Jonas Gwangwa, South Africa’s jazz icon and anti-apartheid activist


Jonas Gwangwa, pre-eminent jazz trombonist and composer who became South Africa’s leading artistic ambassador for the anti-apartheid resistance, died of cardiac complications on January 23 at the age of 83.

Born in the Johannesburg township of Soweto on October 19, 1937, he spent the prime of his life in exile but went on to enjoy a highly successful musical career spanning six decades.

Gwangwa, not only won acclaim for his music, he was also deeply involved in the struggle against white-minority rule in the country.

During the time of apartheid, he answered the call by Oliver Tambo, then-president of the ANC, to lead the Amandla Cultural Ensemble. The group was formed in 1980 to show a softer side to the anti-apartheid struggle, and win support in different parts of the world.

The white-minority National Party government regarded Gwangwa’s musical and cultural activism as a big enough threat for their security forces to bomb his house in Botswana in 1985. Fortunately the musician and the other occupants were elsewhere.

His commitment to the liberation struggle together with his exceptional musical talent saw Gwangwa being awarded South Africa’s Order of Ikhamanga in Gold – the nation’s highest honour.

The citation for the national order, which he received in 2010, recalls how he “enthralled the world with his artistry as a composer and all-round creative genius. For more than 30 years he travelled the world as an exile collecting accolades wherever he went”.

Paying tribute to Jonas Gwangwa, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement that he “ascends to our great orchestra of musical ancestors, whose creative genius and dedication to the freedom of all South Africans inspired millions in our country – and mobilised the international community against the apartheid system”.

Former president Thabo Mbeki paid his own tribute via his foundation: “Bra JG, as he was affectionately known, understood the potent combination of culture and the arts as an effective instrument for national liberation from the beginning of his career.

“Together with others of his generation, Gwangwa harnessed the enthralling capacity of music not just to entertain, but also to hold up the mirror to society and bare the evil soul of the Apartheid regime to the world.”

A young Gwangwa delighted audiences in Johannesburg’s vibrant multi-racial cultural hub of Sophiatown, until it became illegal for black people to congregate and the apartheid government censored jazz performances in 1960.

Along with other leading South African musicians like Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim and Miriam Makeba, Gwangwa went into exile rather than bow to apartheid censorship.

In 1987, alongside English composer George Fenton, Gwangwa composed the score for the film Cry Freedom, earning two Oscar nominations for best original score and song.

He also received numerous awards at home, including at the South African Music Awards in the jazz category.

Gwangwa was honoured with a special provincial state funeral on Friday livestreamed online by South Africa’s state broadcaster, bringing together those kept apart by coronavirus restrictions.

His death, just two weeks after that of his wife Violet, is a huge loss to South Africa’s music fraternity. (Source: BBC)