In 1986 an album with a prophetic title 'We See A New Africa' announced to the worshipping church that in Friends First there were black and white South African Christians prepared to cross the racial divide. Now the concept has been reinstated and a new album speaks hope and faith from post-apartheid South Africa. Pat Herridge spoke at length to the man behind FRIENDS FIRST, Malcolm du Plessis.
In 1986 the insularity of the Western church was shattered when 'We See A New Africa' by Friends First spoke with prophetic power about a church united in a dangerous drive towards peace and brotherhood. Now the Friends First concept has re-immerged with the release of Dumisani Ma-Afrika' (Praise of Africa). Again, the music is a riveting blend of African and Western sounds.
There are songs in Zulu, Xhosa and English, some by the Friends First founder Malcolm du Plessis and some traditional African songs including the beautiful anthem "Nkosi Sikelelel'L Afrika". Plus there is a new element with the annual Global March For Jesus sparking Graham Kendrick to work with du Plessis and the album is divided into 'Songs For The Streets' and 'Songs Of Preparation'. Apart from a ghastly cover design, 'Dumisani Ma-Afrika' is a powerful musical statement speaking fathoms to a nation and a church struggling to re-emerge from the blight of apartheid. I spoke to Malcolm du Plessis during a visit to the UK and began by asking him to sketch in his own background.
"I was born in Durban, South Africa in 1959 to an Africaans family - that is, my father was an Africaans speaking person," said Malcolm. "He was a bookmaker in horse races, so we grew up in a shady gambling situation and used to duck from the police on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. He married an English-speaking woman and so we grew up in a fairly progressive sort of white culture, but totally and utterly ignorant of the situation in the country. I suppose my opening comment about apartheid as a system is its success is not only how it disenfranchises and ruins the lives of people, but how it totally and utterly separates the various cultures So white people were totally ignorant. The geography of South Africa is such that you can live your whole life and never have to see a black township all the freeways are hidden away. So I grew up in that kind of sheltered environment. Because my father was in gambling, lots of his customers and clients were non-white people. So we figured we were a pretty progressive white family because we did business with black people! But the only reason we did it was because they paid".
Malcolm's move to faith was, to say the least, rather unexpected. I became a Christian in 1976 by mistake. A friend of mine became a Christian and I was very bothered and tried to help him out to just calm down. So I thought I would do some serious counselling and through a whole series of events, became a Christian myself. I was actually trying to help the Christian not make a fool of himself! Because I had been fairly adventurous and imaginative in my upbringing I got involved with what was then the kind of Jesus People type church - the white - in fact 100 percent white - young people's radical church in the city of Durban. Eventually a church came out of the ruins of this particular kind of hippy church. It was filled with talented people - photographers, painters, actors, musicians - pretty adventurous-thinking people but still totally within the parameters and confines of white culture. Our thinking was provoked but not beyond those firm borderlines apartheid had created for us.1984 was the beginning of my discovery of the implications of being a South African. It was not because of education or because of reading or being an academic; it was a totally intuitive sort of experience for me. In December 1984, God spoke to me just out of the blue one day - he told me he was calling the church to fast and pray for 21 days and that specifically we should begin to fast on 4th August the following year, 1985. Initially everyone thought I was stark raving mad. But this whole series of uncanny events happened and suddenly our little leadership team thought 'this is obviously the correct thing to do'."
