Mzwakhe Mbuli

Names: Mbuli, Mzwakhe

Born: 1 August 1959, Sophiatown, Johannesburg, Gauteng

In summary: The musician and political activist Mzwakhe Mbuli has played an essential role in the musical culture of South Africa before and after the fall of the apartheid government.  His poetry and music were a crucial part of the cultural movement in the last years of South Africa under apartheid. During this time his clairvoyant and relatable lyrics earned him the moniker “People’s Poet” from some of his followers. While his reputation has been tarnished by numerous encounters with the law, Mbuli has continued to voice his opinions as a social critic of current South African society.  

This article was written by Nicholas Frid and forms part of the SAHO Public History Internship.

Mzwakhe Mbuli, the “People’s Poet,” was born into a poor Zulu family in Sophiatown on 1 August 1959.  His parents were Roselinah Msuthukazi Mbuli, a Xhosa woman, and Elijah Katali, a Zulu man who was employed as a long-distance driver. In 1966, the town was bulldozed and Mbuli’s family, which included seven brothers and sisters, was forcibly removed to Soweto.  Mbuli’s training in traditional mbube singing came from his father, who often took him to long mbube sessions conducted by workers.  He also attended local and school based theatre groups in addition to other Zulu dance and music events throughout his youth.

The Soweto Uprising occurred on 16 June 1976 and was a very formative experience for the young Mbuli.  After experiencing the death of his fellow students, Mbuli’s school went on strike and he was encouraged to write poetry during this time.  Mbuli refers to this event as “God’s miracle” because of how crucial it was for forming his opinions and beginning his career.  As a member of his first performance group, Khuyhangano, Mbuli performed for the Congress of South African Students(COSAS) in 1979, a group he would later join. Mbuli’s first major public performance took place in 1981 when he recited the poems “Sies” and “Ignorant” at the memorial concert for a local preacher.  Mbuli refers to this event as the “beginning of Mzwakhe” and it would launch his career of reciting “dub” poetry at funerals during the 1980s.  Other notable performances of Mbuli’s during this time included the national launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983 and the festivities surrounding Bishop Desmond Tutu’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

 After gaining notoriety for his public performances, Mbuli received his first band from the record label Shifty in 1986.  Mbuli then recorded an underground album that would come to be known as Change is Pain, in some part due to the fact that he wanted his voice preserved in case of his death during this tumultuous period.  The album was banned shortly after its release by the apartheid government because of its “influence among revolutionary groups”and Mbuli’s reputation earned him the nickname “die long man” among the security police.  For Mbuli, Change is Pain was the beginning of torture as it garnered him the attention of the authorities.  Mbuli spent most of 1988 in solitary confinement and used this time to write and memorize his next album while in prison.  Upon his discharge in 1989, Mbuli immediately recorded and released the album Unbroken Spirit.  In 1989, Mbuli helped welcome back prisoners released from Robben Island in a ceremony, but his own legal troubles continued.  Mbuli and his wife, Nomsa, were arrested in their Pimville-Soweto home for possession of two Russian, hand-made grenades on 17 March 1989.  Mbuli was subsequently acquitted two years later on 5 February 1991 as a result of insufficient evidence.  In the 1980s alone, Mbuli was arrested 8 times and refused a passport 39 times.

Q:“How do you feel after your tape 'Change is Pain' was banned?”

Mzwakhe:

“That was an experiment. This is a sick society. How foolish is the government to decide to ban an experiment before the actual product. I am going ahead with my next album which will be titled 'Likely To Be Banned'.

The banning of 'Change is Pain' has served to motivate and inspire me. They haven't banned my mind yet. I can still produce plays, poetry, dance and music.

