An explosion of Bach in Soweto


Members of Soweto’s Buskaid music school hone their performance of a Bach concerto, guided by mentor Rosemary Nalden, preparing for Johannesburg’s International Mozart Festival in February

IT’S a half-hour drive on a Saturday morning from St Mary’s school in the mainly white, upper class neighbourhood of Waverley in northern Johannesburg, to the tiny Presbyterian Church on the corner of Tebogo and Mphatlalatsane Streets in Diepkloof, Soweto, where Buskaid’s music school is based, in a black neighbourhood consisting of masses of very modest houses crammed tightly together. St Mary’s is an old, expensive private school with a British colonial feel to it. It has a beautiful auditorium, which is where the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble, consisting of musicians from a far less privileged community, will be performing as part of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival in February.

On the hot summer’s day of this visit to interview Buskaid’s director, Rosemary Nalden, two tall, elegant women dressed in bright African fabrics, carrying umbrellas against the sun, were standing talking together at the church entrance. The receptionist at the door of the small building across the driveway from the church itself, sat at a desk by a wall on which posters advertising Buskaid concerts were mounted with tape. She said with a friendly smile: “Rosemary is in that room there. Open the door and go in.”

The first thing that happened when the door opened was that the melodic, lilting sounds of one of Bach’s Brandenberg concertos burst through into the foyer. Inside the room itself – a humble, rather dilapidated space with windows looking onto the street – ten black youngsters with violins, violas, cellos and double basses encircled a grey-haired white woman sitting bolt-upright on a high stool, conducting and issuing stern instructions as they played. The youngsters were dressed casually in T-shirts and sneakers, contrasted by the sense of preciousness of the instruments they played.

The woman was Nalden who, since 1997, has painstakingly built Buskaid into an internationally known music school which has performed for Nelson Mandela, Queen Elizabeth and the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. Its idealistic ethos is the polar opposite of the racial antagonism and negativity dominating the headlines in South Africa these days.

The school has 115 black youngsters ranging in age from five to thirty-three. It teaches them Bach, Bruch, Rameau and other European classical music, as well as fostering local South African genres such as kwela. Some of its graduates have gone on to study at international music schools in the UK and elsewhere. The ensemble has toured internationally in the UK, USA, France and other places. Last year it accompanied world renowned pianist Melvyn Tan in a special concert at the Mozart Festival.

Nalden is the driving force. Born in England, she studied at the Royal College of Music in London, then freelanced for 30 years, and has played the viola under renowned conductors such as Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Sir Simon Rattle.

There have been several similar institutions in the arts in South Africa which were built by charismatic white visionaries for underprivileged black youngsters, which achieved the highest levels of artistic proficiency. At the Johannesburg Art Foundation, for example, created in 1971 by artist and teacher Bill Ainslie, many of the country’s best black and white artists got their first training under his mentorship. But after he was killed in a car accident in 1989, the institution declined and eventually died, despite efforts by disciples and colleagues to keep it going. Without the master, the inner fire was lacking.

Arts people in Johannesburg ask today whether this will also happen to the Market Theatre in Newtown, created in 1976 by the late theatre guru Barney Simon as a venue for anti-apartheid protest theatre, and where the finest actors were tutored by him. Today the atmosphere at the theatre suggests that its heyday has passed. Will it die, now that the master is gone? If it does, will it be with a whimper, rather than the bang it had in its heyday?

An inspiring event involving another institution took place late last year, when renowned choreographer Sylvia Glasser was ‘danced’ across President Street in Johannesburg’s CBD on a Sunday afternoon by a festive band of twenty young black protégés, after a farewell tribute to her at the Dance Factory in Newtown. They sang joyously and called her gogo – a South African term of endearment meaning grandmother.

Glasser is a dancer who in 1978 – in the heyday of apartheid – started a mixed-race dance company called ‘Moving into Dance Mophatong’ in her garage in the white neighbourhood of Victory Park. It was illegal at the time for blacks and whites to even share a performance stage, but she ignored this and led MDM to become the premier contemporary dance company in South Africa.

She retired last year after nearly four decades of her career, during which she nurtured several generations of the country’s best dancers, who have won almost every major award in the country. At the tribute at the Dance Factory, she recalled scary incidents from the past where black dancers who lived in Soweto had to sleep overnight in her garage after practice sessions because they didn’t want to risk travelling home at night in case the police stopped them for being unlawfully in a white area.

After leaving the Presbyterian Church and Buskaid in Diepkloof on Saturday, the sounds and spirit of Bach and the incredible energy of the youngsters led by Nalden continued to resonate during the drive back to northern – mainly white – Johannesburg along the M1 highway.

