Saturday, May 18, 2024

Do Africans dance more than a little too much?

In the last media interview that he did before he died, former President Sir Ketumile Masire shared, with Sunday Standard, his recollections of interacting with Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew – whose success as a leader provided a quarter of the inspiration to establish the Botswana National Productivity Centre (BNPC).

Masire said that Lee, who had just died at the time of the interview, was never one to bite his tongue, not when speaking about western powers and certainly not about Africans.

“He was a principled man who always spoke his mind. At the Commonwealth Summit of Heads of States and Governments, he would criticise when he felt there was need to do so. About us Africans, he said that we waste a lot of time singing and dancing, instead of attending to developments and that we are always crying about our colonial past. Why look backwards instead of forward? Masire recalls Lee saying in one of their interactions.

The part about the singing would probably have touched a raw nerve in this African man who, in his youth, had toyed with the idea of a career in music. Officiating at the inaugural Botswana Musicians Union Awards ceremony in 2005, Masire had revealed that growing up he wanted to become a musician. However, he was discouraged by his mother who said that music was an unrewarding vocation.

Coming of age, he opted for politics and decades later, would become Botswana’s second president and make the acquaintance of Lee who, at this time, was Senior Minister, having stepped down as Prime Minister. Alongside Hong Kong, South Korea, andTaiwan, Singapore maintained exceptionally high growth rates (in excess of 7 percent a year) and industrialised rapidly. Hoping to replicate what the Four Asian Tigers had done by first cultivating a highly productive national labour force, Masire established BNPC.

Lee’s views on Africans dancing a little too much are shared by one too many Africans themselves and much to the disgruntlement of the South African United Cultural and Creative Industries Federation, Trade Union Musicians of South Africa and Women in Arts Dialogue, one is Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation. Far away in the United States but still under the glare of cameras, Pandor essentially restated what Lee said during an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations. The latter is a Washington-based think tank that specialises in US foreign policy and international affairs. Asked a question about the state of democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa’s relationship with the US and the future of its role in the region and internationally, Pandor responded: “We must ensure we have greater skills development on the continent in critical skill areas. I don’t think we need more arts trainers – sorry to the arts people. We need highly trained people in science, engineering, technology, finance and economic sector.

Interestingly, while the interview was done seven months ago, it was only last week that it came to the attention of South African media. Artists were outraged and expressed such outrage through organisations that represent their interests. Noting that the arts-and-culture sector generates R75 billion annually, the Trade Union Musicians of South Africa described Pandor’s statement as “irresponsible and arrogant.” The Cultural and Creative Industries Federation of South Africa called on the minister to apologise for appearing to undermine the arts.

However, rather than make an unequivocal apology, Pandor’s office “clarified” her comments in a public statement that was issued by her spokesperson, Lunga Ngqengelele. The latter stated that the minister was misunderstood and that it was not her intention to upset artists.

“The minister stressed the need to increase the number of young people in what is often referred to as critical skills,” the statement said in part.

The non-apology strongly suggests that given the opportunity, the South African minister would use more cautious language to essentially reassert what is evidently her conviction that Africans dance a little too much.

While she didn’t narrow down her focus to dance, there are genuine questions to be asked about why black people (Africans particularly) tend to dance too much (and at inappropriate moments) without invalidating the dance to culture and the national economy.

Dance is very important in African culture, especially in religion where it is used to communicate with Badimo (Ancestral Spirit Guardians) during worship. For this most delicate of tasks, dancers generate adequate vibrational frequency that would allow them to tune into the spiritual world. That would be the equivalent of twiddling a dial on a radio to tune into Radio Botswana. The Kalanga do that through the hosanna dance and in the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve of old, the G/cui and G/ana did so through three types of traditional religious dances: kh’obacqoo and qanu. For purposes of getting on the right frequency, graves function as excellent transmitter towers and it is for that reason that the forcible removal of the G/cui and G/ana from the CKGR (where their ancestors are buried) did not just violate their freedom of religion but was also a crime against humanity.

However, there is also dancing that happens at the most inappropriate places and under the most inappropriate circumstances.

In 2016, around 300 South African firefighters who flew to Canada to battle wildfires broke into song upon and started dancing at the airport. In their home country, as in Botswana – which is South Africa’s self-sacrificed cultural colony, the substance of protest marches is routinely diluted by the circus spectacle of singing and dancing protestors. The latter particularly rankled with Malcolm X who famously said that “It’s time to stop singing and start swinging”, which proclamation the 1990s hip-hop super group, Public Enemy, would (perhaps ironically) lyrically repackage into a protest hit song titled “Fight the Power.” Malcolm’s very valid argument was that singing and dancing at a protest march deviates from the substance of the protest.

On, someone posed the question, “Why do black people like to dance so much?” In attempting to answer that question, two white readers shared quite interesting personal experiences with this phenomenon.

“I also wonder about this,” writes Corinth Butler. “I’m not joking when I tell you I go to the grocery store and kids are dancing in the aisles. I went to the post office and girl had her hands up swaying to the elevator music. Another girl I used to work with could not stop herself from moving her shoulders all around in meetings and making sounds with her mouth, as if she were making the music just so she could dance in her chair. I’m all about people living life and enjoying themselves but I don’t understand doing it in places where it’s weird.”

Another reader, Graham Howe, responded to the question: “I was going to dismiss the question as racial stereotyping until I remembered an occasion when I went to a party with a group of friends. The group included a guy from Nigeria and a black woman who was born in London but whose parents were from Guyana. The Nigerian guy got up to dance – and it was laughable.”

There is a larger and more troubling dimension to this dancing – there are black people who will get the urge to dance and actually act on it upon seeing white people. This raises question of whether these people dance because they are having a good time or merely want to entertain whites. Even worse, some white people expect such cartoonish behavior from all other black people they interact with. A prose comedy column in the Botswana Guardian has half-joking observed that such expectation extends to the boardroom where white people holding important meetings with blacks secretly wish the latter would get up and bust some spectacular moves and communicate such wish with their eyes.


Read this week's paper