Best of 2017: Rhonda Hamilton Remembers WBGO's Joy of Jazz South African Adventure

Dec 28, 2017

The WBGO Joy of Jazz South African Adventure was one of my highlights of 2017. As soon as we arrived in Johannesburg on Sept. 28, our group of over 50 travelers was treated to a whirlwind tour of the city and the surrounding areas.

After checking into our hotel we traveled to the Lesedi Cultural Village, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “Lesedi” means “place of light” in Basotho, one of South Africa’s main tribal languages. We learned about the traditional lives of various indigenous ethnic groups of Southern Africa — the Basotho along with the Zulu, Pedi, Ndebele and Nelson Mandela’s people, the Xhosa.

Some incredibly agile young people performed traditional dances, kicking so high and moving so fast that they appear as a blur in my photographs! 

Dancers at Lesedi
Credit Rhonda Hamilton / WBGO

After the show we enjoyed a dinner sampling ostrich, crocodile, pap (a ground maize kind of porridge or polenta that is a staple food) along with more familiar offerings like chicken and potato salad. 

The next morning we were up early to visit Liliesleaf Farm — the once-secret headquarters of the liberation movement known as uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), or “Spear of The Nation,” where leaders from diverse backgrounds and ideologies met to develop strategies to fight against Apartheid, with the goal of ultimately creating a free and democratic South Africa.

Liliesleaf House
Credit Rhonda Hamilton / WBGO

Located in the quiet Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia, the farmland property was purchased in 1961 and originally used as the secret headquarters of the banned Communist Party. Within a short period of time, leaders like Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu began using it as a meeting place as well. Mandela lived there for a while, under an assumed name, posing as a caretaker. This is where The Freedom Charter was created, which began with the statement: “We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.” 

The demands in the charter were the demands of ordinary South Africans from all over the country, who were canvassed by volunteers and asked what they would like to see in a free, non-racial, democratic and just South Africa.

On July 11, 1963, the police raided Liliesleaf, collecting a massive amount of liberation struggle documents. The leadership of the ANC and MK were put on trial for sabotage and characterized as terrorists, in what was known as the Rivonia Trial. Nelson Mandela, arrested before the raid, was tried and sentenced along with Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and social campaigner Denis Goldberg, among others.

Recalling the nine-month trial, Goldberg said: “This is the significance of Rivonia. This is the place where the transition happened, from petitioning and the early history of the ANC, to mass action and the deviance of unjust laws campaign…we were talking about a transition to a new form of struggle. Rivonia, Liliesleaf Farm, is an icon of that struggle for freedom.”

Later that day we visited Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum. We were confronted with stark reminders of South Africa’s racially divided past — starting at the entrance. Visitors are randomly assigned tickets as “white” or “non-white,” and then must enter through separate turnstiles, as was the practice under Apartheid. The museum offers vivid and heart-wrenching details of Apartheid’s violent history. It takes you on an emotional roller coaster down into the depths of man’s inhumanity to man — and back up again, to see how the spirit of one man, Nelson Mandela, could illuminate that darkness.

During our tour of Soweto we visited the home that Mandela or Madiba, as he was affectionately known, briefly shared with his wife Winnie.  A few blocks away, there’s the home of another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The images of these two icons are part of the South African landscape on buildings and in other public spaces.

Nelson Mandela's bedroom in Soweto
Credit Rhonda Hamilton / WBGO

On Friday and Saturday we enjoyed some fantastic performances at The Joy of Jazz Festival in Johannesburg. Among the many highlights were South African artists Abdullah Ibrahim, Tutu Puoane, Jonas Gwangwa and Caiphus Semenya. We also enjoyed Somi from Uganda, Salif Keita from Mali, and some familiar faces from the United States: Branford Marsalis, The Clayton Brothers, Nnenna Freelon,  Christian McBride, Joshua Redman, David Murray and Terri Lyne Carrington.

Rhonda Hamilton and Branford Marsalis backstage at The Joy of Jazz Festival in Johannesburg

The festival was held on five different levels of the Sandton Convention Center, and each level was packed with enthusiastic and very stylish jazz lovers. That weekend in Johannesburg, it was definitely the place to be and be seen.

On Sunday morning we were off to the Kwa Maritane Bush Lodge at the Pilanesburg Game Reserve. Over the next two days we went on three game drives, and were thrilled to see South Africa’s Big Five: the elephant, lion, leopard, rhinoceros and Cape buffalo. There were plenty of zebra, wildebeests, impalas, warthogs and giraffes to go around as well. We even saw a family of hippos bobbing up and down in the water.  

Up early again on Tuesday morning, we returned to O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg for our flight to Cape Town. When we arrived in this beautiful city we were greeted by nearly hurricane-force winds, making it impossible for us to take our scheduled trips to Robben Island (by ferry) and Table Mountain (by cable car). Happily the weather cleared over the next few days, and our group was able to make these excursions and visit other historic locations, including Boulders Beach, Home of the African Penguin. 

Penguin colony at Boulders Beach, Cape Town
Credit Rhonda Hamilton / WBGO

Table Mountain, one of the official New7Wonders of Nature, provides spectacular views of Cape Town. On a clear day, you can see Robben Island way in the distance.

Table Mountain view, Cape Town
Credit Rhonda Hamilton / WBGO

The maximum security prison on Robben Island is where Nelson Mandela and thousands of South Africa’s freedom fighters and political prisoners were held for decades.

Nelson Mandela's cell at Robben Island
Credit Rhonda Hamilton / WBGO

All of the prison tour guides at Robben Island are former inmates, and they share vivid details of their experiences during incarceration. Nelson Mandela’s cell has been carefully preserved. Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, and spent 18 on Robben Island. His cell was in section B, where the leaders of political organizations were held in isolation from the rest of the prison community. Mandela’s body may have been confined to this tiny space, but he never allowed his mind and spirit to be contained. He and the other elders were always teaching and encouraging the younger prisoners whenever they had the opportunity. Everyone was held accountable in the daily quest for more knowledge, discipline and self improvement. The goal was to leave Robben Island a better person than when you entered. 

Another highlight of our trip came the night before our departure, when my South Africa tour co-host — Wayne Winborne, director of The Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University — arranged for us to have dinner at the home of some friends in Cape Town. A live band played as we entered their courtyard, which put everyone in a festive mood. 

Gail, Rhonda Hamilton, Trevor and Wayne Winborne
Credit WBGO

Drinks and hors d’oeuvres were followed by a delicious meal of home-cooked local dishes. Our hosts, Gail and Trevor, accommodated our group and several other special guests — including Rashid Lombard, founder of the Cape Town Jazz Festival, and his wife. We were treated like family, and it was a chance for everyone to bond over the incredible experiences we had all shared.