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April 08, 2009

Which South Africa will prevail?


There are a lot of discomfiting signs about South Africa these days. The abrupt, politically murky and legally unsatisfying end to the long Jacob Zuma corruption saga -- one observer described it to me as the "worst-of-all-worlds" scenario -- was merely the latest. Two weeks before elections, everyone is busy writing off the country as on its way to being the next African basket case, surrendering the rule of law to the whims of its political elite.

Well, I'm pleased to say I saw a very different side to South Africa over the weekend, at the 10th Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

I wouldn't call myself a jazz aficionado, but I was in town and decided to tag along with a friend who is. What we saw over two days of packed performances -- besides some world-class music -- was the dream of the "new South Africa" come to life.

A large, appreciative, overwhelmingly black crowd of thousands took in what's probably the biggest annual music festival in Africa. I point out that it was "overwhelmingly black" lest anyone think that this sort of thing is only popular with South Africa's well-heeled minorities. It was a far cry from the upscale food- and wine-tasting event I'd just been to, where the crowd was 90 percent white. (By the way, food, wine and jazz -- yes, this is a typical weekend in Cape Town, the Rio of Africa.)

The convention center rocked. People stood up and danced in their seats, which you wouldn't see at the Kennedy Center. Interracial couples, which are not very common in South Africa, were locked in swaying embraces. Maybe it was the cohesive power of the music, which featured acts from Hugh Masekela to Mos Def. (Embarrassingly true to American-rap-star form, in a weekend that otherwise ran like clockwork, Mos was the only person working on what everyone here calls "African Standard Time," showing up to his closing-night performance more than an hour late.)

No other African nation could have pulled off this kind of event. Organizers are talking about expanding it to Luanda, Angola, to which I can only say: good luck.

One of the big draws was a young South African pop group called Freshlyground. A racially diverse group that mixes R&B, jazz and pop sounds -- some record stores don't seem to know in which section to stock their two successful albums -- they're one of the most popular homegrown bands today. After their set on Friday, when an announcer called their tunes "the soundtrack of a new South Africa," you couldn't help but feel he was right. They're a sign of what most South Africans want their country to be like, but this political season their sound is getting drowned out.


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Interesting. I saw Freshlyground the next day in Joburg at a (90 percent white) park concert. They were good.

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Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at news.mcclatchy.com or send him a story idea.


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