Comfort Blankets or The Things We Tell Ourselves to Make It Alright

N.B. We are finally back in Liberia but before I get back to documenting the Africa Clockwise trek, here’s a missing blog, first drafted in July/August 2015.

Snapshots of the South Peninsula # 3: Ocean View

In this southern hemisphere deep winter month of cold and constant setbacks, I want to tell you about my friend Leo Letsape.

Leo first came to my attention as a keen member of the intercultural music programme the eMzantsi Carnival project initiated in 2009. He started off as a versatile performer, adding a comedy rap to his trumpet playing with brass band Junior Ramblers, and progressed through teaching harmony singing to other participants with his guitar accompaniment to leading drum tuition as the kids’ favourite facilitator on our eMzantsi primary schools twinning programme.

In 2010, Leo diplomatically encouraged members of rival Ocean View klopse troupes to come together to form an eMzantsi Carnival band marrying Cape brass with Brazilian bloco rhythms in a unique ghoema-samba style under the mentorship of our colleague Mark Dodsworth of RedZebra. Within a couple of years, Leo was leading the Cape Town Carnival at the head of the eMzantsi Bloka (humourously renamed to echo his roots in the ‘blokke’ or Ocean View council flats he proudly represents).

The eMzantsi Bloka at Carnival 2012 before we left

The eMzantsi Bloka at Carnival 2012 before we left to go Africa Clockwise

Leo leading the Bloka in style

Leo leading the Bloka in style

Leo’s surname is Sesotho, but in SA race parlance he is ‘so-called coloured’, a member of the predominantly mixed Afrikaans/English-speaking community indigenous to the Cape, descended from original Khoi, San and Bantu peoples interacting with European invaders and slaves from the Dutch East Indies. The ‘Cape coloured’ community make up 9% of SA population and historically have been said to suffer from being ‘too black to be white, and too white to be black’ under the apartheid regime and subsequent ANC dispensations.

The two years we’ve been away have been hard going for Mr Letsparty. Father to two very young children, he has been feeling an increasing pressure to provide, in a community with unemployment at around 60%. Many of his peers in Ocean View struggle to resist the pervasive temptation of the escapism offered by hard drugs and alcohol. This former fishing community was forcibly removed from the affluent coastal suburbs of Simonstown and Noordhoek in 1967 and relocated inland to a barren hillside; a feeling of hopelessness has shackled every generation since, as the possibility of redress seems to recede further with each government.

When I got back from Liberia I was shocked at my first sight of Leo. Not only because he looked out of shape and exhausted, but because the light had gone out of his eyes. As I hadn’t seen him for 2 years, it was easier for me than other eMzantsi staff to appreciate the extent of the decline in his mental health; the deterioration had been so gradual they hadn’t quite realised what a state he’d got himself into.

When we sat down to chat, he appeared resigned to relinquishing his dream of Making It through music. Leo is far too sensitive for constantly thwarted ambitions, and the relentless quashing of his hopes was proving too much. In his thirtieth year, he was thinking he should just give up now and concentrate on his new job working on the farm, feeding the animals and paying the bills.

In the next breath, however, he told me he’d taught himself to play the saxophone in the first three months of this year.

eMzantsi management had stopped offering Leo work because he’d let them down on a number of occasions and they weren’t sure there was any point wasting energy trying to pull him round. However, when I first saw the eMzantsi Bloka perform in May I found it so distressing to see them all looking so forlorn without him, playing half-heartedly like shadows of their former selves, I knew it had to be worth a fight. I convinced the team that we had to give Leo another chance – not just for himself, but for the sake of the other 20 or 30 people that would be uplifted if he could get back on track.

Leo is the most naturally talented musician I have ever come across. (And I spent several years of my life consorting with some very hot jazz musos so I’ve met a few.) For a long time, I harboured the dream of giving him the break he so deserves, and my exile to UK from Liberia last year seemed to provide that when I serendipitously bumped into Tamzyn French, manager of the Kinetika Bloco, at the UK National Carnival Conference in Luton last November. Kinetika’s founder Ali Pretty had visited eMzantsi in 2010 and sown the seeds of a potential collaboration – finally it seemed it might bear fruit.

