Llewellyn Kriel
Llewellyn Kriel

Democracy — the South African version

I have taken enormous liberties with this blog.

Liberties which I trust the original poet, a legend in his own lifetime and an enduring icon in my life, will forgive because I am unable to improve on his evocative, lyrical, astounding work. Along with Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, John Lennon, Carole King and Carly Simon, Leonard Cohen is one of the most important and seminal poets of our time. Like these other great poets, Cohen put his timeless, compelling, poignant poetry to music, fusing two millennia-old art forms into one seamless eternal reflection of our world.

I’ve heard Cohen wrote the song as a protest hymn to what he saw as an inadequate and flawed version of democracy in the USA. Being a Canadian, that probably didn’t go down too well south of the border. Seems Canada has a penchant for pissing off countries south of its borders.

Be that as it may, so potent, portentous and perceptive is Cohen’s original psalm that I have merely audaciously tweaked it here and there to try to make it relevant to South Africa today — to the flawed, vulnerable and inadequate version of democracy I see and experience here. In its original form (and in my modest “cover version”), “Democracy” remains an aching lament to the absence of values, the dearth of morality, the duplicity of political and economic power and the dominion over us of selfish, bigoted, corrupt tyrants in their legion of disguises.

Yet it also summons forth vestigial images of promise and hope and faith and trust in a better future. Listen to it in its original version; listen and meditate on its words.

Mine goes like this:

It’s coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in John Vorster Square
It’s coming from the feel
That this ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real but it ain’t exactly there

From the guns against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of decay
Democracy is coming to the R.S.A.

And it’s coming through a crack in the wall
On a visionary flood of alcohol
From the staggering account
Of the Sermon on the Mount
Which I don’t pretend to understand at all

It’s coming from the violence
Of the reconciler’s bay
From the brave, the bold, the battered broken
Heart of every day
Democracy is coming to the R.S.A.

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
From the holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat

From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the clinics here
And the cure that’s far away
Democracy is coming to the R.S.A.

Sail on, sail on
O mighty ship of state
Through the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
To the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

It’s coming to South Africa first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It’s here we’ve got the range
And the urgency for change
And it’s here we’ve got the spiritual thirst

It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the racists say
That the others have to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the R.S.A.

It’s coming from the women and the men
O baby we’ll be making love again
We’ll be going down so deep
That the desert’s going to weep
And the mountain’s going to shout “Amen”

It’s coming like the tidal flood
Beneath the lunar sway
Imperious, mysterious
In hopeless disarray
Democracy is coming to the R.S.A.

Sail on, sail on
O mighty ship of state
Through the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
To the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

I’m patriotic if you know what I mean
I love this country but I can’t stand the scene
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen

But I’m stubborn as those plastic bags
That time cannot decay
I’m weak but I’m still holding up
This little flag’s display
Democracy is coming to the R.S.A.
Democracy is coming to the R.S.A.

I hope I’ll still be around to see it when it gets here. Hope you will be too.