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  • A Sinister Resonance
  • Aidan Erasmus

Sound is a present absence; silence is an absent present. Or perhaps the reverse is better: sound is an absent presence; silence is a present absence? In this sense, sound is a sinister resonance-an association with irrationality and inexplicability, that which we both desire and dread. Listening, then, is a specimen of mediumship, a question of discerning and engaging with what lies beyond the world of forms. When sound, silence and other modalities of auditory phenomena are represented through "silent" media, this association of mediumship becomes more acute. Dwelling in every written text there are voices; within images there is some suggestion of acoustic space. Sound surrounds, yet our relation to its enveloping, intrusive, fleeting nature is fragile (a game of Chinese whispers) rather than decisive.

(Toop vii-viii)


This article begins with three events concerned with the presence of absence, and what will be termed a sinister resonance. In 1978, during an inquest into the death of Lungile Tabalaza-a young student activist who "fell" from the fifth-floor window of the Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth while being held in custody by the South African Security Police for robbery and arson-co-accused Mabulu Jali was at the centre of a debate around whether his testimony could be corroborated by the affidavit of the doctor who examined him, after he had been allegedly assaulted by the authorities. A session of cross-questioning began, and while Jali struggled to respond in Afrikaans (his lack of fluency in the language was later used to render his testimony inadmissible to the court), the discussion shifted to the difference between a criminal trial and an inquest. The attorney representing the Tabalaza family asked the court whether "there was such a thing as cross-examination in an inquest" and, [End Page 585] citing the case of Ahmed Timol, who had met a similar death, he noted that "at an inquest there is no accused person and even if there is a suspected person, he may be absent and not represented and he should not be prejudiced as may be the case in a criminal trial by his silence" (Inquest into the Death of Lungile Tabalaza 243).

In 1979, folk musician Roger Lucey released The Road Is Much Longer, an album containing a number of songs that questioned the apartheid state. One particular song on the album, "Lungile Tabalaza," reckoned with the event of Tabalaza's death and its relation to the political landscape of South Africa. The lyrics make deliberate accusations against the police and against apartheid policies such as the much-hated Bantu Education system, which had been the driving force behind the Soweto Uprising of 1976. The death of Tabalaza was also memorialized in an artwork by Andy Mason included in the album sleeve, which in four frames retold the events leading to Tabalaza's demise. Because "Lungile Tabalaza" and other songs directly accused the government of abduction and murder, The Road Is Much Longer attracted the attention of the Security Police. Lucey and producer David Marks, after much legal opinion, decided that it was best to edit some of the tracks and to leave a minute of silence for "Lungile Tabalaza" (Lucey 136). "We needn't have bothered [editing and removing certain tracks] […] the album caused a shitstorm anyway" (161), Lucey remarks in his 2012 biography, recounting his career as a "South African troubadour who lost his voice and then set out on an unbelievable journey to find it" (161).1 The album was banned by the state soon after its release in February 1979, being deemed "dangerous to the safety of the State" by the Directorate of Publications. "Lungile Tabalaza" was not the only song to incite security police interest in Lucey's activities. Others, such as "You Need Say Nothing At All," with lyrics such as "and there's teargas at the funeral of a boy gunned down by cops / they say that there are too many mourners and this is where it stops / and the moral of the episode / is to do what you are told" carried a similar critique of the apartheid state (Korpe 226). Lucey subsequently became...


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