The burden of the present

As racial tensions rise in South Africa, music has become the site of a nation's struggle for cultur

Afrikaner men are not supposed to cry, especially not in public. But it was during the evocative "Nkosi Sikelel'i Afrika" part of South Africa's double-barrelled anthem (the second part consists of the Afrikaans and English versions of the apartheid remnant "Die Stem", or "the call") that the Springbok rugby player Stefan Terblanche, overcome with emotion, started sobbing. The whole of South Africa, waiting for the test match against Wales to begin in Bloemfontein, saw on television how his burly team-mate Ollie le Roux hugged him with a supporting arm, while continuing passionately to sing the African-language hymn that was once the ANC's anthem. Especially poignant, seeing that rugby used to be the domain of white power.

It also said a lot about South Africa's mix-and-match rainbow identity. But at the same time, it hardly said it all. In this musical country, with its 11 official languages, even more ethnic groups, and race, language and class barriers still firmly entrenched, two music CDs, recently released, perhaps give a bigger picture.

Discs from two icons of South African culture, the poet Breyten Breytenbach and the playwright Mbongeni Ngema, more effectively illustrate the harshness of the post-Mandela, post-honeymoon South Africa.

The composer Mbongeni Ngema's new single, "AmaNdiya" (Zulu for "the Indians"), from Jive Madlokovu, has already caused a huge controversy. It accuses South Africa's Indian (Asian) population of exploitation and resisting change. Its critics say the song - with its infectious township bubblegum beat and Zulu lyrics such as "A brave man is being sought to confront the Indians" and "Indians do not want to change, whites were far better than Indians/Even Mandela has failed to convince them to change" - is destined to foment racial hatred.

Ngema is not new to controversy. His populist musical Sarafina was a great hit on Broadway in the early Nineties, but its follow-up, Sarafina 2, was performed only twice. Commissioned by the government in 1995 as an Aids-awareness play, it cost the South African taxpayer 14m rand (about £2m). After allegations of corruption, the public prosecutor ruled that the health department subsidy for the play was an unauthorised expenditure. He also said that the HIV/Aids message the play conveyed was inadequate, questionable and should be revised and improved if the play was to continue. Fortunately for the well-connected Ngema, the judgement concluded that the musical was a "worthy exercise", despite the unjustifiable mismanagement surrounding its staging.

Now Ngema's new song, which also contains the lines "The reason why we have to endure so much suffering in Durban is because the Indians took it all/They turn around and exploit us", is being investigated by the South African Human Rights Commission, a government body, following charges of "hate speech".

The commission's Jody Kollapen, who is of Indian descent, maintains that whilst deep divisions in race and ethnicity in South Africa must be properly addressed, Ngema's lyrics do not make a contribution to the social dialogue. "They serve to polarise people even more, and I don't think they are conducive to nation-building in our country," Kollapen says.

Even former president Nelson Mandela has called on Ngema to apologise for offence taken at the song's "racist" lyrics. But the playwright remains unmoved: "African people are very disgruntled. Those who had fought in the liberation struggle in the townships, particularly in KwaZulu/Natal, are in the same position they were in under apartheid," he said recently in a radio interview. "The song has achieved its purpose. The purpose is to start a debate so that true reconciliation can begin between Africans and Indians."

Ngema added that he merely echoes the questions that black people ask at taxi ranks, soccer matches and in bars. But members of the Indian population, numbering more than one million - whose ancestors first arrived in the mid-1800s as indentured labourers to work on the sugar cane plantations of colonial Natal - say these sentiments are reminiscent of the anti-Indian pogroms in 1949 and 1985, in which scores of people were killed.

So the Ngema song tells a tale of race, identity, culture and ethnicity, albeit a crude one. But it is not the only tale. And although there is no one clear cultural narrative in the Thabo Mbeki-led South Africa, it is the deafening silence - about a society that is being re-racialised - from public intellectuals, especially progressive ones, that shouts louder than any piece of music.

The poetry-quoting president, who also sees himself as an intellectual, is known to have a very thin skin. So intellectuals tend to be praise-singers of Mbeki's form of neoliberal Africanism to avoid being lambasted by him or his allies. And those who cannot get themselves to join the pro-Mbeki choir, keep quiet. That is understandable, because if they are black and critical, they are called sell-outs, and if they are white they are called racist, in spite of impeccable credentials in the struggle against apartheid.

Regarded by many as the greatest writer in Afrikaans, Breytenbach has recorded, in English only, Lady One. Consisting of 14 love poems, he used a bunch of creative, young, left-field musicians to accompany him. It could easily have been the musical equivalent of a man growing a ponytail at 63, but it works well because Breytenbach's notoriously "difficult" poetry is complemented by the musical landscapes of dub, post-rock and afro-jazz.

And it confirms his status as the perpetual outsider. As an anti-apartheid activist (he was jailed in the Seventies for "terrorism" against the apartheid state), Breytenbach still doesn't fit into what seemed like an obvious home inside the ANC; and, with his Buddhism, anarchism and ever-ready middle finger, he has continually alienated the Afrikaner establishment.

"I deliberately steer away from trying to make dramatic statements - as I used to - about the state of the nation," laughs Breytenbach. "Good God! I have no idea where the nation is at. I have no idea where the nation is! I haven't been able to find it; it got mislaid somewhere."

Maybe Lady One will speak to a young, disaffected white generation, if the musicians who worked with him are anything to go by. They don't want to be saddled with the burden of their parents' apartheid past, but just want to get on with things, accepting the inevitability of an African future.

The cultural atmosphere is perhaps best summed up in the song "Politics" by the iconoclastic twentysomething hip-hop crew Skwatta Kamp: "Pounds and dollars for bombs and arms/But there's hardly a rand when I reach out my arms/As a matter of fact, I think I better shut up/The president might slap me for speaking too much."