American Ubuntu: Springsteen, South Africa and 9/11

by John Allen

A reflection on Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s first visit to South Africa

Somehow I managed to miss Bruce Springsteen when others in my generation were listening to him.

I knew who he was, vaguely. But I guess journalism in the wake of first the Soweto uprising, then the states of emergency after the Vaal uprising of 1984, gave us all the excitement we needed. So I wasn’t among the South Africans who poured across the border into Zimbabwe in 1988 to hear him compare “the systematic apartheid of South Africa” to “the economic apartheid of my own country, where we segregate our underclass in ghettos in all the major cities…”

It wasn’t until more than a decade later when I went to live in New York, or more accurately, worked in New York and lived across the Hudson River in downtown Jersey City – New York’s “third world” – that I understood that Springsteen reflects the America which you won’t learn about from the sitcoms, the soaps or many of the graduate students who come to study us.

No, he represents the America in which if you don’t have a college degree, or even two, you might be working two jobs to make ends meet; the America in which, until Obamacare, 40 million people had no health insurance, some relying on church fund-raisers to pay for heart surgery; the America of those Jersey City streets where the Dominican immigrants working for the minimum wage congregate on the steps of their walk-up apartments (no lifts) to socialise on a hot summer evening as you walk by.

I learned in New York for the first time that Born in the U.S.A., far from celebrating fist-pumping American patriotism is about the disillusionment of the sons, and now daughters, of blue-collar workers deployed by America’s elites to fight their wars for them – such as the Vietnam vet of the song who:

Got in a little hometown jam,
So they put a rifle in my hand,
Sent me off to a foreign land,
To go and kill the yellow man.

And Springsteen’s message came closer to home when I read how, in a fit of pique, the New York Police Department withdrew the escort helping the rock star get through the traffic to an appearance at the old Shea Stadium in Queens.

The singer’s sin? In protest at the killing of 22-year-old Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant shot by police as he reached for his wallet in the foyer of his own apartment block, Springsteen had at an earlier appearance sung his composition American Skin. It opens with a recitation of the number of rounds the four officers discharged:

41 shots, 41 shots, 41 shots, 41 shots, 41 shots, 41 shots, 41 shots, 41 shots….
Is it a gun, is it a knife?
Is it a wallet, this is your life?
It ain’t no secret
It ain’t no secret
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living
In your American skin.

But I really found Springsteen after September 11, 2001. The narrative tells the story, the lyrics of the post 9/11 albums, The Rising and Magic, the experience of a South African feeling far from home.

September 11, 8.46 am: Three months after getting a work permit to join the staff of Trinity Church Wall Street, Manhattan’s oldest Anglican parish, I emerge from the World Trade Centre station after my commute under the river. Turning the corner towards our offices, I hear a low-flying jet. The scream is unlike anything I have heard since the day of Madiba’s inauguration in the amphitheatre of Union Buildings in 1994, when what became “our” airforce saluted the transfer of power. “Strange, I didn’t see that the President [George W. Bush] was in town today.” My thought is interrupted by an almighty bang. Within seconds, the sky is filled with floating paper and ash, carpetting lower Manhattan in grey. Lenore Rivera, a colleague, and I run for the cover of our offices.

Hell’s brewin’ dark sun’s on the rise
This storm’ll blow through by and by
House is on fire, Viper’s in the grass

(Lonesome Day)

9.03 am: Returning up the street to St. Paul’s Chapel, an 18th century church we operate across the street from the twin towers of the trade centre, the chapel’s priest, Lyndon Harris, and I are going to see whether there’s anything we can do. Another screaming jet, and another enormous crash. Lyndon wants to go on. I think he’s crazy, the way Desmond Tutu was once during those dreadful days of August 1990, when people were being slaughtered on the streets of the East Rand. Then, he wanted to leave a bus carrying visiting clergy down Khumalo Street in Thokoza to negotiate with panga-wielding hostel residents blocking our passage, so I stood in the way, blocking him for long enough for clergy less recognisable – and less demonised by the forces of apartheid – to negotiate the way through. On 9/11, Lyndon listens to persuasion and turns back with me.