As the political situation in South Africa got increasingly bad, Malcolm and friends began putting on a series of worship seminars. "Basically a series of events happened with myself and a whole bunch of friends. Nick Paton and Steve McEwen are two of the crucial guys. Nick is the grandson of Alan Paton who wrote a very famous piece of South African literature called 'Cry The Beloved Country' and was the leader of the Liberal Party in South Africa for years. Steve McEwen, another young white guy in our church - we wrote lots together - he's just been doing an American tour for World Party. The three of us were doing a whole bunch of worship seminars around the country and the main subjects were relevance, creativity, diversity - we were exploring all kinds of things with different churches. And out of that we began to write some songs that were African, in a kind of an African genre. We figured that the best thing to do would be to get the white church to begin singing praise to God in a genre that was exclusive to South Africa. In July of 1985, myself and Steve McEwen actually travelled overseas together doing a whole lot of little ministry events and during that trip the state of emergency was declared and South Africa went into total chaos. I was in England, and so I was watching TV. It was the first time in my whole life that I'd ever been exposed to actually what the police were doing. I think I was fascinated, more than shocked. I just sat there and watched BBC every day. I'd grown up being told that what they showed overseas was old footage from Sharpeville in 1961 and that it was all hype and nonsense. I remember watching and thinking, 'This looks very current - these buildings are new - this is all the truth.' But during that month while I was away, the state of emergency was declared, and then a series of interesting developments happened. On the 1st August a lady by the name of Victoria Nxenge was shot dead on her doorstep in a township right by Durban - her husband had been assassinated previously, and it had subsequently been revealed that it was government activity. On Saturday 3rd August which was the day before our prayer and fasting time, her funeral was disallowed by the police. As a result of that the whole of her township just went up in flames. And so, literally for the next 21 days, which were the 21 days of our fasting time, our city was under siege, it was just like a war. There were bombs all over the place, there was chaos, it was scary, to put it mildly.
"So we were praying, singing our songs, and it was a very provoking experience. On the 14th day of that fast I had an encounter with God. We were worshiping - and God showed me the extent of how the South African system had affected me and gave me this overwhelming hunger to be involved in the nitty-gritty of South African life. So my immediate quest was to meet black people. For the next six months my friends and I looked for any opportunity to broaden the horizons of our South African life. We had a pretty interesting time. We immediately hit all the problems of whites and blacks meeting and the different expectations and confusions. We were naive, did all the wrong things, got into trouble, got accused of being patronising - but we couldn't be accused of not being zealous. I mean we were ready and we were praying and saying 'Lord, we'll die'. It was dangerous times. Because I was travelling and ministering, I was in different cities; we started visiting the different townships and building relationships. I remember once there was a particular Christian event for all the musicians in the country, and myself, Nic, Joe Arthur, Steve - and others I can't remember -we all had a chance to lead a session. So we sang our African songs. There was a whole bunch of black guys at the event who just freaked out. They couldn't believe what we were doing. We were at this conference at about midnight, there were about 10 of us sitting in a room in one of these chalets at this conference centre and there was literally five white guys and five black guys all talking, and the one guy, Victor Mangani, said, 'Hey, we feel so much closer to you white guys.' And then Danny Bridges grabbed his guitar and played a G chord and sang 'We feel so much closer'. So then he sings this line 'We feel so much closer' and within minutes, four different guys contributed lyrically and the song 'Masihlanganeni' was written. Every door opened, more opportunities occurred and it was a very, very exciting time. By March 1986 there was such a groundswell of activity. I just got on the phone - 'cos I mean, we were dealing with people from three different cities, from every corner of the country - and said, 'Let's document all these songs that we've been writing'. So we took the master tapes from city to city and made a record. There was a large number of people involved, some were absolute nobodies who were just people that we'd met, some were very successful people in the South African music industry. The reason we gave ourselves the title Friends First was because we thought that if that was our priority then the integrity of what we were doing would be powerful. That didn't mean that it wasn't wrought with struggles, difficulties and misunderstandings. But nevertheless it's been a wonderful experience. As a result of recording the songs we felt a sense of 'we've got a vehicle with which we can challenge Christians from every kind of background to be believing that God can actually bring healing to the country'. The word "reconciliation" has all kinds of complications so we avoided that word as much as we could. Rather we tried to get people together under the Lordship of Christ. The record 'We See A New Africa' immediately went on to the official South African charts. It sold a whole bunch and then a whole bunch of television shows phoned and asked, 'Could you come'. So Friends First did all these television shows. But it was like a big family."