What about Buskaid’s prospects for the future? All signs are that this inspiring institution has been put on such a firm footing by Nalden that it will endure and thrive long after she has left. May it be so. The country needs it.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email

Thriving culture defies South Africans’ racial despair

market theatre 3

The Market Theatre in Johannesburg, started in 1976 as a venue for protest theatre against apartheid by Barney Simon, has partially realised his dream of a non-racial venue. Many other places are still skewed towards black or white audiences.

IS South Africa really on the brink of a race war? Two white journalists visited several places in Johannesburg last weekend to see cultural life behind the scenes, away from alarmist media headlines. Culture is indeed flourishing, but racial threads are ever-present.

Friday night was at the Market Theatre in Newtown, adjoining the city’s old CBD, where the play ‘Egoli’ – Johannesburg’s African name, meaning ‘gold’ – was performed by an all-black cast in a mixture of African languages and English. It describes black miners’ lives, where they descend 3000 feet underground in rickety lifts to extract gold, sleep in crowded, dirty hostels at night, and save their coins to send to wives and children in their rural homes. The play shows the traumatic aftermath of an underground explosion where one miner is killed.

The Market Theatre was started in 1976 during apartheid as a venue for protest plays by anti-apartheid actor and director Barney Simon and Mannie Manim, and has hosted many great names in South African theatre. It is today a partial realisation of his ideals – the packed house  for ‘Egoli’ comprised primarily young black theatre lovers, with a sprinkling of whites, reflecting the country’s demographics. Mixed-race audiences were illegal during apartheid.

The neighbourhood of Newtown, however, still reflects the old regime’s obsession with separating whites and blacks. It is almost totally black. Whites live elsewhere; most are leery about driving to that part of town because of a perception that it is not safe. The whites in the audience that night were mainly theatre professionals – actors, directors, critics and publicists with an innate love for the place. In a nearby restaurant whose customers and staff were black, a young waiter asked the white journalists politely if their dinner there was a prelude to attending the play, and smiled approvingly when told it was.

Saturday morning’s venue was the Constitutional Court building – the land’s highest court, tasked with ensuring government and citizens adhere to the liberal constitution – which was symbolically built on the site of a former jail where the apartheid regime held political prisoners.

A young Afrikaans woman, Stacey Vorster, whose husband has the surname Botha – you can’t get more evocative than those two vintage Afrikaans names in terms of South Africa’s history – and a young black man named Katlego Lefine took the journalists through the Court’s art collection, which they are passionate about reviving from its dreadful neglect over recent years. Vorster is the curator of the collection. One of the Judges, Edwin Cameron, has joined them in their quest.

The collection was set up after the founding of the Court by jurist and struggle hero Albie Sachs – who has one arm and one eye because of an explosion in which the apartheid regime tried to kill him – amidst the euphoria of the Mandela era, to symbolize the arts’ contribution to human rights. It includes local and international works.

Sadly, the building itself has also been neglected. Parts of it are shoddy – a sign, perhaps, of the government’s ambivalent relationship with the Court, which has not been shy to criticise its actions. The Court reflects well the new South Africa, consisting of a majority of black judges, including Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

Sunday morning saw a walk in a beautiful public park in the posh, primarily white neighbourhood of Melrose in northern Johannesburg, a favorite venue for people to walk their dogs. At times, the place looks like a Fellini movie, with folks of all cultures mingling, accompanied by dogs ranging from manicured Poodles to Border Collies, Labradors and others. This scene contrasts with a starkly different reality in another part of the park – a black vagrant living in a large tin drum propped against a tree, with an old plastic chair which he sits on most of the day. Joggers and dog-walkers nod to him warily as they go past.

This Sunday coincided with a gathering of a charismatic African Church on the banks of a stream running through the park. Some 50 black Church members, dressed in striking white robes with a cross on the back, stood out starkly against the lush green of the trees and grass. In the river itself, four men stood waist-deep in the water, chanting and conducting a religious ritual with a young man, throwing water over him and pushing him under the surface.

A friendly Church member approached the journalists who had sat down nearby to watch. He explained that the ceremony derived from the biblical story of John the Baptist. It was the exorcism of a curse.

Sunday midday was an Afrikaans play, ‘Pruimboom’ by Jan Groenewald, at the Foxwood theatre in the posh Johannesburg suburb of Houghton. The theatre is a converted former stable on the premises of a large, historic building once owned by the Oats family which dates back to the 1820 settlers from England. The audience consisted of smartly dressed white Afrikaners – aside from three coloured women and one black man – who sipped tea and wine in the manicured garden prior to the performance. To a casual observer, the scene could have been lifted straight from apartheid South Africa.

Then, Sunday afternoon was a visit to the 1870-seat luxury theatre at the Montecasino gambling complex to see a performance of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’. It was packed to the brim by an almost totally white audience coming to see this famous American classic. Five minutes into the show, the electricity went out, plunging the theatre into darkness and causing considerable anxiety in the crowd about being trapped in a dark place with so many people.

