Interview by By Perceval Gaillard.
Original Interview Published on 7 Lames la Mer on 30 March 2017
James Mange, the death row fighter
Sentenced to death by the South African authorities in 1979, anti-apartheid fighter James Mange is a death row survivor. Timeless interview with one who sees Reunion as “a tiny stone set on the African crown”
He remained 12 months on death row … Faced with international pressure; his sentence was commuted to 20 years in prison. Major actor in the anti-apartheid struggle, James Daniel Mange was sentenced to death for “treason” and imprisoned for 14 years on Robben Island where he worked alongside Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu … Veteran of the political struggle and army (he was one of the leaders of the armed wing of the ANC ), activist musician, “original rastaman”, James Mange embodies the conscience of the African continent.
James Mange was in Reunion in October 2016, with the formation of reggae Azania Band, at the initiative of Be Wild Production. He went to meet a group of young people in Saint Paul and I was there. Life sometimes offers surprises that turn into a gift. I had heard about the international mobilization that saved his life in 1979. I knew who James Mange was and his place in the history of South Africa. I never imagined meeting him one day.
I offered to do an interview for 7 Blades Sea, explaining the philosophy of the site. He agreed, but said he would not deal with “too sensitive” political or personal issues. This is why some topics are not mentioned, including its role in the ANC, the current political situation in South Africa or the influence of socialist countries in the fall of apartheid. The exchange lasted forty-five minutes. Immerse yourself in the heart of South Africa, reggae, Rasta spirituality and the philosophy of James Mange.
Perceval Gaillard: Thank you for giving this interview to 7 Blades the Sea. Let’s start with childhood. What are the first questions that haunted the child you were?
James Mange: I grew up like all the South African children of the day, although I was a little different. I did ask myself a lot of questions. When the others were playing football or sitting around the fire to discuss, I preferred to look at the stars and wondered: what keeps them so high, so far? Why does the moon shine at night and not the day? I asked myself these kinds of questions.
Perceval Gaillard: Your first steps in the fight with the ANC …
James Mange: I started very young. There was a cell next to where I lived and I remember an old man; he recruited me with three other young people from the neighborhood.
Perceval Gaillard: The first blow …
James Mange: It was in 1978. The government arrested me and I was sentenced to death in November 1979. I was 24 years old. I then spent a year in Pretoria Central Prison. As a result of the “Free James Mange” international campaign that resonated at the United Nations, the South African government gave up and commuted my death sentence to 20 years in prison. I was transferred to Robben Island Prison and released in 1991. I stayed 14 years behind bars.
Perceval Gaillard: You said that people mobilized around the world to save you because they saw in you first a human being and not just a black fighter for the liberation of the black people …
James Mange: Yes, it must be remembered that the United Nations has recognized the apartheid regime as a crime against humanity. That’s why we had so many international supporters. It was indeed a crime against humanity. When the support campaign for saving my life was launched, it was in this context: to save a member of humanity.
Perceval Gaillard: When one goes through the terrible ordeal of the death sentence, strong relationships are formed …
James Mange: Yes … Many of my friends fell during this time. They were fighting against the army. The target has always been the army and its facilities, not the civilians. We inflicted a lot of damage on the South African army even though it was not mentioned at the time. So yes, when we go through this kind of hardship, the relationships that are made are … hard to explain to someone who did not know that. One becomes companions of struggle; it is almost stronger than the bonds that unite brothers or members of a family: one belongs to a collective consciousness. In fact, you even become one person in two different bodies.
Perceval Gaillard: Under what circumstances did you become rasta?
James Mange: In prison. South Africans are very religious. Beyond Christianity, we have always had our own belief system. When I arrived in prison, there was Islam, Christianity … But I was looking for something else, something that speaks to me, that corresponds to what I really am. That’s why I became a rasta. [Silence.] I usually avoid talking about that. [Silence.]
Perceval Gaillard: According to you, what influences can Rastafari spirituality have in the world?
James Mange: I’m thinking of peace especially. It is a philosophy that takes into account the soul and not the skin color. [Silence.] She stands against injustice and can bring love … which is the essence of who we are, what we do. [Long silence.] It’s a way of living, it’s not something you can talk about and then forget about it … you just have to live it. Before I went to church on Sunday and then I quarreled with everyone about what it meant to be a Christian. With Rastafari philosophy, it’s not only what you say that counts but it’s what you do and your soul is transformed in this process.
Perceval Gaillard: You’re a musician too. Reggae music … What power does music have for you?
