Masekela, Barbara 1941–
Barbara Masekela 1941–
South African Ambassador to France
South Africa’s Ambassador to France
The name “Masekela” is a household word is post-apartheid South Africa. Most people associate it with Hugh Masekela, the jazz trumpeter of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the group who made the smash-hit Graceland in 1986, with singer Paul Simon. However, Hugh’s sister Barbara has blown a few fair fanfares of her own. An ardent anti-apartheid activist who helped to bring freedom to her homeland, she has also proved herself a fiery and fearless speaker as well as a pragmatic diplomat.
Barbara Masekela’s parents did not belong to the huge group of black South Africans who could find work only as unskilled laborers or domestic servants. Her mother was a social worker at the local Young Men’s Christian Association, and her father was a township health inspector. Thomas Masekela’s hobbies marked him even further as an individualist. Instead of following tradition by clinging to purely African company as many other black men tended to do, he made a point of cultivating a wide circle of Chinese, white, and Indian friends. He also spent many leisure hours producing huge wire sculptures, or reading books on a range of topics so broad that he was able to hold his own in debate, whether the subject was Aldous Huxley, Frank Sinatra, or Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Masekela’s being residents of Alexander Township, an overcrowded black community on the outskirts of Johannesburg, they prudently sent their infant daughter away to live in a safer place until she was older. So Barbara spent her early childhood with her grandmother in Witbank, a rural mining town too small to hide the bootleggers and roving teenage gangs which were part of the township’s landscape.
In 1952 she came back to Johannesburg as a ten-year-old to start her education at St. Michael’s Anglican School. Once settled, young Barbara soon found that her parents’ intellectual interests had given her a fine headstart. No stranger to the newspapers she was expected to read. She was already familiar with the names of political celebrities such as African National Congress (ANC) Leader Albert Luthuli, and Father Trevor Huddleston, an inspiring Anglican parish priest based in Johannesburg’s Sophiatown, who was constantly urging his black congregants to stand up for their rights. Later, during her high school years at Inanda Girls’ Seminary in Durban, she had the chance to meet these activists, and she fully understood that they were representing all South Africans of color in the struggle against the apartheid policies of the South African Government.
In 1960 Barbara Masekela graduated from high school. While it was a triumphant year for her personally, it was also flavored with the bitter tragedy of 69 deaths resulting from a demonstration against government policies that had taken place in March, in a Transvaal
At a Glance…
Born July 18, 1941 in Johannesburg, South Africa. One of four children; daughter of a social worker and Thomas Solema (a health inspector in Sharpeville); two children. Education: St. Michael’s Anglican School, Alexandra Township, Inanda Girls’ Seminary, Durban, graduated 1960.
Career: Assistant professor of literature at City University of NY, Assistant Professor, Dept. of English, Rutgers University, 1973-82; headed ANC Arts & Culture Department, 1983-90; Head of Staff, Office of the President, African National Congress, 1991-95; Member, National Executive Committee, ANC, 1991; Official Ambassador to UNESCO, 1995; Appointed South African ambassador to France, 1995-,
Addresses: South African Embassy, 59 Quai D’Orsay, 75343 Paris Cedex 07.
township named Sharpeville. Despite the fury boiling through the black population, government clampdowns were swift. Newspapers, educational institutions, and political groups found their protests muffled by bannings, threats, and intense attention from the police; people brave enough to stand up to these bullyings were swiftly clapped into jail or confined to their own homes.
Looking sensibly towards a future that could only be bleak, Masekela was pragmatic. “It was very clear that opportunities were beginning to narrow and anybody opposed to apartheid was in danger,” she recalled in 1995, for the Weekly Journal “One had to choose to remain or find opportunities somewhere else.” She chose to find them somewhere else. Once away from her homeland she did not return for 30 years.
Masekela led an unsettled existence for several years after she left South Africa. She spent six months working at New Age newspaper, then one semester at the Lesotho campus of the University of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland. This brought her to the beginning of 1963, when she joined the group of educated Africans moving to Ghana to help the newly-independent country introduce Western ways of learning. But exciting though it seemed, this second fresh start also proved short-lived. Somehow Masekela contracted tuberculosis and was forced to spend a year recuperating in a sanitarium in England.
Then, still in limbo in 1965, she moved to New York to enroll as a student at Fordham University. But even here she could not feel at ease. The anthropology teachers, especially, irritated her with their patronizing habit of referring to non-Western or tribal societies as “primitive.” Coming from non-Western roots herself, she resented it all the more when she considered that each of these so-called “primitive” societies could boast an ancient heritage, an intricate legal and social culture, and a rich store of folklore, music, and art. To Masekela, the term “primitive” therefore seemed not only jarring, but also racist.
