Thandiswa Mazwai and Dope Saint Jude on the legacy of the Soweto Uprising and freedom in South Africa

On 16 June 1976, what started out as a peaceful protest in the streets of Soweto by students standing up against an oppressive regime, ended with bloodshed and incarceration of young people at Number Four – the Johannesburg prison reserved for black men, presently known as Constitution Hill, a national heritage site.

41 years later, Constitution Hill, in partnership with fast food giant Nando’s and the Department of Arts & Culture, commemorates the spirit of the students of 1976 with the annual Basha Uhuru Freedom Fest. We spoke to Soweto-born (in 1976) singer-songwriter Thandiswa Mazwai and Cape Town rapper Dope Saint Jude about this celebratory expression of artistic wealth among the youth of South Africa.

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‘Basha Uhuru’ translated means ‘Free Youth’. A fitting name for a movement which seeks to serve not only as a platform for artists from all walks of life to showcase and share their work but also a way for attendants to remember the Soweto Uprising. As we approach the 21st anniversary of the signing of the constitution, it is important that we reflect on this key milestone in the history of South Africa, how far we have come as a nation and most importantly where we are.

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A five-day programme includes a contemporary group art exhibition called ‘Expressions of Freedom’; ‘Conversations of Freedom’ creative talks; ‘Visions of Freedom’ film screenings sponsored by the Gauteng Film Commission; and Rides of Freedom youth cycling tour which will link up various youth cultural hubs in the city. All these activities lead up to main attraction of the festival which is the ‘Sounds of Freedom’ music concert featuring a diverse line-up of both emerging and established musical talent from across the country.

The music concert, funded and made possible by the Department of Arts & Culture and Nando’s, is set for June 24 and will be staged in two different venues within the Constitution Hill museum precinct.

The main stage will feature a musical blend of contemporary South African musicians including live performances and DJs which will entertain the youth as they salute the youth of 1976 and celebrate the 21 years of the constitution. The second stage will be hosted by AFROPUNK who are gearing up for the African edition of this influential international festival at Constitution Hill on December 30 and 31.

We spoke to Dope Saint Jude and Thandiswa Mazwai on what freedom means to them, the festival and how they maintain their freedom of expression.

How has your definition of freedom changed between the time you were 21 and now?

Thandiswa Mazwai: I guess at 21 I thought of freedom as a political manifestation regarding self governance/national independence. Now I feel that freedom is much more personal. It is the ability to feel SAFE in the brotherhood/sisterhood of humankind. It is about being able to trust that someone will honour your humanity and more importantly, will not harm you.

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Dope Saint Jude: I have a better grasp on what freedom means. It’s not just about being free in theory, but about being free in reality. Our Constitution ensures many rights, but many don’t have access to those rights. Before I thought it was just cool that we had a progressive Constitution, but now I think it’s important that the Constitution is enjoyed by every South African.

As an artist, how do you take care to maintain freedom of expression when it comes to executing your vision?

Thandiswa Mazwai: I guess the easiest answer to that question would be that I never allowed myself to be at close proximity to ‘the state’, this has given me a great amount of freedom to express myself as I please. Art’s first commandment is autonomy, followed only by the commandment to create.

Dope Saint Jude: I always make sure that I remain as authentic as possible. It’s easy to get caught up in trends, but what’s important is to stay true to my message.

The festival is a celebration of artistic wealth as well as a commemoration of the Soweto Uprising, a concept that many may find hard to gel with – a painful event being remembered via a celebration, especially in South Africa which has a heavy, recent past. What are your thoughts on tackling such painful memories and feelings by attempting to create lighter, better ones all while showing respect to the Uprising?

Thandiswa Mazwai: My work has always been about creating sacred spaces on which memory can be indulged and triggered. This is not always possible but I hope that we are able to create this sacred interaction somewhere in our show at Basha Uhuru. Viva the brave youth of 76.

Dope Saint Jude: I think it’s important celebrate the lives and the spirit of the people who fought in the struggle.

What legacy would you like to leave with your craft/creations?

Thandiswa Mazwai: I have no idea. I just work at a steady pace and the only thing I can be sure of is that one day I will die and leave it all here. One of my favorite quotes about life is from Argentinian poet Antonio Porchia who said ‘one lives in the hope of becoming a good memory’.

Dope Saint Jude: My goal is to speak my truth and hopefully empower and inspire others to do the same.

The festival starts on the 21st of June and ends on the 25th. Attendance is free but tickets must be purchased beforehand and one can find more info here.

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