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Sugar Man's Medicine for Salty Wounds: The Oscar Goes to a Cultural Healer

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Searching for Sugar Man won the Academy Award for best documentary. In South Africa there is significant debate about whether or not the documentary overstates the role of Sixto Rodriguez in liberating the minds of South Africans. What truths did he help to surface? Why in particular did his music stir the souls of so many Afrikaners during the seventies?

Sixto Rodriguez, a musician hardly known in his home country of the U.S. in the early seventies, became as popular in South Africa as Elvis and Dylan. His popularity lasted over several decades and until he was informed by two Cape Tonians in 1997, he had no idea of his success.

Though born in Zimbabwe, I studied in Cape Town from 1971-1973 and later returned to South Africa in 1992; I have lived there on and off ever since. The documentary ignited a passion in me to understand something more about the transformative impact of Rodriguez's music, particularly in the Afrikaans communities.

The Nationalist Party, dominated by Afrikaans leaders, introduced apartheid in 1948 and by 1971 it was well entrenched. Noted Afrikaans journalist and author Max du Preez explains that young Afrikaners in the '70s and early '80s were isolated both from the world and the rest of South African society. They were "products of Christian National Education and of a narrow-minded, deeply Calvinist, patriarchal and disciplinarian culture." During that period, separation between the English and Afrikaans communities was almost as deep-seated as the separation between black and white.

Government propaganda and loyalty to the establishment was reinforced. All young white men had to do compulsory military service, and in the early '70s fighting against neighboring Namibia and Angola was a common experience. Du Preez notes that "long hair was about the most daring thing a young Afrikaans man who wanted to rebel could do."

Musically, nationalist folk songs and patriotic tunes were mainstay. Rock music was regarded as alien and dangerous. Television did not come to South Africa until 1976 because the government believed that it would undermine morality. The Soweto Uprising of June 1976 further entrenched the fear among the young Afrikaners of being "swamped by the black hordes" but also left a lingering sense that their world and the larger global society was not exactly as their parents, teachers and dominees (clergymen) had described. Something inside the soul was ill.

The late James Hillman, a Jungian psychologist, explains that it is through the naming and healing of the psychic wounds that consciousness is altered and transformation can take place. If Rodriguez' music could heal, it would have to address the shadow of their insular world. It would offer healing by lessening isolation and creating new possibilities.

I set out to find out from Afrikaans colleagues what lingering memories remained for them of Rodriguez's music and the flux of that time. Here is what I heard.

  • For Marthe Muller, COO of SAWID (South African Women in Dialogue), Rodriguez's music was "calibrated to our pain." His lyrics allowed us to be human and gave permission for "Afrikaners to feel their humanity and to heal the sense of shame we felt at the time. People were immobilized by a system they were participating in but could not change. Here were many intelligent people who did not know how to be in protest." Improvising on the words of her grandfather, the great Afrikaans poet, van Wyk Louw, Muller mused out loud: Shame hung around us like an African hut. "Rodriguez always wore sunglasses," she told me. "We liked someone who was hiding from society. We were steeped in blood ourselves and were hiding from the world. He held an outsider perspective we identified with."
  • Dina Oelofson, an organizational development consultant spoke about the sense of suffocation she felt as a teenager. "Rodriguez could talk about a system from outside the system but still gave Afrikaners courage. We were insiders in a system created by beloved people in our families." She spoke of "living in a systemic prison" and acknowledged the sense of longing for freedom and fairness and the welcome permission to feel angry.
  • Dr. Renier Moolman, who studied at the University of the Freestate in 1977, believes that Afrikaans students identified with Rodriguez because "we were very boxed in and told what we could see and couldn't see. We thought we were free but we weren't. Some of our buddies went overseas and told us about things that we did not know." He said to me, "people listen to music in several ways, some will like and follow the melody, others the lyrics, while others will understand the meaning, realizing that this guy Rodriguez is saying something true."
  • "You couldn't have designed a better audience for Rodriguez than the Afrikaans youth during the seventies and eighties" says Dr Morne Mostert, of Stellenbosch University Business School. "The English community of South Africa used the Afrikaans community as a convenient scapegoat, blaming us for apartheid. We had no one to blame. Young Afrikaners were seeking an escape from the uncomfortable psychological pressure where so many of us that felt that we were not part of this system. So the anti-establishment consciousness Rodriguez expressed helped us find an alternative way to live with ourselves."

Rodriguez's music came at a time that young Afrikaners were yearning for something different. They were ready for social commentary in music. Yet it was Rodriguez, not Dylan or Donovan or Lennon, that connected to their deepest fears and yearnings. His lyrics were not only anti-establishment but also dystopic, lamenting the inner despair that was hidden from sight but not from the psyche.

Garbage ain't collected, women ain't protected/ Politicians using people, they've been abusing/The mafia's getting bigger, like pollution in the river

John Lennon's vision in the music and words of "Imagine" speak to an optimism that may have been difficult for young Afrikaners to access at that time. Dr Morne Mostert says, "when you don't have hope you can't begin to imagine or describe an ideal state." Rodriguez songs like Establishment Blues not only provided critical commentary, but expressed powerlessness and frustration.

The anger in Rodriguez lyrics resonated with Afrikaners most profoundly because he offered images resonant with their own inner situation. For Oran Cohen, a social innovator, the music functioned as almost a homeopathic remedy -- "in South Africa some of us could take in the dissonance of his songs because we were corrupt and dissonant. His music is so honest and brutal."

Rodriguez's own passion for truth helped to heal the psyches of young Afrikaners in a country far far away from his own. Deep underlying human truths connect us across all boundaries. Dr. Peter Gabel says of the documentary that it offers "testament to sticking to the truth in the face of surrounding denial of that truth. In that sense he's a movement singer who speaks of the universal truth. He is saying come on, here's reality as it is, it's not good enough."

Bayard Rustin the American civil rights leader, also believed, "When an individual is protesting society's refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him." Rodriguez's pursuit of truth helped many South Africans find their dignity and their voice during critical decades in this country's history.

My own learning is to appreciate more fully the path of redemption, at both individual and a societal scale. We can face separateness and isolation and through a creative process transform it into art and social action.

In South Africa we speak of Ubuntu -- a communally expressed humanity. In short, it says, your pain is my pain and your salvation is my salvation and together our salvation. The Oscar-winning narrative of Rodriguez coming home to a foreign land that recognized a soul truth between them marks an unforgettable legacy of healing and transformation. The Oscar, this time, goes to the humanity. Will we accept it?