After a few minutes a voice came onto the intercom, apologizing for the power outage and saying they were sorting it out – meaning they were getting generators going which have become standard equipment because of the unreliability of the state-run power utility Eskom. This is another sore point against President Zuma’s government. The announcer wryly thanked Eskom for the incident, evoking laughter from the audience.

With the lights back on, the show resumed. It was superb, performed by local South African actors who imitated the American accents and choreography of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and others flawlessly. It is set in 1927 in New York at the end of the silent movie era, when sound first came into films with the pioneering show The Jazz Singer.

After three days of culture, the journalists returned to the ‘other’ South Africa, with racial jibes flying in every direction in newspapers and social media. Politicians, journalists, analysts, and every Joe Blog on facebook and Twitter lamenting and reminding us how we all hate each other.

How bad really are the racial tensions? Dr Frans Cronje, head of the SA Institute of Race Relations, says: “If you read newspapers and read what commentators say, you would think we are a week away from a race war, but if you ask people nationwide how they feel about race relations, the data is actually very positive.”

A recent Institute survey asked 2500 South Africans whether they thought the relationship between different races had improved since 1995. Some 60 per cent of blacks and 33.5 per cent of whites said yes. About 15 per cent of blacks and 40 per cent of whites said it had worsened. The rest said it remained the same.

South Africa is far from being the happy rainbow nation Mandela envisaged. But on the ground, it has come part of the way. For the rest, the jury is still out.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report)

Brave books tell about crossing political lines in South Africa, Israel

Mandela and Le Grange kiss 2

Former SA President Nelson Mandela kisses Zelda La Grange, his long-time assistant who came from a conservative Afrikaans background. She wrote a bestseller about it.

THE racial furore in South African social media over recent weeks evoked hideous comments, starting with one Penny Sparrow calling black revellers on Durban beach on New Year’s Day “monkeys” – a posting which quickly went viral. One of the worst responses was from a black Gauteng Province employee calling for blacks to do to whites what “Hitler did to the Jews”.

The ethos of a liberal South African society where all are treated as individual human beings regardless of race is weakening, despite proposals to criminalise racist comments. Increasingly in public discourse, people are described according to the group they are perceived to belong to, whether they feel part of it or not – whites and blacks can’t escape that identity.

South African Jews are caught in a double bind. On one hand they belong to the white minority in a country where the black majority is increasingly outspoken about white privilege from apartheid.

On the other hand, SA Jews have their own strong group identity, marry and socialise mostly with other Jews, send some 85 per cent of their children to Jewish schools, and have their own welfare institutions. This essential aspect of Jewish culture, always present wherever they live, is one reason Jews have survived for centuries. They have no desire to relinquish it.

Thus far there have been few major anti-Jewish incidents in South Africa – except from marginal individuals – and authorities have denounced those that have occurred. The vitriol has concentrated on whites and blacks as groups. But history shows that once extreme identity politics starts boiling, it usually ends up targeting Jews as well.

There is a resurgence of identity politics worldwide based on race, religion and nationalism. In Europe, the rising nationalist backlash against Middle Eastern immigrants is ominous. In Germany, rightwing anti-immigrant movement Pegida has called for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ouster for her liberal policy towards Muslim immigrants. In the United States, Donald Trump, a hopeful GOP presidential candidate, unashamedly spouts racist jargon against Muslims and immigrants. He claims he is articulating what many Americans think but won’t say because of political correctness. In the Middle East, radical Islam is marching; ISIS aims to dismantle existing states, create an Islamic Caliphate, and subvert the Western world and turn it into an Islamic realm.

Last month in Israel, identity politics took a leap rightwards in the realm of literature with the disqualification from the high school curriculum of the novel Borderlife by Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan, despite respected literary educationists recommending it. It is about a love affair in New York between a Jewish Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. A senior Education Ministry official deemed it inappropriate for Israeli high schoolers, declaring: “Young people of adolescent age tend to romanticise and don’t, in many cases, have the systemic vision that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of miscegenation”. An uproar ensued, with some seeing this as promoting racial separation.

In literature, as in other arts, seminal works tell the stories of people who crossed the lines of their given identities and befriended and fell in love with people from the “other” group. They make us think about what it is to be human. During apartheid, books about whites and blacks crossing those boundaries were actually banned, as was sex and marriage across colour lines.

A book published in 2014, Good Morning, Mr Mandela, describes the transformation of a white, conservative Afrikaans woman, Zelda La Grange. She was was initially skeptical of the new post-apartheid South Africa which was once ruled by her people, the white Afrikaners. Then she became personal secretary for 17 years to the first black president, Nelson Mandela. The fact of the radically different identities of the protagonists is intriguing. It became a bestseller.