With the beginning of 1967 Masekela decided to return to Africa. This time she chose Zambia, now securely in its third year of independence under president Kenneth Kaunda. Here, at last, her streak of bad luck seemed to weaken for a while. Two years of study at the University of Zambia were completed without incident. Then, while she was in her third year, a motor accident injured her so badly that she was forced to abandon her studies yet again and move back to the United States, to stay with her brother in California while she recuperated.
This interruption made it impossible for her to complete her degree until the 1970-71 academic year. Nevertheless, she did not allow this setback to hamper her progress after her graduation. She taught English for a year at Staten Island Community College, before moving on in 1973, to Rutgers University. Here she settled down to an eight-year stay, contentedly teaching English literature until 1982 with no interruptions but the one leave of absence necessary for completion of her master’s degree.
Barbara Masekela had now been away from South Africa for 22 years—long enough to carve a secure niche for herself, but certainly not long enough to forget the struggles of her fellow black South Africans. Besides, jogging her memory were the world’s newspapers, where African National Congress issues were appearing in the headlines almost every day. From the media, Masekela learned about their push for the economic sanctions that would weaken the South African government, and their ever-strengthening ties with the Scandinavian countries, all of which had long been associated with human rights issues. She also noted that Zimbabwe and Mozambique, South Africa’s neighbors and former staunch friends, were now independent themselves, and firmly allied with all other states fighting the evils of the apartheid system.
So in the early 1980s, when the African National Congress name started appearing more and more often in the headlines, Masekela decided that it was time to become involved in the anti-apartheid struggle. At the urging of Johnny Makatini, an old acquaintance who was now the African National Congress representative at the United Nations, Masekela joined demonstrations in America, gave anti-apartheid speeches, and generally gained a reputations as a serious activist.
She was well-entrenched by the time the ANC chose to launch a new weapon called “political protest through the arts.” Of course, political protest through art was hardly a novel idea. British novelist Charles Dickens had used his famous story Oliver Twist to draw attention to the shocking treatment of slum children during the 19th century; Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had performed the same valuable service to blot out American slavery.
But in the apartheid-era South Africa of the early 1980s, freely expressed truth-through-art was severely frowned upon, and difficult to carry to completion. The 1963 Publications Control Act, and later the 1974 Publications Act, had given government committees the power to ban at will any newspaper, magazine, book, film, play, music, or artwork that they deemed either politically provocative, sexually too explicit, or too violent for South African audiences. This censorship applied to every artist in South Africa, regardless of tribe or heritage. As a result, most South Africans had never read Alan Paton’s masterpiece, Cry the Beloved Country, a work which would certainly have opened their eyes to the tragic apartheid that was ruining millions of lives.
Still, certain arts fared better than others. Black performers focusing on music with western roots, such as jazz, were freely acknowledged by the pre-democratic government, and training was offered at all black colleges and universities. But purely indigenous music intended for black audiences was simply glossed over by the Powers that were as harmlessly folkloric. Fortunately, musicologists and anthropologists took care not to make the same patronizing mistake. They had great respect for indigenous music and its cultural significance. The preface to at least one influential book, Yvonne Huskisson’s Bantu Composers of South Africa, showed why: … it is not only a form of artistic expression, but a vehicle through which is conveyed their whole pattern of living, their views and sentiments.”
Wisely, the ANC decided that their music and their other performance arts could well express their political views and sentiments without defying the stringent Publications Control Act. By way of a test-run, they held an arts festival in 1983, in neighboring Botswana. When audience enthusiasm assured them that the arts were a most efficient way to garner anti-apartheid support, they opened their own Department of Arts and Culture at their headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.
After a year of working for the ANC in Lusaka, Masekela’s efficiency so impressed the ANC organizers that she was asked to head the new department. As always, she threw herself enthusiastically into her work, offering support for black composers, playwrights, and novelists. In addition, Masakela’s workload had a large political dimension. In line with support for the economic boycott that would settle on South Africa three years later, she helped to institute a cultural boycott that would prevent dancers, movie stars, musicians, and actors from setting foot in the country.
In this she had considerable help from the United Nations, which maintained a grim register of performers and other entertainment celebrities who dared to visit South Africa. This list, which contained 388 names by 1985, had the ostensible single purpose of helping the UN to blacklist offenders from awards and honors, but it also gave the ANC a handy catalogue of well-known targets for picketing. Goldie Hawn, a longtime anti-apartheid activist, was shocked to find herself listed after a 1981 publicity visit to South Africa during the filming of Private Benjamin. Liberace, too, was noted, but Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte, and Tony Bennett all turned down huge salary offers rather than visit South Africa.
Unfortunately, this ban also worked in reverse, to prevent South African music from finding an audience overseas. Nevertheless, indigenous music found a staunch ally in the American singer Paul Simon, who actually dared to team with jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, brother of Barbara, and Masekela’s group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Despite the fact that Masekela himself is a longtime anti-apartheid activist, this was a risky undertaking for Paul Simon, but it produced an album called Graceland, which was the top seller for 1986.