Sometime in the 56 minutes after 9.03 am: A crowd of visiting theologians is huddled in Trinity’s television studio. They’re there to record a no doubt weighty discussion, probably something to do with the nature of God, I imagine, I never really knew. In the short time I had worked there, I wondered what I thought I was doing, so distant were their experiences from mine. Then a Welsh priest, Rowan Williams, is called upon to say an off-the-cuff prayer. Months, maybe years later, after he’s been named the new archbishop of Canterbury, I come across my scrappy note of what he said, fallen between my desk and the wall:

“… Try to bring our fear and our helplessness into the open before God. Recognizing our own fear and pain, we hold before God all those killed, injured, those desperate with anxiety, those who still may be trapped, those who caused this… We ask for whatever resources we need, To speak for God as we go out again, For any who need our help or our comfort, To our hearts, to our own feelings, to the needs and pain of those around us…”

This too shall pass, yeah, I’m gonna pray
Right now all I got’s this lonesome day
It’s alright… It’s alright… It’s alright, yeah…
It’s alright… It’s alright… It’s alright, yeah…
Let kingdom come I’m gonna find my way
Through this lonesome day.

9.59 am: I’m at my desk, starting to write the story. The office block shudders, so heavily that I’m surprised that cracks don’t appear in the wall in front of me, which adjoins the American Stock Exchange building. Have they been hit too? With what? Missiles?

Now your own worst enemy has come to town
Now your own worst enemy has come to town
(Your Own Worst Enemy)

The power has failed. I leave the office and find colleague Lynn Brewster outside. Smoke and dust are shooting under the doors and filling up the corridors. We have no idea of what has happened. We decide to get out, me without laptop, cellphone, jacket or wallet; going back for them might be the difference between life and death. I run down four floors to the foyer, turn to go through the front door, only to see blackness. Has the front of the building collapsed? Moving closer, no. The glass is intact. But it’s dark outside, pitch black. Dark, at something past 10? If we had been expecting a total eclipse of the sun today, surely I would have read about it? It’s apocalyptic.

The sky was falling and streaked with blood

(Into the Fire)

Some time after 10 am: We’re in the back of the foyer. In my no doubt over-heated recollection, we are all crouching, although we probably weren’t. One colleague says to those around her: “This is just like Pearl Harbour.” I don’t say anything but I think, “No, this is not like Pearl Harbour at all. That was a military target; lower Manhattan is a civilian target. This is much worse.” Later I realise that South Africans are more experienced in judging the conditions for a just war than Americans.

Stuck in the building, nowhere to go, facing we don’t know what, my mind goes back home to the early nineties, to Thokoza and Kagiso, to Sebokeng and Boipatong, to Edendale and Table Mountain, the one near Maritzburg. I recall the solidarity of ministry in the wake of massacre with figures of the stature of Tutu, Frank Chikane, Khoza Mgojo, Stanley Mogoba, Michael Nuttall and Peter Storey. I remember the lighter moments, such as when Tutu’s personal assistant, Mazwi Tisani, tells him that as we stood among people carrying axes, pangas and petrol bombs, “Father, when you said, ‘Let us pray,’ I didn’t close my eyes.” On 9/11, I am a lot lonelier. I don’t know if I’m going to get out of this alive.

I’m countin’ on a miracle
Baby I’m countin’ on a miracle
Darlin’ I’m countin’ on a miracle
To come through

(Countin’ on a miracle)

As we find the places in the building where it’s easiest to breathe, we don’t know whether it’s safer there or on the uncertain streets outside. But as smoke and dust begin to penetrate every space, it becomes clear we have no choice. Around 90 toddlers and young children are with us, mostly other people’s kids dropped off at the church pre-school, so we tear babies’ bibs in two and dip them in water to cover their and our faces to help us breathe.

As we step outside, the same phrase leaps to everyone’s mind: nuclear winter. An eery silence. Streets, cars, everything covered in grey ash, littered with debris of every kind. Later we hear that the undercarriage of one of the aircraft which hit Tower Two was found just up the street.