I am joining the masses black and white, as well as the international community, in calling for the unbanning of the outlawed organsiations. if that happens maybe my tape and other people's works could be unbanned”

Mbuli, 1988

In the spring of 1990, Mbuli experienced a rift with African National Congress (ANC) leaders.  In February, Albie Sachs was invited to speak at a National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.  Sachs declined and suggested the head of the ANC’s Department of Arts & Culture (DAC), Barbara Masekela, speak instead.  At the time, Mbuli served on the Transvaal Interim Cultural Desk.  He helped launch this initiative in 1987 as a branch of the UDF in order to deal with the cultural boycott and helped organize the tasks of the Cultural Workers.  Mbuli believed that the festival was too “controversial” and too overtly connected to the government for an ANC official to speak.  Alternatively, other cultural leaders associated with the ANC and from the local Grahamstown Cultural Congress tried very hard to ensure Masekela’s visit to the festival and fought Mbuli’s attempt to speak for national interests.  A compromise was eventually reached in which Masekela would address the festival and attend a rally in the Rni township of Grahamstown, as well.  As a result of this conflict, Mbuli’s reputation within the artistic community of South Africa as well as his relationship with several top ANC members was damaged as many saw this as a power grab on his part.

In 1990, Mbuli began his international career when he performed with Youssou N’dour, Miriam Makeba, and Thomas Mapfumo in Berlin.  Mbuli also wrote and narrated a history of apartheid in South Africa for BBC Radio which was broadcast in the spring of 1991.  Additionally, Mbuli survived the third assassination attempt on his life at this time after a grenade was thrown into the window of his house. After releasing the albums Resistance is Defence (1992) and Afrika (1993), Mbuli’s song “Peace in Our Land” became a national anthem to celebrate the second anniversary of the National Peace Accord on 2 September 1993.  Following this, Mbuli delivered a speech at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela on 19 May 1994.  For Mbuli, this experience contained mixed feeling because,

‘It took so many for us to reach where we are.  People died having called the name of “Mandela,” chanting the name of ‘Mandela,’ having not seen him, how he looked like, and people died for him. And 1994 was, yes, a turning point, yes for all of us that had last in his words “never, never again should you go through what we have gone through,” it was really so uplifting.’ (Mbuli, 2003)

In 1994 the album Izigi was released, followed by KwaZulu-Natal in 1996.  This latter album was extremely successful and controversial for the title track of the album, “Kwazulu Natal.”  The song pleaded for an end to the Zulu in-fighting that was taking place between ANC members and Gatsha Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) supporters.  The provincial member of the IFP, Nomthandazo Mkhize, actually attempted to have the song and the music video banned.  One critic described this as Mbuli’s “best poetic song.”  In 1996, Mbuli also survived another assassination attempt.  This time, nine shots were fired on his car.  At the time Mbuli blamed fellow musicians for attempting to kill him while former publicity agents said it was related to his ties with other women. Mbuli later said it was a former girlfriend attempting to kill him.  In 1997, Mbuli released his first gospel album, Umzwakhe Ubonga Ujehovah.  The album was released with bookmarks meant for place keeping in Bibles. 

By this time, Mbuli made R20,000 for each festival performance and R15,000 for each indoor performance.  Prior to Mbuli’s major arrest in 1997, he signed a R500,000 contract with Spoornet to create a commercial to create in six languages after also doing advertisements for Nestle’s Cremora milk powder.  Although this damaged his credibility, hardly anything would impact the public image of Mbuli more than the trial that ensued in this year.  On 28 October 1997, Mbuli was arrested on charges of bank robbery in Pretoria in his most famous brush with the law.  As the trial progressed, an independent watchdog began to investigate the trial on 29 May 1998 as lots of contrary evidence began to mount.  On 12 June 1998, Mbuli blamed his arrest on his knowledge of the drug trade taking place between people in Swaziland and some upper level government officials in South Africa, but he never mentioned any of the politicians by name.  According to Mbuli, "they wanted me out of the way because I was speaking out against drugs. That's something I will never do again - look what happens when I do.” Over the course of the trial, Mbuli was denied bail five times due to risk of flight.  He was first held in Pretoria Central Prison and then moved to Pretoria Maximum Security Prison for 15 months.   