Journalist Mark Gevisser’s review of it for The Guardian says: “She understands Mandela, quite simply, as her saviour, and the book feels truest at the beginning, as we witness the awakening of a dull, unconscious racist into a passionate New South African. She wins Mandela over, it seems, with her tears when he addresses her in Afrikaans on their first meeting: they are the tears of shame, and more white South Africans should shed them.”

How to prevent extreme identity politics destroying liberal society, as it is already doing in some parts of the world today? People need a group identity, essential to their sense of who they are relative to others. But they also need the right to be treated as individuals, and cross lines when they want to. Sadly, the wise leadership necessary to balance those competing forces is in short supply today, in South Africa and elsewhere. The cacophony of bigots fuelling the social media circus will not provide that leadership.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. A shorter version of this article was published in the SAJR on January 13, 2016)

South Africans still insult each other by mangling their African names


Black and white South Africans are still like two strangers getting to know each other, as a racial furore on social media showed this week

THE social media uproar over ugly racist postings which erupted this week shows how far South Africans still are from genuine reconciliation. It started when a white estate agent in Durban compared the thousands of black New Year’s Day swimmers at the city’s beachfront to naughty “monkeys” who left tons of litter behind them, evoking instant nationwide condemnation. She said in an interview afterwards that she was puzzled at the reaction, and was not being racist, but “factual”.

Then, a high-ranking white economist at Standard Bank tweeted: “More than 25 years after apartheid ended, the victims are increasing along with a sense of entitlement and hatred towards minorities…”. This too, was interpreted as a racial slur, leading the bank to suspend him in deference to their black clients. He apologised, saying he never intended causing offense.

Whites and blacks are still blithely insensitive to what presses each others’ buttons, despite the idealistic “rainbow nation” ethos which Mandela promoted and which is now regarded with some cynicism. In certain respects, things are moving in the opposite direction, towards further racial polarisation.

Whites complain about black hypersensitivity and the demand for excessive “political correctness”, which prevents them calling a spade a spade. For example when they make legitimate arguments about the problems of the country – like President Jacob Zuma’s dismal performance – and are then accused of racism instead of being heard for the point they are making. One black blogger on Monday retorted that there is “some stuff that white people just don’t get”.

For example, a cartoon in June last year about the president by much-loved white cartoonist Zapiro evoked unexpected reaction from blacks. Zuma had used his authority to allow Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir – who is wanted by the ICC for crimes against humanity – to visit South Africa illegally, but had previously denied entry to the peace-oriented Dalai Lama. Zapiro’s cartoon showed the president trying to read Tolstoy’s book “War and Peace” upsidedown as if he didn’t understand the difference.

Some people responded indignantly to the cartoon, believing this amounted to whites smirking over Zuma’s lack of a proper school education – one reprehensible aspect of apartheid was its denial of good education for blacks. Many still see Zuma – corrupt and inept as he is – as representing the heroic, dogged African triumph over white racism; despite the odds, he succeeded in beating the system and achieving the highest positions in the ANC and as SA president.

Anything positive said about apartheid leaders provokes outrage, even if it comes from fervent opponents of the system. Last year, veteran journalist and former editor of the anti-apartheid Rand Daily Mail, Allister Sparks, caused a Twitter storm for calling apartheid Prime Minster Hendrik Verwoerd one of the many “smart” politicians he had met during his 64-year career. Sparks had fought fearlessly against Verwoerd’s monstrous policies, but concedes that he was an able politician and built the National Party very effectively. He responded to the furore by saying: “What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to say he was dumb or stupid? He wasn’t stupid.” He eventually publicly apologised, however, for causing offense.

Racial sensitivities lie in tiny details as much as big issues. People’s names, for example, are precious things to them, yet most South African whites are still unable to pronounce African indigenous names properly, particularly ones that contain unfamiliar tongue-clicks or combinations of consonants. Indeed, most whites still cannot speak any African tongue – the country has 11 official languages. A new, popular hashtag aimed at giving whites a taste of their own medicine is called #TheYearWeMispronounceBack, in which the tweeters purposely mispronounce English names. Flippant as it may seem, the campaign represents a genuine undercurrent of resentment with a long history.

During apartheid, white employers generally called their black workers by “European” names, like “John” or “Elizabeth”, not their real African ones. Even today, when going into a restaurant or other public place where black waiters wear a name tag, white patrons will happily call them by this if it is European. But when the name is an indigenous African one, they will often not use it out of embarrassment at not knowing the correct pronunciation.

The conundrum of racial tensions, in all its myriad details, will be with us for a long time to come. It’s like two strangers getting to know each other. Social media will not solve the problem. But tucked in amongst the mutual recriminations on facebook and Twitter are important truths. South Africans need to listen carefully.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist and author based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was Editor of the SA Jewish Report for 16 years, from 1999-2014)