10.28 am: As we walk south through the deserted streets, away from the World Trade Centre, there’s a long, growling, then deafening roar from behind us. We run for the overhangs of shop entrances, which offer pitifully little cover. Years later, in a previously untold story, I hear that Lenore had frozen in the middle of the street, paralysed, and that it was Rowan Williams who broke cover to run out and pull her back. The roar passes, and we’re all okay. As we head down to the southernmost point of the island, I wonder whether gas mains will catch fire and set the whole of lower Manhattan alight. Will we have to swim for it? But at a ferry terminal, we manage to get the children on buses which have been dropping off emergency workers, and then escape the area ourselves, by bus or ferry.

Afternoon: Colleagues in a church building near the United Nations – a part of town in which I’m comfortable through long acquaintance – give me refuge. I borrow $100 for food and the subway. I learn some time during the day or the evening that the “Apocalypse” must have been the consequence of Tower Two collapsing, generating the billowing black clouds of smoke and dust which raced through Manhattan’s canyons, sending people fleeing as if in a disaster movie. The roar half an hour later was Tower One coming down.

Days later, we find a pair of civilian boots hanging upside down on the church’s iron railings on Broadway, near the corner of Wall Street. A firefighter had changed into his work boots and presumably joined the scores of others who began to climb up the stairwells of the 110-storey towers, carrying up to 50 kg of equipment and hose on their backs:

I heard you calling me then you disappeared into the dust
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire

(Into the Fire)

Can’t see nothin’ in front of me
Can’t see nothin’ coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I can’t feel nothin’ but this chain that binds me
Lost track of how far I’ve gone
How far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed
On my back’s a sixty pound stone
On my shoulder a half mile o’ line

(The Rising)

Three hundred and forty-three firefighters died that day, many in those stairwells.

Around 8 pm: A train is laid on to take commuters back under the river to Jersey City. I get home, shoes and trousers covered in ash, my arms less obviously so; I realise it only when I take my watch off.

God’s drifting in heaven, devil’s in the mailbox
I got dust on my shoes, nothing but teardrops

(You’re Missing)

I go to bed with an acrid cough at the top of my throat, which lingers on for days as smoke pollutes the city, generated by fires burning deep underground at temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees.

September 12: Waking, the feeling is surreal. Did yesterday really happen? Or was it a nightmare? I can see the top of the twin towers out the window above my bed, so I get up to look. They’ve gone.

Empty sky, empty sky
I woke up this morning to an empty sky
Empty sky, empty sky
I woke up this morning to an empty sky

Blood on the streets
Yeah blood flowin’ down
I hear the blood of my blood
Cryin’ from the ground

(Empty Sky)

Notices are pasted on apartment doors down the endless corridors in our complex, a converted pencil factory covering the best part of four city blocks, asking us to check in with the rental office. A seven-minute commute to the World Trade Centre station, ours was a popular address for downtown workers, especially computer specialists from India. Liz, my wife, signs up at the office in case she’s needed to feed the pets of residents who don’t return. Days later, newspapers are still uncollected and notices flapping on some of the doors:

Coffee cups on the counter, jackets on the chair
Papers on the doorstep, you’re not there
Everything is everything
Everything is everything
But you’re missing

(You’re Missing)

September 14: George W. Bush (or “Dubya” to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd) visits the pile of rubble that people, developing the nuclear metaphor, soon call “Ground Zero”. His arm around a firefighter, he tries to make himself heard using a megaphone. “We can’t hear you!” shout rescue workers. He responds:

“I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! (Cheers) And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”

More cheers. Then a chant rises, that chant from angry, aggressive, humiliated people which the world learns to fear: “USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA!”

God, I wish I was home. What are they capable of?

A little revenge and this too shall pass
This too shall pass, I’m gonna pray
Right now all I got’s this lonesome day.

September 17: Dubya goes to the Pentagon, also hit by a passenger aircraft transformed into a missile. “An act of war has been committed on this country,” he says. This is “a different type of enemy than we’re used to… There’s no rules. It’s barbaric behavior… But we’re going to smoke them out.” Sounds just like P. W. Botha’s defence minister, Magnus Malan, in Parliament.

Then Dubya is asked: “Do you want bin Laden dead?” He replies: “I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West, that I recall, that said, ‘Wanted, Dead or Alive.’”

