I grew up in a small town in South Africa named Witbank, a one-street, redneck, right-wing Afrikaner town, surrounded by coal mines and coal trains with endless carriages and coal-packed containers crisscrossing the horizon, pulled by steam engines we called "Mankalanyana," churning smoke up into the air. I remember seeing women in the mornings and at sunset running alongside the coal trains with large tin cups collecting the coal nuggets that fell from the cars. It was a tough town where African miners drank themselves stuporous to blot out memory of the blackness of the mines and the families and lands they'd left behind, often never to see again. But even when the burning coal and dust blackened out the sun, we still had music to sing our sorrow and illuminate our ecstasy.
When I was four, I was a pageboy in my Auntie Lily's wedding to Nico Sikwane. For the reception that night, the Jazz Maniacs, South Africa's top township orchestra, played selections from their swing and mbhaqanga repertoire (mbhaqanga was the dominant music of the townships in South Africa—a sound as joyous and sad as anything in the world, but I'll get to that later). The band members were all dressed in black tuxedoes, bow ties, and starched, white shirts. The featured soloists were the young saxophonists Zakes Nkosi, Mackay Davashe, Kippie Moeketsi, and Ellison Themba. Kippie's brother was the dapper pianist, who dressed as flamboyantly as the great American Jelly Roll Morton, smiling all the time, showing off his shining gold-capped tooth. I stood wide-eyed next to the lead trumpeter, Drakes Mbau, fascinated by all the gleaming silver instruments, the drums, guitar, and double bass. The band was tight and played all night, swinging and smiling and sweating and creating a widening circle of bliss that enthralled and hypnotized the wedding guests and left me thrilled and wrung out, dazzled and slack. The band played and danced as if possessed by some uncontrollable magic. I fell asleep on the stage while the party raged on, and dreamed of big bands into the early morning. It was in those days in Witbank that music first captured my soul, forced me to recognize its power of possession. It hasn't let go yet. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
On April 4, 1939, against a historical backdrop of white domination and black rebellion, Pauline Bowers Masekela, who everyone called Polina, gave birth to me inside my grandmother's house at 76 Tolman Street, on a dusty, tree-lined avenue in Kwa-Guqa Township, Witbank, about one hundred miles east of Johannesburg. The Star—the widely circulated, white-owned daily newspaper, did not publish my arrival—or, for that matter, any news about black people. There were only a few African-language newspapers—not that African editors would have trumpeted the arrival of Ramapolo Hugh Masekela.
Giving birth was a new experience for my mother; I was her firstborn, delivered by my grandmother, Johanna Bowers, with the help of a midwife. My sister Barbara was born two years later in 1941, Elaine in 1947, and Sybil in 1953. Pauline was half-white, and therefore officially classified as colored (African of mixed heritage), a mixed birthright that meant a lot to the government—but more about that later. In the early 1900s, Pauline's mother, my grandmother Johanna, had married Walter, a Scottish mining engineer turned high-fashion shoemaker. They waited three years for a marriage certificate before finally getting one from the government; this was long before the passage of the Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, which declared all future marriages between whites and others illegal. Walter and Johanna had two children, Solomon and my mother, Pauline. Walter Bowers, I learned later in life, was a philanderer who left Johanna to live with Mary, a colored "shebeen queen" in the industrial, central Johannesburg suburb of Doornfontein (shebeens were illegal bars where millions of nonwhite South Africans—who were, until 1961, forbidden to drink alcohol—drank themselves blind).
Walter Bowers went on to father four children with Mary before leaving her to go to a rural town in Natal, where he started another family. This was followed by another move, to Kimberley, the diamond-mining capital of South Africa, where he started yet another family. His sexual meandering left a trail of "colored" families all over South Africa. Before his death in 1938, Walter was also involved in gold and diamond smuggling, an activity in which he involved all of his women. Once Johanna and her sister Martha were arrested and imprisoned for their involvement in one of Walter's smuggling schemes. Already suffering with swollen legs, Martha was assaulted by the police, causing permanent damage to her legs.
