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Travel in music: Chapter 35 - 2012-2016, South Africa (part II)

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!


2012-2016 – Chapter 35 | Our stint in Mexico was short-lived. After a mere two eventful years, we came back to our beloved South Africa. Perhaps I should say to our home in Cape Town. Although we had lived a full four years in the rainbow nation between 2006 and 2010, it felt like we only really knew the Western Cape Province. We had not explored the rest of the country at all. Sure, I traveled to Johannesburg on business very regularly but that was nothing more than a business commute. For those who do not know how big South Africa is, the distance between Cape Town and ‘Jozi’ is roughly the same as the distance between Brussels and Minsk. Johannesburg was far. Yet, every two weeks or so, I would hop on a red eye flight to visit clients, have three or four meetings, spend time cursing the traffic between Midrand, Sandton and Rosebank, and return home the same evening on the last flight. Unsurprisingly, I did not develop much affinity with the city.

Only when Leanne’s sister moved to Johannesburg did we actually pay the city a couple of more rewarding visits. With her, we roamed the hip districts around Maboneng where the born-free generation was reclaiming the center of the city and giving it a buzz that went beyond the lure of business. Art galleries, live music joints, fashion outlets, funky markets gave it a very SoHo-like feel. Given that people sometimes refer to Jozi as the New York City of Africa, it fit. Braamfontein next door would be the Meatpacking district. Melville, the neighborhood where she lived, still displayed traditional Victorian homes but also a youthful boho-artistic energy similar to that of Greenwich Village.

Part of the reason we had not explored beyond the Western Cape was the size of the country. Another was busy careers. Two weeks of vacations per year disappear quickly when you try not to lose touch with the Belgian ‘home’ of our binational family. We had thus almost only traveled to within driving distance of Cape Town on odd long weekends and public holidays. That still kept us mightily busy. The Western Cape is a diverse province, the size of England, with endless possibilities for adventure. Leanne had taken up running in Mexico. Her races were a good pretext for travel. Twice we drove the 500 km distance to Knysna and back in a single weekend for her to run a half-marathon. It did not hurt that it coincided with the oyster festival or that the coastal road, dubbed the ‘garden route’, offered spectacular scenery. With two kids in tow, we often spent weekend afternoons picnicking on beaches or wine estates, strolling through the trendy neighborhood markets that had become all the rage, attending live sunset gigs at Kirstenbosch gardens and, sometimes, we would venture a little beyond for short getaways, particularly when we received visitors.

Prior to 2010, I only knew a handful of French speakers and very few foreigners. Most of our friends were Capetonian born and bred. After we signed Guy and Max up at the French School, suddenly foreigners popped up everywhere. We gained an entire new group of friends: Frenchies, of course but also Belgians and a cosmopolitan crowd of bi-national families who loved the idea of schooling their kids “dans la langue de Molière”. Although I knew the hillsides of Camps Bay were full of wealthy European retirees who spent northern hemisphere winters in the southern sun, I had not suspected Cape Town to be so international. It added a fun, like-minded dimension to our life in the Mother City.

Our second stint in South Africa felt like a time of change too, both for the country and for ourselves. Increasingly, the political freedom that came with the end of apartheid felt like too little to mend the gaping wounds of the past and not enough to build a solid common future. Sure, empowerment policies had attempted to level the business playing field but they had mostly succeeded in creating a tiny elite of politically connected mega rich, cynically referred to as “black diamonds”. While the ANC had efficiently rallied different ideologies under a single liberation struggle banner, South Africans expressed growing doubt over their ability to govern maturely for everyone’s benefit. Some whites pointed to rampant corruption with hideous hints of nostalgia and many blacks bemoaned their inability to deliver economic equality faster. In that context, Nelson Mandela’s death was simultaneously a moment of beautiful communion for the young nation and the turning point when people truly realized that building the rainbow nation would take more than symbols and moral authority icons.

Guy was 5 years old when we attended his funeral celebration together at Cape Town stadium. Witnessing how well this small child perceived the gravitas and the emotion in the stands moved me to tears. Fist raised to the sky, a placard reading ‘Hamba Kahle, Madiba’ under his arm, I know he knew how much promise he embodied and how much responsibility he carried. It took me back to a moment, about a year earlier. We were driving through Nyanga East and he had been quietly observing from the back seat of the car when, suddenly, he piped up to ask, “Papa, why are there so few trees in the townships?”

His older peers, the first “born-frees”, were reaching voting age. Unencumbered by the memory of apartheid, they were vehemently demanding cheaper tuition fees and the ‘decolonization’ of education. Nationwide, on university campuses, “Fees Must Fall” protests gathered steam and clashed violently with police. The slogan was adapted from its original, born in the University of Cape Town, a few hundred meters from our home, when students demanded the removal of Cecil Rhodes' statue with “Rhodes Must Fall” chants. The right to choose their leaders was no longer sufficient. This generation was firmly ready to write its own history.

On a personal level, I started feeling a little aimless in my career and longing for a greater connection to my birth country. I had left Belgium in 1996 already and, besides Cape Town being ‘home’ now, I had been working for an American firm for the last decade. I felt uprooted and devoid of any links to my culture. When a friend called me to say that the Belgian trade department organized an exam to recruit candidates for their foreign representation offices, I jumped at the opportunity. In 2014, I took four trips to Brussels to write the four stages of this exam. Luckily, I was selected. A slow reverse countdown began. As the wait for a concrete posting lengthened, I no longer felt committed to my job. An idea germinated and quickly turned into a family project. Should we not take advantage of this time to undertake an educative journey? We could perhaps finally explore the rest of this vast and fascinating country. That sabbatical trip will be the subject of the next and final chapter of these snippets from a nomadic life…

As always, choosing a soundtrack was a real torture. Since I honored youth, it was only logical to have a younger artist illustrating this chapter. I loved to attend music festivals in South Africa, as much for their atmosphere as for the possibility of discovering a few unknown gems. At “Rocking the Daisies”, in 2013, a close friend was promoting her boyfriend, Mozambican reggae singer Ras Haitrm. Appearing just before him, under the newcomer’s tent was Bongeziwe Mabandla. His first album was not even out yet. As he climbed onstage shyly, this skinny kid gazed nervously at the scattered early afternoon crowd and picked a few chords. When he started singing, his shyness evaporated and his assured falsetto voice filled the space. It took all of 5 seconds for the crowd to be stunned into silent admiration. Mesmerized, I asked a girl next to me what his lyrics were saying. She replied that it was difficult to translate Xhosa into English but that it was as poetic as his voice was angelic.


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