During this time, Mbuli became close with Helen Suzman, who visited Mbuli every month. In late 1998, the International Committee on Writers in Prison of PEN, the world writers’ association, issued an alert calling for expressions to be submitted to the South African government requesting a fair trial for Mbuli. In March 1999, Mbuli was charged with armed robbery and possession of a hand grenade.  He was sentenced to 13 years of hard labour in Leeuwkop Maximum Security Prison.  Many critics pointed out the unusual proceedings of the case that included the suicide of one of the policemen who arrested Mbuli right before the beginning of the trial, the faulty identity parade used to identify Mbuli, and the failure by the bank to record the robbery on the surveillance system.    Mbuli shared a cell for a time with Eugene de Kock, the admitted murdered of Mbuli’s close friend Chris Hani at whose funeral Mbuli performed.  In 1999, Mbuli managed to release his greatest hits title, Mzwakhe Mbuli Greatest Hits: Born Free But Always In Chains.  While serving his jail sentence in September 2000, a former South African police officer was granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee for disclosing the place of two grenades hidden by security police in Mbuli’s Soweto home to create grounds for his arrest in 1989.   

On 1 January 2002, The Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein cut off three years of Mbuli’s sentence after overturning the charge of possession of a hand grenade.  Although he had previously rejected the opportunity to visit Mbuli, like many other high-ranking ANC officials, Nelson Mandela finally visited Mbuli on the night before his 43rd birthday on 31 July 2002.  On 1 August 2003, Mbuli was released for two days in order to celebrate his 44th birthday.  Eventually in November 2003, Mbuli was released from Leeuwkop Maximum Security Prison on good behaviour after serving six years and a month of his 13 year sentence.

Mbulism (2004) was Mbuli’s first album released after his prison sentence ended. In 2005, Mbuli helped to organize a concert for tsunami victims as well as performing at the birthday celebrations for both Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.  He once again ran into problems with the law when he was trialed on 16 January 2007 for charges of assaulting his wife.  In 2007, Mbuli also took on a prominent role in the fight against musical piracy in South Africa when he spearheaded the organization, Operation Dudula.  The group worked with the South Africans Musicians Alliance to achieve more airplay for local artists on South African radio.  According to one member of the press, this initiative helped to save the music industry R19 million and resulted in 62 arrests due to multiple raids and seizures of musical equipment and products.  As a result of this tireless fight against piracy, Mbuli announced his retirement from recording in South Africa on 29 August 2007.   On 21 November 2007, the tenth anniversary of receiving his charge for armed robbery, Mbuli received the gold disc reward from the record label EMI/CCP for his album, Thunder.  On 18 September 2008, Mbuli was awarded the Heritage Award from the Kwazulu Natal Arts, Culture and Tourism Department in recognition of his 2007 single “God the Best.” Mbuli would also once again be arrested in 2008 for pointing a firearm, assault and kidnappings all in order to find out who killed his uncle.

“We dare not forget, lest we become a nation that does not only not know its roots but where it’s going” --Mbuli, 2010

Mbuli continues to involve himself extensively in current South African culture, his own musical career, and the South African courts.  On 11 September 2010, Mbuli helped to establish the first annual Siyabakhumbula Awards.  The ceremony aimed to commemorate a variety of people who have passed away and whose lives left a positive legacy in South Africa.  According to Mbuli, “we dare not forget, lest we become a nation that does not only not know its roots but where it's going."  On 9 January 2012, he sued the state R10-million for malicious prosecution after being acquitted the previous April in a trial that, according to Mbuli, severely affected his career.  In February 2012, his latest album Amandla was released, and on 7 March 2012 he spoke and sang to a crowd of protesters in Gauteng during a massive civil protest.  Mbuli has also continued his fight against piracy in South Africa.  His campaign, Shoot the Pirate, launched 19 July 2011.  The campaign was an attempt to prevent pirates from selling fake CDs and DVDs and to stop police from encouraging the distribution of fake copies.  On 10 January 2012, Metro FM planned to join Mbuli’s campaign after hosting him on their Touch-Down Afternoon Drive show.

The noticeable aspects of Mbuli’s performance are his physical demeanour and his lyrics. The most instantly recognizable aspect of Mbuli’s style is his imposing physical presence.  The estimates of his height range between 6’4 and 6’7, while his booming baritone voice carries an empowering resonance over the accompanying instruments.  Like many others after the 1976 uprising, Mbuli produced the majority of his work in English while using traditional Zulu styles and techniques.  Some claim this was an attempt not only to speak the language of the oppressors, but also to make the poetry and songs accessible on a more international level.  Rather than singing, Mbuli often speaks the verses of his poetry while being accompanied by instruments and a choral group.  His early work generally featured simple drum beats in the background, but the musical complexity of his work increased over time such as when he formed the band the Equals in the early 1990s. Mbuli’s voice and lyrics are accompanied by a fusion of sounds such as marabi, kwela, and mbanqanga.