James Mange: Roots reggae music … The power of music! Music is the most powerful weapon on this earth. It resists bombings, religions, everything that imprisons and corrupts people. It even has the power to transform the most cruel, the most brutal human being. When the heart perceives what is right, the soul accepts it and the rest of the person ends up following. Music does not bother with color, religion, gender, or age. Music touches everyone: child, old man, woman, young.
Perceval Gaillard: How did you discover reggae in South Africa?
James Mange: It was 1966. Do not forget that when I was young, South Africa was going through a trying time. For the people, access to reggae music was not easy. It was not until 1972 that Jimmy Cliff came on the air and people started listening to reggae. In fact, there were small record stores and if you were part of the underground, you could access the music of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh …
Perceval Gaillard: Burning Spear …
James Mange: Yes. You also had Bunny Wailer [Editor’s note: third historic member of the Wailers] whose message is so powerful … I’m talking about the era of Wailers there. There was also Michael Smith, Toots Hibbert … Today, I love all South African artists. Artists are prophets. Each artist has a message to give. I do not judge the person. I listen to what he can bring to the world.
Perceval Gaillard: Whatever the genre?
James Mange: Yes. It can be jazz, classical, any kind of music. It’s still good when I’m in Reunion
[Rickie, keyboard player of Azania, enters the room without knowing we are doing an interview. He talks loudly.]
Perceval Gaillard: Rickie, my brother, we do an interview.
Rickie: Sorry, my friend.
Perceval Gaillard: No problem. You’re okay ? Rickie: It’s always good when I’m in Reunion. [He moves away ; the conversation resumes with James.]
James Mange: Artists have this talent: hold knowledge and pass it on. They are a little angels / mediators of God, regardless of the “God”. They are this very pure channel that receives the vibration and spreads the message. I know that sometimes for some, it’s hard to hear them … You know, there are few prophets still alive. Look at Peter, Bob …
Perceval Gaillard: Are the reggae artists, according to you, recognized for their true value?
James Mange: [Long silence.] It’s complex. As reggae artists, we face a lot of negative energy … Each artist brings his own conception, his perception of things. For example, Linton Kwesi Johnson  … [Editor’s note: He takes this example because we mentioned it a short time ago.] Some do not understand it but others on the contrary find themselves through him. It’s not just about how an artist touches us but about “communion” with the artist.
Perceval Gaillard: How is reggae perceived in South Africa?
James Mange: In fact, the “system” has created such a situation in South Africa that many people think that there is only one person doing reggae at home. [Editor’s note: he refers to Lucky Dube, an icon of South African reggae, murdered in 2007 in the suburbs of Johannesburg by “thieves.”] I knew Lucky Dube very well and I certainly will not speak ill of him. It’s as if South Africa had never had other reggae artists … But there was nothing in this situation. It is the Kwaito music that is responsible for this imbalance. [Editor’s note: Born in the 90s, Kwaito music is a South African variant of house music, very popular with youth.]
Perceval Gaillard: But there are many other reggae artists …
James Mange: Yes, of course. Groups or artists like Azania Band, Sounds of Selassie, Angola, Jambo (etc.) are still active. But the new generations are not interested in them.
Perceval Gaillard: What happened with the Kwaito?
James Mange: Actually, we were a lot of people playing reggae, but for the most part we were out of the system. You only heard certain artists if you went to their neighborhood. Then the kwaito invaded the system. As a result, few reggae artists have benefited from international promotion.
Perceval Gaillard: What were your first experiences as a musician?
James Mange: I started to get interested in reggae and playing guitar in 1966. When I was young, a reggae musician was not easy to find. I had a few teenage groups but the two most important groups for me were “The Volcanos” and “The Whiplashes” that I formed in prison in 1980. Oh my God, what a group …
Perceval Gaillard: Why this name?
James Mange: “The Whiplashes” … These are the brands that stay on the skin after a whiplash. It was the coat we made the “system”. On my albums, it says “James Mange and The Whiplashes”.
Perceval Gaillard: What happened to the members of this group?
James Mange: Some had problems … Some were with me on Robben Island. One went to Ireland. Only three survived … [His eyes are veiled … I feel that we must change the subject.]
Perceval Gaillard: You also campaign against global warming.
James Mange: Yes, I am engaged, I am an activist. I am not against development but it must be controlled, in Africa as elsewhere. The situation is worrying at the global level: the ozone layer is under attack; hurricanes are more and more devastating; Antarctica melts … All these phenomena are the consequence of human activities and the way in which we exploit the resources of the planet in the name of development. It is a problem for all humanity and there are many victims.
Perceval Gaillard: Africa is paying a heavy price for the exploitation of natural resources … It is perhaps on the African continent that there are the most victims!