Although the cultural boycott absorbed a great deal of Barbara Masekela’s time she was not too busy to spearhead a “Culture in Another South Africa” (CASA) festival which took place at the end of 1987, in Amsterdam. This event featured a weeklong schedule of conferences to discuss the question: Should artistic excellence or political protest be top priority for anti-apartheid artists? Not surprisingly, all participants came to the conclusion that art is partisan and cannot be separated from politics. Driving the point home was a series of exhibitions and performances in Amsterdam’s major theaters, presented by 200 South African photographers, fashion designers, actors, and musicians all living away from their homeland.
In 1990, shortly after his release from his 27-year prison term, Nelson Mandela came to the United States and to India to thank everyone who had helped him and the African National Congress. Masekela was asked to accompany him, to handle arrangements and scheduling, and also to help raise funds and support from students and politicians for the organization in the multiracial, democratic elections that almost certainly lie ahead. Streamlined and efficient, she impressed Mandela so much that he asked her to become the head of staff in his office.
The same year, she represented the African National Congress at the Grahamstown Festival of the Arts, a celebration of theater, dance, and music which had long been part of South Africa’s cultural scene. Here, in a rather inflammatory speech, Masakela made clear the relationship she always claimed between art and the culture of any society—that art in any form expressed the longterm values of a society—whether political, legal, or social. Furthermore, she made a point of mentioning the fact that the longterm values of black South Africa had hitherto been suppressed by the Festival, but that this practice would continue no more.
Reproduced in toto in the November, 1990 issue of Scenaria, Masekela’s fiery speech also mentioned “The apartheid ruling class which holds the reins of power but is unable to govern,” a barb designed to draw emotional blood. No less cutting were her several pointed references to Eurocentrism—striving for the culture of Europe, rather than presenting the African culture which she found more relevant to the changing South African situation. Here, her example of “trying to produce an opera based on European, rather than African, tradition” brought a caustic criticism in the February 24, 1992 edition of the same magazine. The author noted that while he enjoys indigenous art, he enjoys European art just as much, and sees no reason why he should not continue to do so. He also pointed out that Masekela herself was wearing Eurocentrist clothes at the time, rather than tribal dress, and that she chooses to live in a house with Eurocentrist architectural conveniences.
It was an argument later tactfully settled by Nelson Mandela himself, at the Culture and Development Conference held in 1993 in Johannesburg. “Bridge the chasm!” urged Mandela, in a speech later reported by The Guardian “Use tolerance and compassion, be inclusive, not exclusive, build dignity and pride, encourage freedom of expression to create a civil society for unity and peace.”
In 1994, in one of the most optimistic periods South Africa had ever known, the country held its first multiracial elections. When the African National Congress swept to victory, Barbara Masekela took her place as a member of the Government of National Unity. But she was not destined to stay in Parliament for long.
In 1995 she was offered the chance to become South Africa’s ambassador to France. Pausing only to unpack, Masekela took up her duties on January 1, 1995. Her top priority now was to increase France’s trade with South Africa. In her favor was the fact that France was already her homeland’s number five trading partner, with total investments of almost $2 billion annually “It is my task to bring investment to South Africa,” she told The Weekly Journal, about three weeks after taking up her post. “I can tell them about the plight of my people.” Clearly it was a mission she took extremely seriously.
By 1997 she had increased the actual trade figure to almost $1 billion, and she was ready to add a new dimension to her goal. According to the African Recorder, she yearned to form strong ties with the French-speaking African countries, with whom South Africa previously had little contact. “I think it is utterly disgraceful that we are on the continent and know so little and do so little with the other Africans who speak French on the continent,” was her reasoning. Characteristically, she has lost little time in correcting the situation.
Gastrow, Shelagh, ed: Who’s Who in South African Politics: 4th edition Hans Zell Publishers, 1993.
South Africa, 1978: Official Yearbook of the Republic of South Africa, Perskor, 1978.
African Recorder, January 15, 1995, p.9494.
Ebony, October, 1997, p. 137.
Chicago Tribune, May 19, 1985, “Arts,” March 12, 1987, Tempo.
The Guardian, (London) May 12, 1994, Arts, p. 5.
International Herald Tribune, June 21, 1995, p. 10.
Inter Press Service, December 23, 1987.
Los Angeles Times, April 18, 1990, p. 3.
New York Amsterdam News, July 10, 1993, p. 4.
Scenaria, November 1990, p. 3; February 92, p. 3.
Weekly Journal, January 12, 1995, p. 5.
"Masekela, Barbara 1941–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 13, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/masekela-barbara-1941
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