Mbuli is known for performing at a variety of venues throughout his career.  He would perform at festivals, church services, and funerals frequently unannounced in order to avoid the attention of the police.  Mbuli often wore traditional African clothing and started his poems with more of a speaking tone as he initially recited his work.  Then the lyrics became more rhythmic and the audience would often start to accompany Mbuli with their own humming if the song was particularly popular.  The performances were generally fast-paced and passionate. 

“The biggest human quality is to become unstoppable, I am unstoppable” --Mbuli, 2003

As the “People’s Poet,” it is often Mbuli’s lyrics that are the focal point of his work and performances.  According to Mbuli, most of his poetry“consists of a call to action” as it questions the decisions and actions of the regime and the people of South Africa.  Many people criticize the straightforwardness of Mbuli’s poetry.  The language and the vocabulary are generally quite simple and full of slogans and familiar phrases that some argue could have been made into poetry by anybody.  The themes are also quite broad and general rather than artistic abstractions often composed by other Cultural Workers of his time.  Some, alternatively, find this simplicity to be the most important part of his work.  Mbuli performed in front of large crowds at very public events; by keeping the language accessible, Mbuli was able to effectively penetrate large portions of the population. 

Furthermore, there are multiple features within the actual lyrics that attract such a large following.  Mbuli often used relatable events from the 20th century in South Africa in his lyrics from the 1980s and early 1990s.  The poems “Don’t Push Us Too Far,” “The Noble Charter,” and “Let Me Remember” are all examples of this.  The song “Don’t Push Us Too Far” is about the beginning of the National Party and the oppressive policies introduced in 1948.  “The Noble Charter” reflects on the origins of the ANC and the Freedom Charter and “Let Me Remember” is about Mbuli’s own formative event, the Soweto Uprising.  Some songs merely spoke to contemporary situations such as the poem “Pitoli,” a song about Pretoria, or “Education Hijack,” a poem about the status of Bantu education at the time.  Finally, some of the lyrics are about Mbuli’s own conception of suffering both personally and by the nation as a whole.  Poems like “Change is Pain” are full of Mbuli’s own witnessing of suffering throughout South Africa.  As a result of clairvoyant lyrics that connect to the listener through historical events, contemporary situations, and relation to suffering, Mbuli earned the recognition of being the “People’s Poet.”

With the fall of the apartheid government, the lyrical substance of Mbuli’s work has shifted.  Initially, albums like Izigi and Kwazulu­-Natal had a more optimistic tone while also focusing more on problems affecting the South African people through means other than the government.  While the title track to Izigi was an ode to Mandela and his accomplishments, the title track to Kwazulu-Natal (as mentioned above), was a criticism of the violence taking place in the Kwazulu-Natal region.  Apart from his gospel music, Mbuli’s more recent work has focused on social issues such as abortion, HIV/AIDS, and drunken driving.  According to Mbuli, this overall shift has largely been a result of formerly being more of a voice for the UDF whereas he currently operates as more of a social critic.

The legacy of Mzwakhe Mbuli has been a common issue of debate.  Prior to the fall of the apartheid government, Mbuli garnered the title of “People’s Poet” due to his contributions as a Cultural Worker.  The role of the Cultural Worker was especially important in the 1980s, but some did feel Mbuli sometimes overstepped his boundary. Some of these opinions pertained to the Cultural Desk of the UDF, but were really representative of the sentiment towards Mbuli as the main orchestrator.  After Mbuli was detained in January 1988, the UDF was banned in February 1988 and the Cultural Desk’s importance declined.

Like many other post-apartheid Cultural Workers, Mbuli has struggled to remain relevant.  While events such as his arrests have tarnished his reputation to a certain extent, there are also some who believe that his lyrics no longer matter as much as they once did.  To a certain degree, some believe his criticisms of the post-apartheid government are more his own attempt to stay in the public eye than actually work for the betterment of South African society.  While his legacy remains debated, the role of the Cultural Worker was of the utmost importance and Mbuli’s own contributions as the “People’s Poet” were undoubtedly significant while the apartheid government was in power.

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