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Sports of The Times

05.16.10
Hugh Masekela
The New York Times

By William C. Rhoden

Amid Cup Fervor, Revisiting Pain of Apartheid

My introduction to Hugh Masekela came in 1968. Amid great turbulence, assassinations and riots, Masekela’s hit single “Grazing in the Grass” became the breezy anthem of a hot summer.

Masekela, we learned, was the South African-born trumpet player who had come to the United States in 1960 to escape the tyranny of apartheid. Far beyond the pop appeal of “Grazing,” Masekela’s larger body of music reflected the agony, conflict and exploitation South Africa dealt with.

Our paths finally crossed last week. In conjunction with the World Cup, Masekela was in Manhattan to review the final edits of an ESPN documentary about his journey to South Africa with his son, Sal.

The piece is called “Umlando,” which is Zulu for “Through My Father’s Eyes.” It was shot over two weeks, and will be presented as a series of four-minute spots that will be broadcast during the World Cup, before and after matches. Some of the chapters are political, some are biographical — each one is breathtaking. And nothing can duplicate the experience of watching a documentary about Masekela with Masekela.

The thread connecting these pieces is the spirit of handing down: father taking his son back to South Africa, introducing him to townships and villages, filling him in on the history of his country.

In one shot, Masekela laments the scourge of AIDS, which has become the new apartheid, wiping out generations of young black South Africans.

He smiles as he watches himself interact with schoolchildren, dancing, playing his horn, exhorting students to “keep their spirit,” cautioning them against engaging in irresponsible sex.

For the next month, South Africans everywhere will be asked how they feel about the World Cup coming to their country. Many no doubt will talk about their pride, how they feel that a megaevent will give South Africa a chance to put its best foot forward before the world.

Not Masekela.

At 71, he has seen too much, been through too much, to be giddy.

“I’m not going to lie to you and tell you I can’t sleep at night because the World Cup is coming to South Africa,” he said. “I don’t look at it as a miracle. All these things revolve around people who can afford to go to the World Cup. There are 47 million people in South Africa, maybe 20 million of them are dirt poor; I don’t think the World Cup is even going to touch them. The realities of South African remain, regardless of big events.”

Those realties include HIV, AIDS, the aftershocks of apartheid, centuries of oppression. Masekela was born on April 4, 1939, in Witbank, and grew up playing soccer in rough-and-tumble Alexandra Township.

Masekela was 14 when the Bantu Education Act of 1953 was enacted, essentially establishing educational segregation. Black South Africans were taught blue-collar skills they could use in their Bantustan “homelands” or in manual-labor jobs controlled by whites.

Masekela left South Africa in 1960 at age 21. His journey led to fame, to alcohol and drug addiction, and back to his African roots.

In one of the more poignant pieces, Masekela is taking Sal on a tour of “God’s Window” in the Mpumalanga province. As they look out on the breathtaking panorama, Masekela says, “If you were a colonial conqueror and you saw this, would you want to go back to Europe?” They laugh.

Masekela said that since he left South Africa, he had seen very little of the country. “We were not allowed to come to these places, we were not supposed to know that it existed, otherwise obviously we would have been more furious,” he said.

He described the influx control, laws that were intended to keep blacks in the townships and regulate their movements “so that you don’t see how beautiful your country is,” he said.

“Because if they do, they’re going to get very angry.”

At that point, Masekela looked out over the vista and yelled, “But I’m angry now!”

The young and uninformed can watch the march of history and enjoy, as they might a parade, marveling at South Africa’s breathtaking beauty, its timeless splendor.

For many South Africans, progress continues to be an agonizing tangle of mixed feelings, old wounds still visible, new promise, resentment, a desire for peace and prosperity. And for Masekela, an intense desire to revive traditions among young South Africans, never letting them forget.

“Nothing can come to a place that has been beaten up for three, four centuries, come for a month and fix it,” he said. “It would be nice if the World Cup stayed in South Africa for 20 years.”

Masekela: still grazing.