Travel in music: Chapter 33 - 2006-2010, South Africa
2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!
2006-2010 – Chapter 33 | After Canada, Leanne and I jointly decided to put an end to our nomadic wanderings. Years of bobbing like corks in the ocean made us crave something solid under our feet. The landing pad turned out to be South Africa. Initially, we both went to our respective homes in Brussels and Cape Town, where our families lived. The plan was to send CVs around in both destinations and perhaps even in ‘neutral ground’ (London?) and then settle wherever job opportunities materialized. Cape Town bit first. I responded to an ad from a US consulting firm that was busy opening its first African office in the Mother City. An initial phone contact had gone very well so, with an invitation for a face-to-face interview, I boarded the first plane I found.
The idea of settling in this gorgeous town at the southern tip of Africa must have inspired me because, minutes after reuniting with Leanne, I was down on one knee and blurting out a clumsy, unrehearsed proposal. From Leanne’s unhesitant “yes”, things accelerated quickly. The company hired me, she landed a news job on radio, we found a house, bought it and, within weeks, we were knee-deep into the organization of a big wedding. Friends and family from all over the world joined us as we tied the knot on a sunny December 2007 afternoon in Kirstenbosch.
In these eventful first weeks, Cape Town had charmed me irretrievably but it was not the first time that its beauty and vibe had ensnared me. My brother spent a few months living in Pretoria in the mid-90s and I had swung by Cape Town on my way to visiting him. On my 2nd occasion, three years prior, I spent a brief weekend in the city on a visa run from Luanda. I distinctly remember sitting atop Table Mountain then and wishfully thinking that one day, I would make it my home. This was a mere thought, one every tourist that had fallen under Cape Town’s spell had probably formulated before me. Yet, here I was, as if drawn by destiny, planting firm roots in its soil.
Of course, destiny had nothing to do with it. Leanne was the sole culprit. I would have just as well followed her to Timbuktu or Ulaanbaatar. Even so, a great part of me was magnetically drawn to South Africa and to Cape Town in particular. Growing up in the 80s, the fight against apartheid had always featured somewhere in the background. The sense of injustice, however remote from my own privileged experience, fueled my teenage rebellious angst. Many artists I admired were outspoken in condemning it. When I biked to school, in Washington, Johnny Clegg & Savuka were often blaring a tune in the foam headsets of my walkman. I had read Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country. I had watched Sarafina and Denzel Washington portraying Biko. I had even shed tears of emotion when Belgian TV broadcast the first images of Nelson Mandela’s liberation, an anecdote I was able to recount to him personally when he came to get his Doctor Honoris Causa at my university in Brussels in 1993. In 2006, I felt like I was joining the largest human society-building experiment ever undertaken. Here was a country, recently freed from the shackles of oppression and injustice, armed with one of the most progressive and humanist constitutions worldwide, striving to build a common future for a profoundly unequal and impossibly diverse society. On the smoking ruins of apartheid, with people who all had a different perception of their own past, South Africa was shooting for Ubuntu. How could I not want to be witness to the construction of the rainbow nation? Had there ever been a greater ideal or a greater challenge?
In the country’s melting pot, the Mother City is the ultimate racial crucible. To its shores, scores of migrants have arrived from everywhere, some willingly and others forcefully. They have blended with the indigenous Khoi and San populations to form a unique community now called ‘Cape Colored’ for lack of a better word. Their heritage is so complex it is impossible to trace. (A young rapper wrote a song called “Who Am I?” in the early 90s that bares the soul of this community in a few verses; if you are curious to know more, read the blog post I wrote in 2016 on the subject). Coloreds make up 65% of the city’s demographics and a huge portion of its cultural identity. The food, the humor, the music and the lingo all bear heavy colored influence. By virtue of marrying Leanne, I was proudly joining that vibrant community.
I was a clueless, pale-skinned outsider but Capetonians adopted me like one of their own from day one. In no time, I had a regular football crew and a weekly poker table. I learned quickly and blended in fast. By 2007, I was celebrating the Bokkes’ rugby world title as if I had worn the gold-and-green jersey my whole life. I could weigh in on conversations over whom to cut from the Proteas line-up and bemoan the depths to which Bafana Bafana had fallen. The humor of jokes told in English but with punchlines in Afrikaans no longer eluded me. At an all-male braai, I had already made the mistake of asking where the salads were, to uproarious laughter; I now knew not to repeat that blunder. All that I was missing to be an ‘honorary colored’ was a bakkie.
In those first four years in SA, there were some lows and many highs. The political freedom acquired in 1994 came with huge, perhaps unreasonable promise. It was easy to see the glass half empty. People still lived in squalor in horrible ‘townships’. In the Waterfront restaurants, the skin of the waiters and kitchen staff was still decidedly darker than that of the patrons. These are facts and they are revolting but I was also awed by how much progress had been made, a mere 10-15 years after the end of apartheid’s dark days. During the 2010 FIFA World Cup, people of all skin colors were partying on the streets of Cape Town, hugging, waving the same beautiful flag, and showing visitors from all over the planet how united and proud South Africa truly can be. In 2009 our first son was born. Borrowing the words of Trevor Noah, we like to remind him that only a few years earlier, he would have been ‘born a crime’. Instead, he is now part of a generation of people born with no memory of institutionalized, legal oppression. It may take several decades but he and his peers will be the true architects of the rainbow nation. I was now father to a South African and no longer just a witness. I literally had skin in the game.
On a stage with Johnny Clegg, who was singing Asimbonanga, Nelson Mandela once exclaimed, “it is music and dancing that truly make me feel at peace with the world, and with myself”. I will let Juluka illustrate this chapter with their upbeat song “Woza Friday”, which loosely translates as “Thank God It’s Friday”. I am certainly lending it too much weight but, to me, it symbolizes the promise of better days after a hard week’s work.