Now I really want to be home. Does this man who says he’s from Texas think this is the Wild West?

Then just about sundown
You come walkin’ through town
Your boot heels clickin’
Like the barrel of a pistol spinnin’ ‘round

(Livin’ in the Future)

Oh, for the leadership of Mandela, Tutu, and yes, even of F.W. de Klerk, who together got us through much worse than this; with thousands dying, it’s true, but at least they didn’t wield the terrifying power of this man and this country.

I got a shiny saw blade
All I need’s a volunteer
I’ll cut you in half
While you’re smiling ear to ear
And the freedom that you sought’s
Driftin’ like a ghost amongst the trees


January 2003: Back at my desk at Trinity, offices cleaned and power, sewerage, telephones and internet restored. It took four months to get back but the only loss was of a laptop, looted from my desk while the building was deserted after our evacuation. (The jacket, wallet and cellphone behind the door were untouched.) For eight months, the church operated a ministry to recovery workers from St. Paul’s – scene of the thanksgiving service after George Washington was inaugurated America’s first president in 1789. Seven days a week, around the clock, church members flew in from around the country to work in 12-hour volunteer shifts.

Now the rubble’s been cleared and those human remains that could be found have been removed. (Seven years later the city medical examiner was still identifying remains: of 1,100 victims among around 2,700, there was either no trace or what remains there were could not be identified.)

But there’s still an atmosphere of fear, which the government helps to spread with colour-coded warnings of the terrorism threat: from Code Green, rising up to Code Orange and Code Red. The phone rings. It’s someone from Code Pink, an anti-war women’s group which is helping to organise protests against the looming assault on Iraq:

Better ask questions before you shoot
Deceit and betrayals bitter fruit
It’s hard to swallow, come time to pay
That taste on your tongue don’t easily slip away.

(Lonesome Day)

The woman on the line asks me: would Desmond Tutu be willing to join a rally in New York? I tell her that he’s never before joined street protests in another country against their government’s policies. But write to him: tell him you recognise that and ask him to make an exception.

February 15, 2003: One of a string of speakers, Tutu gives the crowd a display of South African 1980s-style rabble-rousing rhetoric against the war. A sea of faces stretches up First Avenue as far as you can see, more than 20 city blocks. Thousands more were turned back by police, filling up blocks and blocks on three parallel avenues of the city. Hundreds of thousands protested across the country that day. Ever since, I’ve been asking Americans: has your country ever seen such big demonstrations against a war even before it started?

Later, with troops embroiled in Iraq, in his album “Magic”, Springsteen builds a song around a line from the 1971 anti-Vietnam War testimony of John Kerry (now Barack Obama’s Secretary of State):

Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake
The last to die for a mistake
Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break
Who’ll be the last to die, for a mistake

(Last to Die)

But in the end, most of what American reviewers call his strongest anti-war album is nuanced, too subtle for South African ears and politics. What I remember most are the lyrics which speak to the suffering, the sorrows and the hopes of ordinary Americans.

For days and weeks after the attacks, New York was a city transformed. St. Paul’s, fire stations and the city’s squares became shrines of flowers. Fences became impromptu noticeboards with pictures of the missing on them: mothers, fathers, spouses, daughters and sons desperately pleading for information about their loved ones. Strangers spoke to one another on the subways, sharing their fears when trains stopped unexpectedly deep underground.

It was a kinder, gentler New York, profoundly moved by stories of public service and self-sacrifice, especially that of the firefighters who went up into the towers to die, and whom Springsteen eulogised in “Into the Fire”:

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

So next week I’ll be with the crowds at the Velodrome in Cape Town. And for vocalising my curiously mixed emotions as a stranger living through the worst attack in the 225-year history of the country which boasts the world’s most powerful military, I’ll be silently saying: Thanks, Boss, for showing us the face of ubuntu in America.

The online edition of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian has published an edited version of this reflection.

One thought on “American Ubuntu: Springsteen, South Africa and 9/11

  1. Hey John – vintage, beautiful, powerful, moving, brilliant, wonderful John Allen! Thank you, boss! Chris Ahrends

Comments are closed.