In July, Tamzyn brought key people from the Kinetika Bloco, musical director Claude Deppa and his assistant Ruben Fox, plus Lawrence Becko from legendary London venue the Roundhouse to Cape Town to scout for talent to take part in a week of workshops involving youth bands and choirs from across the UK alongside musicians from Nigeria and Ukraine. This process will culminate in a spectacular collaboration, part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, called ‘On Mass’ at the Roundhouse on November 15th featuring internationally famous pianist Jamie Cullum.

Tamzyn French of Kinetika, Lawrence Becko of Roundhouse, eMzantsi MD Cindy Willcock, Claude Deppa and Reuben Fox

Tamzyn French of Kinetika, Lawrence Becko of Roundhouse, eMzantsi MD Cindy Willcock, and musicians Claude Deppa and Ruben Fox

The day of the Kinetika workshop, 20 minutes before they were due to arrive, Leo posted on Facebook “Apologies for letting you all down, but I can’t do this…” eMzantsi ladies went into overdrive, rounding up Bloka members, pep talking them, doling out fresh T shirts and hugging Leo who was beside himself with self-doubt.

By the time our international guests pulled up in their kombi outside the OV Civic Centre, the Bloka were ready to show what they could do, with a grin and a flourish. I have never been so proud of them.

Leo (left) follows Claude's lead

Leo (left) avidly follows Claude’s direction…

Take it away Leo

…and passes it on.

Soon we were cooking

Soon the Bloka are cooking with a full brass section and an appreciative crowd.

Doing it for Leo

Doing it for Leo

A crowd gathered as Claude taught the Bloka one of Kinetika’s drum rhythms and watched Leo lead them to master it, including, as always in Ocean View, a couple of dogs. All the time Leo was trading horn licks with Claude and Ruben, these two dogs were skirmishing round his ankles, and, as he gently kicked them away, I couldn’t help thinking they symbolised the invisible challenges he is always wrestling, the dire needs constantly ambushing him, trying to pull him off balance. This struggle to stay on his feet is a huge drain on his energy and prevents him from making significant progress.

Canine companions

Canine dependants…

feeling the pressure

…feeling the heat

But holding his own

But Leo was holding his own.

Claude Deppa, of course, fell in love with him. He told me so in exactly those words. Claude left Athlone for exile in 1974 at the age of 12, and, unable to take his drum kit with him, took a trumpet and became one of London’s most versatile and respected jazz musicians (playing in the Brotherhood of Breath amongst other legendary ensembles). At the end of the session, just before he left for the airport, Claude took my hand and said “I told Leo I was jealous of him. In a few years, he has made more impact here, made more of a difference to these kids, than I can do in a lifetime in London.”

It was so inspiring for Leo to interact with like-minded musos and get a glimpse of other possibilities. We are so grateful to Kinetika Bloco and the Roundhouse for offering him the chance of a lifetime to witness what can happen in a land where the arts are funded, not as a charity donation, but as an economic investment in the future of their youth. If you’d like to support eMzantsi’s effort to ‘Get Leo to London’ this November, please consider contributing to our crowdfunder here – we’re more than two thirds of the way to our target of £750.

Too good to stop

We might be weary, but the music is too good to give up

Green Blanket

August 16th marks 3 years since 34 striking miners were shot dead by police at Marikana near Rustenberg in the North West province. Most of them were shot in the back.

It is said they died fighting for a living wage.

On that day, a couple of hundred miners sat and waited on the koppie (from the Afrikaans word kop meaning head), a small hill above the Lonmin mine, for management to come talk to them. They had dismissed their union reps as sell-outs. With the average miner still earning around R3000 a month ($360), rock drillers earning just over R4000 were demanding a payrise to R12 500 a month for their dangerous work (to $1500 at Aug 2012 exchange rates). That week, as they sat waiting through the harsh Highveld winter days, the vocal man marked as their leader by the police was identified by the green blanket he was wrapped in.

Mgcineni 'Mambush' Noki

Mgcineni ‘Mambush’ Noki

tried to negotiate with police

who tried to negotiate with police

but was shot minutes later

but was shot minutes later

Graffiti by Tokolos Stencil

…has become a symbol for resistance to injustice in SA. Graffiti by Tokolos Stencil.

