It was one of those “where were you?” moments this past Workers’ Day. A few of us were standing in the street in front of the house at 13 Eleanor Street in Troyeville, Johannesburg, waiting for the wreath-laying ceremony to begin. It was on the exact spot where, 30 years ago to the day, the academic, activist and our comrade, David Webster, was shot and killed.
David and his partner, Maggie Friedman, had just returned from walking their dogs on 1 May 1989 and he was opening the bakkie’s canopy to let them out. A car pulled up and a shotgun was fired at close range.
Friedman told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997: “I heard something like a car backfiring. I realised something was wrong when I saw David clutching his chest. He said, ‘I’ve been shot by a shotgun. Get an ambulance.’ He fell down on the pavement and died about half an hour later.”
The assassin was Ferdi Barnard, a member of the so-called Civil Cooperation Bureau, a clandestine hit squad deployed by the apartheid state. He got R40 000 for this hit on a man known as a gentle revolutionary. Barnard, who was finally convicted in 1998 and sentenced to life imprisonment, was granted parole and released on 2 April this year.
Webster was killed on a Monday. The weather that day, sitting in the newsroom at Vrye Weekblad and feeling drained of life at the breaking news of David’s assassination, still springs vividly to mind. Much like 30 years later, it was a beautiful, crisp, autumn Highveld day.
This year, 1 May was a day of memory. United Democratic Front stalwart Mohammed Valli Moosa recalled Webster’s tireless work with the Detainees’ Parents Support Committee, which the family members of detained activists with no recourse to legal intervention set up. When he was in detention, there were 40 000 other activists incarcerated alongside him.
How to remember
The local ANC branch choir, consisting mainly of Webster’s comrades from back then, sang a song written especially for the day:
You played your part well 30 years ago
You helped set our country free
Worked to expose the dirty tricks of the apartheid regime
Who gave Inkatha guns to fight the ANC
“It is wonderful that we’re remembering David like this,” remarked poet Phillippa Yaa de Villiers as we walked to the nearby park named after him. “The problem is that we’re forgetting people every day in our country.”
So how do we remember? Art, including popular art, can help us not to forget.
Good political songs help us remember. The best ones can whip you up to take action. They can conscientise you, seduce you, coax you. Political songs can also be about what’s happening in the streets. They can be, simply, poetry.
Pop songs can be political, too. In the past few years, a number of America’s most popular artists have become more “political”. Think Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Solange and others.
Anderson .Paak’s new album, Ventura, is a 1970s soul celebration in which he follows in the tracks of masters Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. All three of them sang songs about love, sex, relationships … pop staples. But they all created some of the finest, most powerful political songs.
The Soul Trinity wrote political songs that were laden with great poetry and conquering hooks, that bossed the hit parades and filled dance floors, and yet still conscientised the fans.
.Paak is clearly aware of this tall order when you write political songs, but he cannot avoid it in these bizarre Trumpian times.
“This is the age of awakening,” he told The Guardian in a recent interview. “It’s no longer that we’re just here to be entertainment. We see what’s going on and we’re not going to be numb to it anymore.
“Are we supposed to play along like everything is cool, and still cheer for the team when just down the street 12-year-olds are getting killed? Are we going to act like schools aren’t getting shot up? I’m seeing it in real time just like everyone else and I don’t have the answers. All I’m here to do is give you guys something to think about while you dance.”
19 April 2019: Anderson .Paak performing at the Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival in Indio, California, with his band, The Free Nationals. (Photograph by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Coachella)
Turn up the volume
Ventura’s standout track, King James, is a current favourite. It’s on heavy rotation on BBC6 Music and that elastic, funky bassline kicking in is the signal to turn up the volume.
The song’s title refers to black basketball legend Lebron James. Read on its own, King James could be accused of being a laundry list of some of the worst stains United States President Donald Trump has left on American society: his wall, his regime’s brutal social injustices, his racist police force and gentrification.
But play it and you know it’s going to be hugely popular. And if there’s one thing Trump hates it’s something that grabs him by his popularity.
But will King James be a great political song that helps us remember this time and its people? Let’s check in about a year or two.