Cape Town Jazz Festival Cape Town, South Africa March 30-31, 2012 An invite to cover the 13th annual Cape Town Jazz Festival would have been reason enough to travel over 8,000 miles to South Africa. But when the invite, from South Africa Tourism, stretched to an expansive ten-day tripbeginning in Johannesburg, continuing on to Cape Town and ending at the lovely Lukimbi Lodge in Kruger National Park for two days of safariit became an absolutely irresistible opportunity. Add to that luxury accommodations for an intimate group of just four North American journalists, fine dining, a tour itinerary that made this feel more vacation than work and, finally, the outstanding service of a business class return trip from Johannesburg to Washington, thanks to South African Airways that, at over eighteen hours, was a welcome way to comfortably end a bursting-at-the-seams itinerary, and SA Tourism's invite seemed destined to become the trip of a lifetime.
And it was. Beyond the music, beyond the gorgeous locales and beyond the close bond that quickly developed amongst the group, the itinerary combined a chance to experience South Africa's stunning natural beauty with an opportunity to explore a country still in transition. For four North Americans whose previous knowledge of the nation's historyand, in particular, the impact of apartheid, thankfully, eighteen years gone nowcame from books, newspapers, television and film, it was a rare opportunity to actually experience and feel apartheid's lasting impact on a country whose response to its inhumane and inhuman racial division has largely been nothing short of inspirational. Yes, there's still plenty of work to do and plenty of problems to solveAIDS, unemployment, education and, as the result of the apartheid years, a knee-jerk resistance, by some, to authority in the least expected places are but a few of the challenges a post-apartheid South Africa still facesbut seeing what has been done in just eighteen years is a testament to the strength and resilience of the human spirit.
Take the group's tour guide for the first two days, spent in Johannesburg, which included a visit to Lesedi (billed as "Cultural Experience South Africa," but ultimately an informative but rather touristy place to learn about the various tribes in the country's history), the Apartheid Museum (a powerful place that brought the outrage that was apartheid home to everyone in the group), Alexandra (to visit Nelson Mandela's modest first home when he moved to the city), and Soweto and the Hector Pieterson Memorial (commemorating a 13 year-old boy who, shot and killed during the 1976 Soweto Uprising, was memorialized in an iconic image that remains affecting to this day). Joe Motsogi was imprisoned for nine months during apartheid under the regime's "no charge" law that permitted the imprisonment and torture of black people, but was ultimately released because the authorities were unable to come up with any charges that fit.
Most surprising, given what he went through, were his calm, warm and positive personality, and an uncanny ability to rapid-fire cite a wealth of informative statistics, as well as his clear connection to the community, as he seemed to know someone everywhere the group went. And while he was quick to point out that Soweto's reputation for crime has significantly improved, Motsogi also summed up at least a portion of that reputation succinctly, saying "Hungry stomach knows no law." Motsogi's positive outlook and seemingly unshakable spirita remarkable response to spending the majority of his life under apartheidseemed echoed by everyone met during the course of the trip.
Motsogi's remarkable spirit was also in evidence when the tour moved on to Cape Town for six days, culminating in the Cape Town Jazz Festival. A trip to Robben Island early on the stayhome of the maximum security facility that housed Mandela for much of the 28 years he spent imprisonedbrought things home on a very personal level, as the group was taken through the prison by Vusumzi Mcongohimself, a one-time prisoner on the island. It was almost unbelievable that there was no protein in the prisoners' diet (oatmeal, maize, cornmeal and coffee, all using the sea water around the island, with one teaspoon of sugar per day); incredulous that they spent their first days crammed into a single room with up to fifty others, and against whom the prison's attack dogs were sicced each evening, seemingly for nothing more than to engender fear and for the entertainment of the guards; and beyond outrageous to discover that these political activists were actually treated far worse than the rapists and killers housed elsewhere on the island, in a medium security jail with better facilities, better food and better overall treatment.
There were few dry eyes left by the end of a tour where small cells, inhumane conditions and the regime's relentless attempts to squash the spirit of these men seemed to hover in the air nearly two decades latermen imprisoned only because they were fighting for basic human rights in a country that, long considered the "Cradle of Humankind World," was theirs long before the Dutch, the English and others came to exploit its natural resources of gold and diamonds. But meeting a man like Mcongowho, despite it all, has emerged from the experience strong, proud and independentand to hear of prisoners who, while working in a limestone quarry where the bright sun actually damaged their eyes (Mandela had eye surgery not long after his release), supported each other in times of despair and, rather than plotting escape (actively discouraged by their leaders), spent their time strategizing the overthrow of apartheid, was a life-changing experience. That these prisoners could actually see Cape Town and the stunning Table Mountain in the near distance was almost torture in itself: freedom so near, yet so very far away.
The inhumanities levied upon native South Africans during apartheid were countlessand, in some cases, evilly insidious. Blacks were sometimes paid half their wages in cash, half in a cheap alcohol, the intent being to diminish protest and dissent by keeping them in drink. And dissention was rewarded with punishment most severe. When Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, led an intended peaceful protest against Apartheid's Pass Lawrequiring blacks to carry a pass that, if found without it, would result in either a fine beyond the reach of most or six months in prisonthe response was a police action where 180 black South Africans were wounded and 69 killed, ultimately known as the Sharpeville Massacre. He was sent to Robben Island, where he was kept in solitary confinement in a private hut on the grounds of the prison's dogs, later released to house arrest in Kimberley after he became ill and the authorities did not want him to die a martyr on the island. Finally passing in 1978, appeals to allow him freedom of movement on humanitarian grounds towards the end of his illness and his life were refused indefinitely.