Johanna Mthise WaMandebele a Kwa Nnzunza, Mahlangu, Mabena, Mdungwa, Mganu-Ganu ka Maghobhoria Bowers, my grandmother, came from akwaNdzundza, the royal clan of the Ndzundzas, an aristocratic house of the Mahlangu Ndebele royal family. The Ndebele kingdom stretched over most of the northeastern part of the country, a mineral-rich territory that British and Dutch settlers fiercely contested during the Boer War (1899-1902). Out of pure goodwill and honest charity, the Ndebele granted Dutch settlers land in which to carve out a settlement. But when English troops gained the upper hand and overran Dutch strongholds, the Dutch confiscated the remaining Ndebele territories, murdering any resisters, and leaving my young grandmother and most of her people landless, destitute, and on the run. When the British and Dutch finally made peace, together they expropriated almost all the ethnic lands of this region to establish new mining towns such as Witbank, Middelburg, and Oogies. Here the "conquered natives" were settled into townships from which were drawn pools of unskilled laborers to work as domestics, cleaners, gardeners, sanitation workers, construction gangs, and so forth. Many of the prouder people who spurned white employment went into business for themselves as traders, carpenters, hawkers, tailors, or criminals. Johanna and her siblings, Martha and Jacob, established shebeens to serve the demands of the township's homegrown drinkers and the thousands of migrant laborers who were conscripted from the hinterlands to work the mines. Shebeens became a core township industry and in Witbank, Johanna was one of its most highly respected proprietors.
Johanna was a short, stocky woman just past fifty when I became aware of the fact that she was my mother's mother and I was living on a semipermanent basis in her house in Witbank. Grandparents raised just about all young children because moms and dads, needing to find steady, full-time employment, had little time to raise their offspring properly. The decent-paying jobs were in the cities of the Witwatersrand, starting from Springs, thirty miles east of Johannesburg, the cradle of gold.
Johanna's sister, Elizabeth Motsoene, whom we called Ouma Sussie, lived up the street at number 80. Not too far away from our street were grazing fields, green rolling hills and valleys, and seemingly endless fertile plains. The soil of these valleys was rich black alluvial clay, cool and crunchy. It tasted sweet in your mouth. Later in life, when I would get caught in the rain on the twisted, rolling fields of the Mississippi Delta, Georgia, South Carolina, or Alabama, the steaming aroma of the soil always reminded me of the taste of Witbank's red and black earth.
My grandmother's two-bedroom house had plastered concrete walls outside, a shiny red porch, and a small gate at the entrance arch. The kitchen was the main room of the house, its centerpiece an old iron coal-stove surrounded by pots and pans hanging on the wall. The stove vented through a long metal chimney that burrowed through the white plywood ceiling and past the tin corrugated roof to spew out sulfurous coal smoke, competing with the rest of the township fires to pollute Witbank's blue skies in the mornings and evenings. This was an era of black-painted windows—the days of World War II—when, as children, we were told that Hitler's warplanes were parked on South West Africa's airport tarmacs, waiting for an order from Berlin to come and bomb us to smithereens.
This was but a small portion of our worries. Through the center of Witbank ran a creek that bisected the town by race: one half for the Afrikaans-speaking Boers (whites) and the English and the other for the "kaffirs, "koolies," and "boesmans"—all vulgar names invented by whites for blacks, Indians, and coloreds. The Boers, whose political beliefs bordered on fascism, were farmers, traders, mining engineers, construction foremen, city council employees, truck and train drivers, and primarily Nazi sympathizers. Even the English-speaking whites in Witbank were right-wing conservatives. Being black in Witbank meant being called a kaffir, bowing and smiling, cap in hand, for the white folks, knowing your place and never looking forward to getting anywhere in the world. You were a "bloody fucking kaffir," and if you didn't like it, it was your ass.