The day before, a major shareholder and boardmember of the mine, who happens to be an ANC bigwig, called the Minister of Minerals and Energy and suggested that these men were not legal strikers but “dastardly criminals” and should be treated as such. It was suggested that the Minister of Police should encourage his newly appointed commissioner General Riah Phiyega to stamp her authority on the situation. The next day, the police moved in with teargas, rubber bullets and R5 submachine guns; 34 strikers were killed, another 78 were injured.

“I don’t know how one shares power with people who have shotguns and teargas canisters in their hands and I don’t know how one shares power with those who are paying the starvation wages that they pay”

According to Joe Hani, these were the words of 34 year old NUM general secretary Cyril Ramaphosa, during SA’s biggest strike which started 9th August 1987. The Lonmin strike was called 25 years later on exactly the same date. Of course, by then 59 year old Comrade Cyril was that very same non-executive director of Lonmin, and had strayed so far from his roots to have infamously bid R18 million for a buffalo to put in his personal game park.

Three years on, he is Deputy President.

Soundbites from South Africa # 3: The deafening silence of President Zuma regarding responsibility for the Marikana massacre after publication of the Farlam Commission of Inquiry’s report on 25th June which cleared both Deputy President Ramphosa and former Police Minister Mthethwa.

When I arrived in SA in 1994, Comrade Cyril’s key role in the long and hard negotiated settlement to end apartheid made him my hero. I was sorely disappointed when he lost out to Thabo Mbeki in the race to succeed President Mandela in 1997. But not as disappointed as I was going to be.

Wonderkop – written in despair August 2012

We wonder how the heads
Of state can sleep at night.
We wonder how the heads
Of mines eat their 5 course dinners.
We wonder how the heads
Of unions hide in their BMWs.
We wonder how the heads
Of police felt under their panicky helmets.
We wonder how the heads
Of the miners lay so still in the bloody dust

When our rage burns in the disquiet.

We wonder how our heads
Can be so full of images of
Sharpeville, Soweto and Boipatong
And yet make room for this?

Why do the slaughtered heads
Of landless cattle continue to wander
Lonely through the dark parts of our history?

But the greatest wonder
Of Wonderkop
Is when will it stop
When will it stop…

I wonder: did Graca tell Madiba about the massacre at Marikana? Or did she shelter him from this horror, as I did my children? 16th August 2012 was the first time I ever waved the kids out of the room when the news came on, not wanting to believe my own eyes, trying to save them from the images so carelessly scattered across our TV screens like those 34 bodies callously scattered across the koppie. They were too young, he too old to be expected to cope with the horror.

I hope she didn’t tell him. It was no longer his job to stand up to such injustice.

It’s ours.

Wet Blanket

This last month, I have been mostly struggling to juggle competing needs. When I got back, Harlequin Foundation MD Cindy asked me to assist with PR and media liaison for ‘one day a week’ in the months leading up to the 11th annual eMzantsi Carnival in September. Despite previously vowing not to go back to working for the NGO I founded in 2004, I said yes because I love eMzantsi and I love Cindy and she’s emigrating 6 days after Carnival and she has a child under the age of two. Plus we need the money, what with all the extra electricity, petrol and school fees we have to find cash for back here in ‘civilisation’.

More demanding than the slowly encroaching demands of work (since when have I ever managed to do anything part time?) I soon felt torn between that and trying to head off husband’s self-scuppering pre-show procrastination. Sampson is a master of leaving things to the last minute in order to whip himself into a frenzy of focus and write. Unfortunately the older I get, the less able I am to cope with the fallout on the whole family from such an unnecessarily stressful process. Without the funds to hire in professionals, I also had to do the PR to promote his ‘Deep South Tour’, and pull together the slides-on-demand section of the audio/visual show from my back catalogue of thousands (see media page for latest interviews).

