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“Jerusalema” Is About Self-Determination

The South African house track “Jerusalema” has rocketed around the world, becoming a viral sensation. But it’s no common pop song — it speaks to a growing desire across Africa to remake and reimagine the world.

A still from the gospel-inspired South African house track “Jerusalema” by DJ and producer Master KG, featuring vocalist Nomcebo Zikode.

Forever condemned as its “heart of darkness,” the world remains baffled as to how Africa has seemingly avoided the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier in the year, as the virus ravaged other parts of the world and prepared to make landfall on the continent, the projections were nothing short of severe. It was widely anticipated that Africa’s poor and overcrowded living conditions, the prevalence of other diseases like HIV and TB, and its lack of well-resourced health systems would make for the deadliest viral path on the globe. Despite their touch of catastrophism, these predictions were not unreasonable given the evidence of despair elsewhere. What is strange is the sense of perverse disappointment that this hasn’t been the case. Stranger still that, at the height of doom and gloom, little was done by way of international support to prevent the expected worst case outcomes.

On the flip side, the world is celebrating the lightness of this continent, albeit in the most clichéd way — through its products of song and dance. Since the middle of this year, the gospel-inspired South African house track “Jerusalema” by DJ and producer Master KG, featuring vocalist Nomcebo Zikode, has enraptured a global audience. What made it especially take off was its evolution into the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge, prompted by a group of Angolan friends recording themselves with plates of food performing a variation of the line dance to the song. Following that, similar clips of people dancing to the song have been shared from all over — groups of ordinary people, nuns and priests, health care and other essential workers, police and soldiers, fuel attendants; you name it. Per the African Union, “Jerusalema” is “a song that has transcended its national boundaries and the continent, and has people across the world dancing to its vibrant rhythm.”

The South African government made sure to co-opt the dance challenge, transforming what was a mostly spontaneous and uncoordinated phenomenon to a state-sponsored feel-good narrative. As President Cyril Ramaphosa announced South Africa’s move to its lowest level of COVID-19 lockdown, he urged all South Africans to participate in the dance challenge as part of Heritage Day celebrations that happened in late September. (The holiday itself has a curious history; it replaced Shaka Day and is mostly now an excuse to barbecue.) Suddenly, a country that had been a powder keg of disaffection, traumatized at the injustices and suffering endured during lockdown yet divided on who was to blame, became united in cheerful performance, as it seemed that, at last, things were back to normal. And for South Africans, “normal” means being able to repress the fact of normal being the problem; it means comfortably moving from being outraged about police brutality in June to applauding their renditions of the “Jerusalema” dance in September.

But perhaps “Jerusalema” is different, in that the hopefulness it expresses is not simply about a return to normal, but about a desire to go beyond it. The lyrics themselves (translated from isiZulu) include the lines, “Jerusalem is my home, save me, take me with you . . . My place is not here, my kingdom is not here.” Yet the actually existing city of Jerusalem, which means “city of peace” and is claimed by all of the Abrahamic faiths yet controlled by Israel, is anything but one.

There is a gap between the religious imagery invoked by the song and the state of religiously motivated practice today, which makes the fact that Master KG himself isn’t particularly religious more telling of how the song speaks to a deeper yearning in the human condition, one beneath religious sentiment. And when Zionists (not the South African version of African-inspired Christianity, but supporters of Israel) at one point tried to appropriate the message of the song as endorsing support for Israel, Palestine solidarity activists worked with Palestinian youth in Jerusalem and South African youth in Durban to produce two videos, which raised the profile of the African Palestinian community and solidarity between South Africa and Palestine. Young Palestinian activists including Janna Jihad and Ahed Tamimi sent video messages inviting Master KG to come to Palestine, and there have been a number of awareness-raising engagements with the artist and his management on the politics of the Palestinian struggle.

The fact that “Jerusalema” as an idea represents a longing for more than has come before could perhaps also explain the curious absence of Americans from the dance challenge crazing the world right now (something writer Michelle Chikaonda pointed out on a recent episode of AIAC Talk).

It was the Massachusetts colonizer John Winthrop who inserted the vision of a new Jerusalem in the gospel of St Matthew into the image of the United States; the founding exceptionalism upon which it would forever conceive itself as a beacon of hope and progress for the rest of the world. As the United States now decidedly proves itself to be a failed state, it renders the majority of the world — who, by force or coercion, adopted its version of liberalism — failed as well, with the global inability to handle a pandemic the surest testament.

What then, is “Jerusalema,” if not the finest distillation of a global desire for another city on a hill? And not by simply turning to another great power as America’s ready replacement — China is not the world’s savior — but one that, like the dance challenge itself, believes in the possibility of collective subjectivity. Of course, this subjectivity can collapse into forms that are reactionary rather than emancipatory. As Zwide Ndwandwe writes, there is not much separating the rainbow nationalism of the kind uplifting South Africans through the dance challenge from the xenophobia at the same time proliferating through social media demanding that the government #PutSouthAfricansFirst. It is not enough that there is widespread dissatisfaction about our society as it is underscored by a desire for something better — content must be given to what that better could possibly be.

In a recent episode of AIAC Talk partially devoted to talking through Malawi’s recent elections, Sean Jacobs and I addressed a question to the panelists which dwelled on how Malawi’s new leader, Lazarus Chakwera, is a theologian, one known to refer to citizens as being part of his “flock.” Our reason in asking this was to understand if this was a sign Malawi could possibly be headed toward more of the same demagogic and autocratic leadership that characterizes so much of the rest of the continent. Yet, in the eyes of Chikaonda and media scholar Jimmy Kainja, this fact about the new president was unremarkable — much as Malawi is a religious country, this is not why Chakwera was elected. In Kainja’s words, “Malawi is a different place now.” Its people have no time for the usual nonsense of the political class that they’ve endured since gaining independence, and now trust in their competence as citizens. It is this spirit of self-determination which enveloped Malawi and saw ordinary citizens play an active role in monitoring and overseeing the elections without foreign observers, going so far as tracking and giving hourly updates on the flights carrying the ballots.

And it is that spirit of self-determination that is quietly sweeping through the continent, as citizens respond to the crisis of global capitalism exacerbated by the pandemic. It’s easy to take an isolated look at the successful management of COVID-19 as a public health crisis on the continent, and think that the worst is over and Africa has impressed — but the truth is, we are only just beginning to grapple with the socioeconomic fissures that COVID-19 laid bare and worsened. We are witnessing an ongoing wave of mobilization on the continent challenging the excesses of neoliberalism—in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere. South Africa’s trade unions and social movements are preparing for a season of nationwide strike action, ones bringing together the largest trade union federation (which is aligned with the ruling party, the African National Congress) and its closest competitor. Of course, these efforts might fail, and no doubt governments will continue to use COVID-19 gathering restrictions as a pretext for repression.

But the sense you get is that, for the first time in a long time, there is belief that self-determination can only be understood as a collective achievement — of creating institutions in our society by guaranteeing the conditions of life for all. These are achievements that have to be fought for politically, and no matter how bad things get, they won’t come from the benevolence of an outside actor. The fate of Africa is determined not by the state of the West or China, but only by its people themselves. Maybe what is becoming stronger, as we search for a new city on the hill, is the conviction that we are going to build it ourselves.