonstrations, times of struggle, protests and anti-apartheid rallies.

Gaining traction since the 1950’s, the tune found its greatest moment of popularity from the 1960s to the 1980s when it weeped through the mouths of its singers with a mournful timbre as they repeated over and over again: “What have we done? What have we done? (to deserve this)”. It lands on the ear of the listeners deep, dark, heavy and desolate; and leaves hearts and minds feeling deserted, wondering about the answer to the most frequently asked question that iterates the most frequently experienced struggle: When will we be free? And then democracy answered this question, sort of.

But now four decades after the popularity of the song reached its height, I have to ask once more, South Africa, what have we done? Why do we continue doing it? And when will we be free?

Naledi Manyoni used to live in an apartment block in central Durban before it was set alight this week by looters who spread like wildfire, causing strife and anarchy in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. The young mother has a toddler. Both she and her daughter, among many other residents, were caught in the blaze. This week, as their homes burnt and while neighbours who managed to escape hustled to get ladders to save those stuck on the higher floors and rescue other children, Manyoni had no choice but to release her toddler from her grip and throw her from the first floor into the arms of people surrounding the building downstairs. It was the only way to save the child. The fire brigade arrived 20 minutes later, Manyoni and her daughter were reunited. Some of her daughter’s first words to her mother? “Mama, you threw me down there.”

Why are we here? What did Naledi Manyoni and her baby do? What did all those people in that building do? What did the employees of over 45,000 business (the estimate in KwaZulu-Natal alone) who are the breadwinners in their families do? They are jobless now. The buildings are insured. Their employment is not.

Social media feeds are filled with nervous laughter. We have resorted to making cheap jokes about incompetent police officers who stood by and watched as looters caused havoc in the streets, who were incompetent in their services when trying to arrest criminals and let escape without chase.

The ineptitude of our national security forces has led to armed civilians and neighbourhood watches taking to the streets, firing live ammunition and stepping up to serve as the protectors of their communities. And while taxi associations and other community groups serve as security to the people, and are applauded for standing against the destruction of services and the conscious crumbling of an economy, it is not hard for this country to tip over into a race war. Us against Them. In fact, there are many who wait for any excuse to exercise an outright, violent racism. We are already there. We are already here. Why?

The national defence force has been called on. But on Wednesday, Dr. Everett, a professor at Wits University who was interviewed on eNCA, said the soldiers who were sent to Gauteng spent their first day sitting around in a sports stadium because no one thought to equip them with vehicles to go out and fulfil their orders.

We are empty of leadership. We are empty of wise action. And the most the president - who urged us to send him, to Thuma Mina - can do is to request the nation to come together once more. To reconcile. To rally together. To overcome and to rebuild. Again. And again I ask, why are we here? What have we done? And when, South Africa and all the powers that be, will we be free?

German poet Wolfgang von Goethe said: We can even build something beautiful out of the stones thrown in our path. But that same poet also wrote that stones are mute teachers. They silence the observer and the most valuable lesson we learn from them we cannot communicate.

Perhaps the silent observers have done enough. Have tried enough. And so now I ask the powers that be, what will you do and when will you do it?

The heart of South Africa cries collectively, Senzeni Na?.

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