The Patron of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, President Thabo Mbeki, the Board and the Staff convey their deepest condolences to the family of the renowned cultural worker, activist and esteemed member of the Order of Ikhamanga in Gold, Comrade Jonas Gwangwa, who passed away yesterday.
From the nascence of his career in the 1950s, Bra JG, as he was affectionately known, understood the potent combination of culture and the arts as an effective instrument for national liberation. 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.
True to form, the unceasing Apartheid censorship machinery banned his music and rendered him an exile in the 1960s. It even made an attempt on his life in 1985. He left South Africa in the 1960s as part of Todd Matshikiza’s musical, King Kong.
In the 1970s, together with fellow exiles Caiphus Semenya and the late Hugh Masekela, Gwangwa returned to South Africa through song. Their record called Union of South Africa captured the hearts and minds of the oppressed masses and its tracks became parts of a National Anthem to many in the townships, rural areas and within the Black Consciousness Movement.
In 1976, while on a concert tour in Botswana with Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu, he elected not to return to the United States. Gwangwa formed a band composed of artists from around Southern Africa, called Shakawe. Amongst its members were the renowned late trumpeter, Dennis Mpale and tenor saxophonist, Steve Dyer.
Shakawe later played an important role, together with other South Africans in Botswana, such as Mongane Wally Sorote, Thami Mnyele and Tim Williams, in the formation of the cultural organization, MEDU Arts Ensemble. In addition to being an effective instrument in advancing the struggle against Apartheid, MEDU played a pivot role in strengthening ties between the exiled South Africans and their Botswana hosts.
Following the ANC’s successful participation in the World Black Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977, Gwangwa was tasked by the African National Congress (ANC) to draft its Memorandum on Culture. The Memo gave birth to the formation of the movement’s Amandla Cultural Ensemble, in which he served as its composer, arranger, musical director and director.
In Gwangwa’s own words: “Amandla…denoted a call to action, a no-holds-barred demand for the world to open its eyes to the reality of the war tearing South Africa apart, and an insistence that the world rise up to stand with South Africans against this heinous oppression…The message still rings strong and true, and calls on all South Africans…to use our shared history and our shared determination to forge ahead on the road to reconciliation, and to continue to shape a prosperous future for all who call this land home.”
In 1987, Gwangwa together with George Fenton created the original score and theme song for the internationally acclaimed movie, Cry Freedom, directed by the famed Richard Attenborough, which went on to win awards and nominations.
The last time the famous Wynton Marsalis Band visited South Africa to participate in the Joy of Jazz Festival it decided to play one of Jonas Gwangwa’s composition.
This outstanding jazz Band did this to pay tribute to a similarly outstanding musician for whom it had the greatest respect and high regard, the trombonist Jonas Gwangwa.
Gwangwa was not present in the hall to listen to a moving rendition by a whole group of US jazz musicians because he was already ill and confined to bed. However, he did get the report about that beautiful tribute to him.
Following his return to South Africa in 1991, Gwangwa worked tirelessly to establish an African Orchestra composed of indigenous artists. Although his vision never came to fruition as envisioned, it remains a challenge to those remaining to pick up his spear.
He passed away one week after his dear wife, a beautiful human being, Violet (Sis’ Vi), died because of Covid-19 complications. May she rest in peace!
Gwangwa’s passing robs us of a towering giant in the field of music and the arts and therefore leaves our country that much poorer!
May our dear and irreplaceable musical treasure, Jonas Gwangwa, rest in eternal peace!
Issued by the Thabo Mbeki Foundation
24 January 2021