Sampson's gig at The Meeting Place in Simonstown

Sampson’s gig at The Meeting Place in Simonstown

Meanwhile, I was trying to keep Ruby on track as rehearsals for her school play ‘Beauty and the Beast’ threatened to swallow her up completely. They went from 2 hours rehearsal every night to 3 and a half, plus 5 hours daily at weekends, and a full week of the school holiday. She did so little revision for her Term 2 exams, we thought she was bound to get a nasty shock with her results, but in July she received a disappointingly good report!

During his first term back Zola showed a somewhat ambivalent attitude to school, with the stresses of long days and project deadlines being tempered by the twin delights of hanging out with mates and playing sport. In the winter holidays he admitted he was looking forward to going back to the truck. I said that was great, Dad and I felt the same, but in the meantime we should make the most of our lovely friends while we were here.

On the evening of the first day back, things took a turn for the worse when he asked if he had to go to school tomorrow? He developed an irrational fear of Being Told Off for forgotten homework diary signings or not-smart-enough dreadlocks or something – he couldn’t name an exact reason when we examined it. It reached such a peak, I had to teach him exercises to alleviate his shallow-breathing anxiety in the mornings.

His Grade 5 class went on a coach outing to Cape Town Castle. I got in late that night and Zola was already tucked up in bed when I came to ask him about his day. Though he’d told his Dad it was ‘OK’, he admitted to me that he was upset by the tour of the castle – particularly seeing the dungeons where slaves were deliberately trapped in the rising tide and especially the torture chamber. He said, “Mom, I wanted to cry but I couldn’t”. He couldn’t understand why other children were giggling. I told him that his was the more reasonable reaction – indeed, I’d be more concerned if he hadn’t felt like that. I was reminded of my Mom’s reaction to seeing the fort at Elmina in Ghana, where she got so upset in the gaol cell she had to abandon the tour.

This astonishing animated map has been doing the rounds on social media. Every time I see it, I find it paralysing. Why doesn’t slavery sit as high in the annals of human shame as Hiroshima (90000 dead) and the Holocaust (6 million)? Of the 12.5 million African people who were stolen and sent across the Atlantic, an estimated 10 million survived to endure brutality and bequeath PTSD on their descendants for the next 3-400 years. Sometimes I wonder whether this continent can ever get over a crime so heinous. The groupthink created to sustain the slave trade messes Africa, Europe and the Americas up to this day.

Security Blanket

Amidst the slough of despond that I have mostly been sensing as the state of the nation since my return to SA, it was a shot in the arm to go along to the first United Against Corruption picket outside Parliament on Aug 7th and find democracy alive and kicking back (if you pardon the pun). A vast array of artists had volunteered their services and when Sampson was asked to MC and perform an interactive sketch with the crowd demonstrating a live ‘corruption monitor’ he asked our friend, comedy actor Mfundo Hashe, to come down and help out.

Mfundo Hashe, Sampson and Mike van Graan

Mfundo Hashe and Sampson with one of the UAC organisers, playwright Mike van Graan

Poets outside Parliament

The UAC rally kicked off with a poet declaiming outside Parliament…


… and continued with politicians…

with Table Mountain in the background

…and constitutional campaigners speaking out with Table Mountain in the background.

Corruption monitor

The ‘corruption monitor’ sketch went down very well despite zero rehearsal and no microphone, roping in audience members as security machinery and fall guys.

monitor 2

Sampson sends a dodgy ‘firepool’ lifeguard packing!

Poets and politicians came to speak out ahead of the nationwide march planned for 30th Sept. At one point two actors performed an excerpt from a Mike van Graan play where one parodied the rhetoric of a Great Leader and the other ‘translated’ what that would mean in effect to the people.

actors excerpt of Mike's play

Actors performing an excerpt of Mike’s play outside Parliament

The crowd were laughing and enjoying the satire which seemed to make a watching policeman uncomfortable. He approached MC’s Hashe and Sampson and insisted they move their activities ‘2m from the gate’. Perhaps he thought the fun might explode.

Cop insisted on '2m back from the gate'

The sergeant insists the performers back off. Mfundo and Sampson look bemused.

It was a great comfort to witness the passion and conviction of such a diverse range of compatriots on this day and see that there are still plenty of people – of all ages, cultures and political leanings – prepared to stand up and speak out when the shit hits the fan. I felt our democracy was in safe hands.



all together now

All together now…

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