James Mange: Yes, it’s related to poverty in some countries. Ethiopia, Biafra … Yet we have everything on this continent to feed our people.
Perceval Gaillard: This is not the case of Europe …
James Mange: That’s why Europe is plundering our wealth: minerals, oil, etc. As a result, the soil is so damaged that people can no longer live properly. They can not feed themselves anymore. Many diseases in Africa are related to this. The poison sometimes comes directly from the ground, water that is toxic too …
Perceval Gaillard: On this subject, what is the situation in South Africa?
James Mange: A lot of damage has been done in South Africa. If you take into account everything that happened between 1662 and 1994 … several centuries. And there, it is hardly two decades that we try to repair the damage. Mathematically, it’s impossible. [Silence.]
Perceval Gaillard: What is your view of Reunion Island?
James Mange: Ah, Reunion! It’s … you see a crown? Reunion is a tiny stone placed on a large crown. It is the jewel of the African crown. Many people do not know her. Here, I feel great energy coming from the earth itself. I know the history of slavery; there is something liberating about this island. I have traveled a lot and met different people and people, but I have never seen anything like it elsewhere. It shows you what Africa should be …
Perceval Gaillard: What do you feel here?
James Mange: In Reunion, human development does not seem to have worked against nature. As soon as you land at the airport, all your stress disappears without you knowing why. You realize it once in the car but you do not know what happened. Your body responds to the vibrations you receive from the earth, from the air, from the sea …
Perceval Gaillard: People too?
James Mange: Yeah … the atmosphere is filled with positive waves. People do not live in fear! This is how humanity should live.
Perceval Gaillard: You met young Reunionese. What message did you give them?
James Mange: They have a responsibility for the next generations. In South Africa, my generation has taken responsibility for the generations of today. And those before had done it for us. Humanity is like DNA: one after the other, we are the links of the same chain. Life has two sides: the positive and the negative. At age 17/20, you must be able to find the right way. There is always hope for young people, but it also depends on what we do as parents. When I was young, the world was completely different, so my job is to understand their world and to convey to them the positive things of my time. We must give them love, show understanding, guarantee them the right to develop, educate them but more than anything, we must love them. Love is the most powerful weapon of humanity.
Perceval Gaillard: You talk about love … You told me that in jail, you did not hate your jailers, nor their leaders, nor the whites because hating them was to behave like them. How did you find the strength not to give in to hatred?
James Mange: The strength is in you. Man is more than a physical body. The soul is not dark, it blazes, it gives, it shines, it is free. She is innocent when she arrives in this body. No narcissism, nothing negative in it. You want to know how I did not give in to hate compared to those who made me suffer these things … So here it is: I realized that they were not the ones responsible, but the system that they served. Once they came to you, they realized that you were no different from them. Despite the propaganda that said “they are terrorists, they shed blood,” their goodness began to perceive our own goodness and they understood that we shared the same concerns. The system is thus made that each part that composes it does not know the others. You must be able to connect the different points … It has transformed many of them. When you refuse to hate, you give love.
Stop recording …
Perceval Gaillard: Can we find here one of the reasons for the fall of apartheid?
James Mange: There are many causes of the fall of apartheid, but the main reason is international pressure from all over the world. The government did not have the capacity to withstand such pressure. Nobody could have. There was France, the Netherlands, England, forces inside the United States, Canada, China … The socialist countries played a really crucial role. Well, I told you I will not talk about these things … Stop recording.
Perceval Gaillard: Do you want me to stop recording?
James Mange: [laughs] Yes.
Perceval Gaillard: Ok James. [The break lasts a good ten minutes during which he discusses in particular geopolitical aspects, the anti-apartheid fight, etc. He reminds me that there are subjects on which he does not want to speak publicly, especially abroad. Following this exchange, I feel tired. I then ask him one last question.]
Perceval Gaillard: What would be your last message?
James Mange: I want to talk to young people again … Find the mission of your generation. Choose the positive. Then you will have to understand your past, your story. This will enlighten your present and then you will know where to go. Every human being arrives naked on this earth, possessing nothing on the material plane. No gold, no diamond, no earth, no water … Therefore, you can not claim or steal anything on this earth. Natural resources have been made for the use of all while so many are deprived.
Perceval Gaillard: Thank you very much, James. [All my thanks go to James, Samuel, Teba, Wakhile, Judah, Khaya, Nathan, Rickie, Damien, Manu and all the others …]
Original Interview in French by Perceval Gaillard for 7 Lames la Mer 30 March 2017