2005 Cape Town International Jazz Festival: Africa's Grandest Gathering
Two days after my arrival in South Africa, things are still a blur. I planned this trip months ago and I did plenty of homework in advance, but nothing can adequately prepare you for the explosive cultural and human landscape of South Africa. Home to over 45 million people speaking eleven official languages, South Africa overflows with color. It's also a decade-old democracy, which still feels pretty young people seem genuinely excited about the possibilities that are finally being realized.
The activity on this trip officially centers around the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, held on Easter weekend in the rapidly growing, cosmopolitan city of Cape Town at the southern tip of the continent. Twenty performances over the course of a mere two days highlight local talenthalf the acts are African, with a good number from this country itselfand far beyond.
Time and space seem to paradoxically blow up in scale when you're sitting on an airplane for 24 hours, or maybe that's just the kind of mind-expanding thinking that allows you to cross ten time zones and sixty degrees of latitude without developing mental cramps. It was pitch black when I hurled my body out of bed for the flight from San Diego, night again when the connection left New York, and dark once more by the time we touched down in Johannesburg. The sun rose and set twice before I set foot on African soil for the first time.
All those hours on a packed flying bus take their toll, of course. I came prepared for the worst, with an entire second backpack full of books and reading material to pass the time. But the plane had a personal video console in front of every seat, with my choice of movies, TV shows, games, and a GPS- driven realtime map. All was well once I figured out how to zap the vicious dragonfly monster on the space invaders game.
South African Airways operates the only direct flights from the US to South Africa, and our Airbus was on only its second commercial flight, a virtual virgin in a decadent aviation world. I've never seen a plane that shiny and new beforedefinitely never will again. Apparently the South Africans aren't quite as paranoid as Americans have become, since they armed every passenger in the plane with a real metal fork and knife. Nobody attacked anything but their food, though. (Quite happily, I might add. The salmon was oustanding.)
South Africa quite proudly calls itself the Rainbow Nation, and what was once a polarized black- and-white regime is now a full-spectrum democracy. And while the economic extremes created by apartheid are apparent everywhere, political equality is finally a reality and there's a sense that people are really trying to work together. According to the people I spoke with, diversity is something to cultivate and explore, differences a source of curiosity and interest. They like to talk to visitors, share experiences, and share space.
The accumulation in one place of people from so many different backgrounds has resulted in an incredible diversity of culture, with far too many places to see and events to experience. (Can you sense the whirlwind effect?) Jazz, to touch on one topic dear to my heart, has been integral to South African musical culture since the '20s, with all sorts of local variants springing up in Johannesburg and Cape Town, among other places. It's still important here today.
The country faces huge hurdles: unemployment, HIV, housing and infrastructure shortages. But it's also the richest country in Africa, powered by huge mineral resources (gold, diamond, platinum), manufacturing, and more. The province of Gauteng (where Johannesburg is located) accounts for 10% of the GNP of Africa, as well as a number of other equally impressive statistics. The government takes a very practical and progressive approach to solving these problems, with a keen eye on corruption, and most people seem confident that the fast rate of change will continue.
Yet startling gaps between rich and poor in South Africa are an ever-present reminder of apartheid's legacy. In nicer neighborhoods (near the one in Johannesburg where I stayed) there are tall fences everywhere. In townships like Soweto, which saw electrification only twenty years ago, squatters are still packed densely together in makeshift structures. The government has a plan to build 350,000 new homes a year to help relieve the housing shortage, but it still hasn't caught up with demand.
You can't help but notice these things if you get out and check out your surroundings. Massive extraterrestrial-looking mountains around the area contain material extracted from mines, presenting full-sized reminders of the forces that drove this city, the youngest one of its size in the world, to grow so rapidly.
It helps to have a local on hand to get a balanced picture. As part of a group of visiting American journalists, I took a tour of Soweto (the SOuth WEstern TOwnship near Johannesburg), which was born of the massive urban expansion that took place after the discovery of gold and recruitment of black labor to mine it. It's now home for 1.5 million people, according to a local, though estimates vary widely.
Two Nobel Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, used to live in the same Soweto neighborhood in the '40s and '50s. We visited Mandela's very modest old house and paused by the window police used to break to get into his bedroom for many a rude awakening. (The Mandela family still takes out the trash, as the can in the back attested.) We also visited the Hector Pieterson Memorial, named after a child who was shot by police during a massive student protest in June of 1976. The serene silence of the rather modest memorial is in blunt contrast to the insane violence that took place here three decades ago. One can't visit the place without feeling that odd combination of tragedy and hope that seems to characterize the past and present, respectively, of Soweto.
All this history is pretty humbling, whatever your political orientation. Our guide, who introduced himself to us as Joe, admitted that he, too, had thrown a rock or two during his youth in Soweto. (In false modesty he also claimed to have terrible aim.) The arrival of democracy in 1994 has offered many young black people access to education and other opportunities previously denied to them, and while political equality has not yet translated into economic equality, Joe has hopes that there will one day be a strong black middle class in South Africa.