Every weekend the mines disgorged thousands of men who came to drink in the township's shebeens, to let off steam, bloat their bellies with sqo or mbamba (homemade brews), and later vomit it all out as they staggered back to their barracks, often carrying their less experienced drinking brothers over their shoulders. The drinking helped them forget the train that brought them to Witbank to come and work on contract in the mines for sixteen-hour shifts for slave wages that totaled a measly five shillings a day if they were lucky. The liquor helped them forget their parents, children, friends, wives, lands, and herds, which they would not see for another nine months while they lived celibate in filthy, sardine-can barracks. The miners came from all over southern Africa, from Mozambique and Angola and most of southern Africa's hinterlands, where the mining companies recruited them. The contracting officers promised them what seemed like a wonderful life. It was only when they reached the mines that they realized what they had signed up for, but by then it was too late to turn back. Nine months later, some of them returned home only to find their wives had married someone else, their lands had been taken by Boer farmers, their cattle sold, and their whole clan moved off the land by the government. Arriving home with little or no money and a ruined home life, the miners had little recourse but to sign up for another nine months with the mining companies.
Many miners died young from black-lung disease or tuberculosis, or had serious accidents that led to amputations if not death. With no disability benefits, most of these men usually found themselves working in the mines until old age. When they died, little effort was made to contact their relatives so their loved ones could have a proper funeral and burial. Their bodies were usually given away to scientific researchers or disposed of as cadavers for use in some white medical school. It was a bloody tragedy.
I learned to accept that booze—nips (1/4 pints), half-jacks, half-pints, and straights (full bottles)—was a part of life. I grew up impressed by good drinkers. I watched my uncles and aunts and other people in and around my home drink constantly. Most middle-aged women in the township wore black, mourning a deceased husband, son, or brother who had died from violence, black lung, TB, or booze. Most of my family, on my mother's side, drank. Moneyed and educated people sat and drank in the living room or dining room. Johanna's unskilled laborer friends and women drank in the kitchen. The coal miners drank in the backyard. I started drinking when I was fourteen. Years later, while in therapy, the counselors asked my fellow junkies and me to chart our family histories and circle the drinkers in red. My diagram was covered with red circles.
We were surrounded by music, everywhere we went. I spent those years playing with cousins, including Boikie and Dexter Tolman and Gigigi, the grandson of Johanna's brother, Jacob Mabena. In the afternoons we played soccer with worn tennis balls on the gravel streets, where one of us occasionally kicked a concealed rock and lost a big toenail, stepped on a rusty nail or a piece of corrugated iron or thorns, or broke a leg or arm while falling from a tree or fighting off mangy dogs. We'd swim in dirty rivers and dams, and slide down grassy hills in sleds made from old car fenders, all the while singing our children's street songs, like "Picky, Picky Mabelani, Sal-Sala Gentlemani, Ah! Billy Bof, Ah Kaka Billy Boff." These songs didn't make sense and we didn't care; we were bonding, playing our bloody games, singing our foolish songs.
When there was a wedding, the townships came alive. Up to a month before the ceremony, a white flag was hoisted at the front gate of the intended's home. Every night leading up to the wedding, a street choir of relatives, neighbors, and family friends paraded up and down the avenues practicing wedding songs in Zulu, Sotho, and Tswana. The wedding itself was a near-riotous celebration with the choirs of the bride and groom challenging each other in a competition of poetic songs and harmonies in praises to the couple. The songs were filled with advisory lyrics, sympathetic wishes, and taunts, and were accompanied by ululations from the old women, admonitions from the male elders, feasting, dancing, and debates. The bridal couple would march in front of one of the choirs composed of the bride or the groom's family and friends. The two choirs would challenge each other all afternoon up and down the street, singing, "They have taken her away from us, she's gone, our little baby"; "Sweep, sweep away the dirt, girl, never feed your family surrounded by filth"; "Your aunt is a tart, they sleeep with her behind the garbage cans"; "She too young to be wed"; "While her head was spinning from the joy of being in love, they whisked her away"; and countless other songs with the strangest and funniest lyrics and dances—composers and choreographers unknown. And of course a band usually was hired to play at the reception.