Eddy Grant’s “Gimme Hope Joanna”, written in the height of Apartheid violence in South Africa, is not without significant echoes to today’s average Sri Lankan, even though the song is dense with topical references to the conflict-ridden African state of the late 1980s. A catchy reggae rendition, the song was released in 1988, only to be banned by South Africa’s pro-Apartheid national radio. Since taken up as a beacon which calls forth for equality and the rights of the oppressed identities, the song, in its twenty fifth year, is as popular as it has ever been.
The “Joanna” in the song – as many critics hold – is a reference to Johannesburg: the country’s largest city, which is also the pivot of administrational coordination. But, a second view denotes this “Joanna” to be the South African premier at the time, Johan Vorster. The song is written from the stand point of the oppressed and the politically downtrodden, pointing out how the “brother” is kept in “subjection” for whom Joanna (the regime) “cares not at all”. The national resources are said to be invested on “new weapons, any shape of guns”: weapons through which the majority “blacks” are kept in check; and which speak for the arbitration and policing of the nation, in maintaining the racial divides that had categorized the South African people into four distinct “colour-based” categories.
While the regime substantiates its own power-hungry desires,
“Every mother in black Soweto fears
The killing of another son
Sneakin’ across all the neighbours’ borders
Now and again having little fun
She doesn’t care if the fun and games she play
Is dang’rous to ev’ryone”.
A bent constitution that allocates extra-ordinary powers to one group at the expense of other less vocal entities is at the heart of the “fears” Eddy Grant speaks of. The de-privileging of the politically powerless is further disadvantaged by their inability to stand up against the “little fun” and the “games” played by the all consuming regime and its proxies. The most immediate analogy to this scenario can be found in the condemned attack by strategically positioned elements of the Sri Lanka military against the protesters at Rathupaswela, Weliweriya. This “operation” is “natural” and “inevitable” – and therefore, should not be questioned, probed (than deemed necessary) or problematized – and might not even be considered as the coarse outcome of a twisted power game. Brutal assaults, torture and shootings of (coloured) civilians by regimental forces were equally seen as trivial by the pro-Apartheid state.
Grant speaks of Joanna’s “supporters in high up places” to whom Joanna gives “the fancy money” in order to “tempt anyone who’d come”. Reward and punishment are the two offers by which an over-arching hegemonic power operates. In the guise of a gigantic pig, the corrupt political machine can digest any organ for which it pays a fetching price. Not only are votes and public opinion, but even representation and representatives are bought, maintained; or discarded. Joanna, therefore, has strong resonances closer to home, as she “knows how to swing opinion” to befit her agenda.
The state run South African national radio (of 1988) has its worldwide brethren that stoops low down to satisfy the whims of power, by justifying and defending whatever the state may do, no matter how much against the welfare of the common humanity such measures are:
“For every bad move that this Jo’anna makes
They got a good explanation”
The song also maps out the changing tides of the time – as to how anti-Apartheid voices are gathering momentum and as to how in their articulation the chords of anti-regimental sentiments are channelled. Archbishop Desmond Tutu – a vocal activist against colour-based discrimination – is evoked in the concluding verse and as to how the resistance is at work against state oppression:
“Together say that the freedom fighters
Will overcome the very strong”.
Joanna is firmly urged to open her eyes and to note the changing current, where the oppression and the dehumanized treatment of the powerless is no longer heeded without reaction. The gathering momentum of a collective counter-thrust is more than hinted in:
“I wanna know if you’re blind Jo’anna
If you wanna hear the sound of drums
Can’t you see that the tide is turning
Oh don’t make me wait till the morning come”.
Right throughout the song, the enigmatic and haunting ring of the chorus – which begins “gimme hope, Joanna” – has an urgency and a vibration which prophesizes a new “morning (that is) come”: a break away from autocratic Draconism of a restricted monopoly which enslaves the nation to the dictatorial needs of a few. The persistent drum beats, the pipes and fast upbeat rhythm enhance the rebellious spirit which Grant is pre-occupied with in this protest.
“Gimme Hope Joanna” and the subsequent developments in South African politics – which brings an end to the horror of Apartheid through a collaborative effort made by the likes of Clerk, Mandela et al – can be a ready eye-opener for any megalomaniac power-hungry ruler who may slumber on the fluff of political office. Rulers who divide and rule, by investing on the ethnic insecurities of ignorant masses and those who seek to over-state their office in their imitation of God, for future reference, should subscribe to Eddy Grant.
[Written for the The Nation in August, 2013]