The giants who fell: Cultural icons from Africa who died in 2020

There have been times, in 2020, when an arts editor wondered if they had become the obituary editor, especially as the COVID-19 outbreak began to take its toll on African elders living in various countries across the world.

Where to start, with the list of great artists, documenters and thinkers – especially the many musicians and photographers – who passed on this year?

Ladysmith Black Mambazo mourns Joseph Shabalala

The musicians. In South Africa, the nation mourned when isicathamiya legend Joseph Shabalala – leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo – passed at 79. He was laid to rest in Ladysmith on 22 February and President Cyril Ramaphosa said at his funeral: “Joseph Shabalala is going to start a choir in heaven that is going to sing Isicathamiya”.

Read more here.

Cameroonian Manu Dibango’s soulful makossa styles made him an icon of global jazz and an Afropolitan pioneer. The 86-year-old, best known for the 1972 hit Soul Makossa, was one of the first worldwide stars to die as a result of COVID-19.

Idir, the man from the village who took Algerian music to the world, was remembered in 2020, while the shock assassination of Hachalu Hundessa, champion of Ethiopia’s Oromo, was considered in June.

Tributes were also paid to master Nigerian trumpeter Victor Olaiya, South African jazz visionary Gilbert Matthews and Mory Kanté, Guinea’s star, who turned Mande sounds into global pop hits.

Great photographers remembered

South Africa lost some of its greatest photographers. The man who was able to capture both the suffering and the spiritual life of a nation’s people, Santu Mofokeng, and John Liebenberg, who masterfully documented southern Africa’s border wars, were both remembered.

Chronicler of apartheid George Hallett passed, as did Jürgen Schadeberg. Schadeberg, who died in Spain in August, was a German-born South African who had photographed key moments in South African history, including iconic photographs of Nelson Mandela at Robben Island prison. 

Writers who died in 2020

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Writer, artist, story-teller and traditional healer Credo Mutwa in a file photo from 2000. Image: Rajesh Jantilal/AFP

The country also said goodbye to novelist Achmat Dangor, brother of the ANC’s Jessie Duarte, in October as a result of COVID complications.

Healer, prophet, artist and storyteller, the towering Credo Mutwa, died in March at age 98.

Nigeria’s giants that fell

Nigeria also lost some great thinkers and teachers. The country is historically blessed with creative powerhouses who have contributed a wealth of creativity to global discourse and the art community.

Literary icon Chukwuemeka Ike was a giant whose accomplishments are as numerous as his stature was tall. Schooling alongside other great writers including Chinua Achebe and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, Ike made his own mark as a literary icon.

Poet and professor Harry Garuba also passed, a man who inspired students and readers in equal measure and whose contribution to African studies will endure.

And renowned poet JP Clark was mourned across the country. He contributed to the growth of literature in Nigeria, and his passing leaves a gaping hole in the local literary space.

Former Tanzanian leader’s legacy remembered

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Tanzania’s former president Benjamin Mkapa in a file photo from 2005. Image: Boris Herger/AFP

Meanwhile, in Tanzania, peacemaker and former President Benjamin Mkapa’s legacy was also in the spotlight with his death.

Each leaves an archive that makes the readings of our lives and histories more nuanced. All played the role of cultural diplomat, representing their incredibly diverse cultural roots.

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