As I sat down to write this post, the voice of a gentleman working in the garden next door boldly burst through the suburban thrum. He was belting out the chorus of Oliver Mtukuszi’s powerful anthem, Neria and with each note, my heart and mind were immediately flooded with a sea of memories intrinsically linked to that song.
I remembered seeing the mighty “Tuku” perform at the iconic Rainbow Restaurant in Durban and will never forget being in the audience alongside so many people visibly moved and united by the man and his music. As my neighbour’s voice resounded through the valley, I wondered what had inspired him to sing it so boldly that day. Was it the memory of a love lost, longing for family or home, or one of the many other memories carried in that melody. A melody through which we were now connected – united in song.
Such is the power of music. It connects beyond imposed boundaries and unites all who listen. It is a bridge that all are welcome to cross.
The power of music to connect is something I have benefited from first hand. Growing up in 1980’s South African, my childhood was spent in lily-white suburbia with most of my authentic cross-cultural relationships being extremely limited. Music changed that for me. It was my bridge to a world of new friendships that have become an intrinsic part of my life and for which I am extremely grateful.
It has also been one of my greatest teachers. It has taught me what it really means to be South African and offered me a deeper understanding of our painful past. It is the source of my hope. I may have little faith in politicians, but I have plenty of hope in song.
Where spoken words divide, music unites.
This is something I experienced afresh when raising my voice alongside the Gwijo- squad at Ellis Park when the Boks recently conquered the Australian Wallabies.
Who and what is “Gwijo- Squad”?
As founder and chairman of the Gwijo Squad, Chulumanco Macingwane , explains : “A gwijo is primarily a call and response song that sees someone lead and the crowd responds. It always needs a leader and one cannot igwijo alone. In fact, the bigger the group, the better! Igwigo is ubiquitous in most South African cultures and sung in most group gatherings, whether we are happy, celebrating or mourning – there are gwijos for every occasion.” Many of the Squad’s founding members are Xhosa, so they tend to sing Xhosa songs, but no one is excluded and the group hope that as they grow they “will start to see more languages included in our repertoire of songs”.
Now I am not Xhosa, and if I’m honest, even battle to say the word “Xhosa” . But lately I have found myself lifting my voice in song with lyrics that I am daily coming to better understand.
I was first introduced to the term Gwijo about a year-and-a-half ago by Lwandile Ngubentombi. Together we share our lives, two beautiful children and a love for music. He stumbled across a thread of videos of high-school gwijo demonstrations that he just couldn’t stop watching. From heart warming songs sung for departing long serving teachers, to proud field-side anthems in support of school team, they left him nostalgic and inspired.
Having grown up in the Eastern Cape, his childhood is filled with memories captured in songs such as these. Memories of his own important cultural milestones and the rugby days of his youth. Once again, music offered me a bridge and I chose to cross it. When I reached the other side, I was offered a glimpse into his life before me and engulfed by the tales of his youth, friendship, family, loss and experiences.
It wasn’t long before he joined the Gwijo Squad whatsapp group and convinced me to journey with him to the All Blacks versus SA game in 2018. I will admit to being somewhat apprehensive at first. Not because I didn’t want to participate, but fearful that I would not be able to. (Being vernacularly challenged) Nonetheless, we packed the kids in the car and headed to Joburg, Gwijo caps and jerseys packed. Good to go.
What followed was a gloriously heartwarming day of laughter, song and sunshine. A riotous journey from Joburg to Pretoria all the way to Loftus stadium really set the mood. I don’t think the extremely passionate rugby fans from up north were all that used to seeing a group of predominantly black South Africans, chanting and marching towards the stadium. Curios onlookers asked me if it was a “protest” to which I responded, “No … it’s just a group of people who love the Springboks and singing”. Great confusion ensued. The curious stares did not cease as we made our way into the stadium – they only intensified, growing even more scrutinizing as the chorus resounded through those hallowed stands.
The game began and with each new song, walls began to fall and the gwijo magic began to work, the onlookers’ stares morphed from suspicion to intrigue. A few unsuspecting Springbok supporters got caught up in the Gwijo throng at the beginning of the game and were swept into the heart of the Gwijo Squad, instant new members, and they loved it.
One such man was from the “Northern Transvaal” (say no more), dressed in well-worn rugby paraphernalia and quintessential floppy “boer” hat, I watched as this man’s heart swelled with each new song. He soon was no longer concerned that that he had been separated from his friend and found himself in the midst of the “protestors”. In fact, he loved it so much that he kept calling family and friends – in particular “seun 1 (boy 1), seun 2 and seun 3” and sharing live video of what he was experiencing – trying describe the unexpected unity and “gees”. He stayed with us to the end – singing and laughing with glee. (See below )
South Africa didn’t win that game, but the Gwijo Squad certainly did. It was a roaring success that culminated with members of the All Black team even coming to join the group in song after the match. The gwijo bug had bitten and we were determined that we would be back.
A year later we once again made the journey to Jozi, donned our caps and jerseys and joined the Gwijo Squad. This time, more familiar with the song lyrics and their meaning, I was able to fully commit and raise my voice along with my fellow gwijo choristers.
From the moment we stepped onto the bus, the gwijo flowed with anyone brave enough to try lead the chorus.
We drove into the heart of Joburg where curious people going about their business stopped and wondered what was going on.
The group sang all the way to the stadium – drawing all around in with the melody. Song once again set hope ablaze – high-fives and smiles abounded with music once again offering so many others like me a bridge. A bridge that does not require a perfect voice or grasp of vernac to cross, merely a willing heart and hopeful spirit. Some of the most glorious gwigo moments take place pre- and post-game in the stadium corridors where the onlookers become participants and the squad multiplies as people are visibly moved by the melody and “gees”.
Gwijo Squad is for everyone. Even non-Xhosa speakers like myself – if you sing a chorus often enough, the words will stick with you. All it takes is a few goes and soon you will find yourself growing in confidence, recognising the songs and gestures and raising your voice in a unified song of support for our Springbok team, but more importantly, for each other.
As South Africans, we need to celebrate and support any opportunity for us to connect and unite. We need to sing and laugh together. We need to cross the bridge that takes us to a place of shared understanding and empathy. We need to learn each other’s songs so that the “they” becomes an “us” and the shared hopes and dreams – “ours”.
Come 2020 , we’ll be at the All Blacks test, in a squad that the founders hoped will have swelled to 500 by then. The invitation is open to all, so cross the bridge and let’s #MeetInTheMusic.
Karen : )
PS. Thank you to Lwandile Ngubentombi (@wandalony) for his epic captures .
Gwijo links :
Facebook and Twitter : @gwijosquad
Karen Van Pletsen links :
Instagram : @meisievanpletsen
Twitter: @tequiladiva ( lol … it’s a long story )