The phenomenal success of 'We See A New Africa' opened all kinds of doors for Friends First. Remembered Malcolm, "Ray Phire, who was the guitarist and wrote most of the songs with Paul Simon on 'Graceland' and still plays the guitar for Paul Simon, was positive about what we were doing. Miriam Makeba got a copy of our second project which was called 'Another Friend In Another City' and it just totally blessed her. She was just weeping. They were travelling in Italy on a bus and she was listening to it on her headphones. She tracked me down and phoned me from the United Nations - she was with Mrs Mugabi, the Premier of Zimbabwe's wife at the United Nations. Miriam said, 'Listen, when I hear your music I want to come back to South Africa - I want you young people to write songs for me.' So Steve McEwen and Victor Masondo, our bass player - he's a hot bass player, recently he did a project with Elton John in Sun City and remixed a song with the Hothouse Flowers in Johannesburg - wrote a song for Miriam. She sang it at a concert in Paris - she was given the freedom of the city of Paris by the mayor - she did a concert with Dizzy Gillespie and Nina Simone and it was the first time that she sang the song that the guys wrote for her called 'I Still Long For You' about her desire to return to South Africa.
"She burst into tears as she began singing it and just crumpled on the stage. Felica Marion, our young South African singer, had to come to the front and sing the song on her behalf, as she just lay weeping on the stage and apparently there was a 7,000 audience and they were just all weeping. It was the most extraordinarily emotional time. And so we wrote all the songs, we prepared the project and I actually was the executive producer for Miriam's first project when she returned to South Africa. I got all the musicians and put the whole thing together for her. So as Friends First as an entity, we had opportunities to touch the church, but then subsequently had the incredible opportunity to reach out to the outside entertainment world. I think we gained a lot of credibility and to this day are extremely respected in all the big circles. In 1990, the beginnings of the changes happened - Nelson Mandela was released from prison. By June 1990 we were just so exhausted. We managed to pay off our debts and we thought, 'Let's have a rest'. And so we did a final concert - ironically the South African Broadcasting Corporation unbanned all our songs on our final day. SABC gave us a half hour TV special, which was broadcast between the Wimbledon men's final and the World Cup soccer series. So we had a great TV slot, with our previously-banned songs. We did some massive political events and then we ended."
But the phenomenon that was Friends First refused to die. In 1991, Graham Kendrick and Geoff Shearn visited South Africa, doing some reconnaissance work for March For Jesus which had got off to a rather sticky start in South Africa. "March For Jesus had happened already in South Africa, but it had been initiated by a very well-meaning white fellow, but got incredible flack from the black community," explained Malcolm. "He just made some strategic blunders. After a bunch of research, Graham and Geoff came to the conclusion that the only key for March For Jesus to work in the country would be for Friends First to reassemble and for us to make an album. The thought just horrified me, because of all the stress. Protest marching is part of our culture, it's something that's happening constantly and it just figured for the Church to get on the streets and declare the Lord Jesus at this time. Because of the changes, the extreme political sensitivities are diminishing rapidly now and it's much easier for whites and black people to work together. So I just spoke to a bunch of different leaders and guys and it seemed like it would be a good thing to do the march project. So we assembled everyone together. It just so happened that the week we recorded the project was the week that Chris Hani was assassinated, and the country was in turmoil. So we were once again back in our recording studio with guns and marches and police and blockades."
Assembling the singers and musicians was not a particularly easy task. "I drove around from township to township, having all these funny meetings. I love it, but it's very bureaucratic and very exasperating. But eventually we managed to have around 200 people that came and sang. And so we had all our friends and relatives and their mothers and mothers' friends - a whole bunch, literally. We had some really sharp singers and in fact many of the conservative white Africaaner speaking singers, gold-record selling stars, came and sang in the mass choir that we put together - in the back row. That kind of thing was quite wonderful for us. We did the project and eventually mixed it. We had a little strategy: we released the album because Friends First have got the radio support and then we came on the back of that with the March For Jesus. It went according to plan, and we've been played on every black radio station. It's not really appropriate for the white stations that are playing Western pop music - it's a bit too "jungley" for them. But Radio Zulu, which is our largest radio station, play it five times a day. Rakon Mzamani, who's the top DJ who has the biggest listenership of anybody in the country, often he would play three tracks of our project in a row without even stopping."