Tour to the Rainbow Land

Reuben Thomas

1995, 1996

(This article was published in the 1996 edition of The Eagle, except for the italicised paragraphs, which were removed at the request of the Dean, Andrew Mackintosh, out of politeness to our hosts.)

It was the tour that almost never was. The choir was to visit the United States, and though I was looking forward to the tour it would hardly have been a new departure; I had already toured North America with the choir in 1984 and 1986, and we were due to go to Canada at Christmas. However, there was still disappointment when the tour was cancelled, especially as it was the second in as many years to fall through. Thus it was with a mixture of scepticism and hope that the guarded mutterings of the Organist about the possibility of a tour to South Africa were greeted. Even when it was finally confirmed, I still only half believed we would go.

My hope changing to anticipation as the toy plane flew across the computer-generated equator on the in-flight movie screen, I reflected that I was fortunate the custom of being thrown in the sea on the occasion of one’s first crossing does not extend to aeroplanes. Although the time difference from London to Johannesburg is only one hour, the flight took eleven, and left us as thoroughly jet-lagged as if we had flown to San Francisco when we arrived at six o’clock in the morning.

At the airport we met John Badminton, the last-minute organiser of our tour. After collecting our luggage, including the two huge boxes of music and gowns which were to tax the resources of South African Airlines for the next two weeks, he gave us a running commentary as we were driven to St Margaret’s Church, Bedfordview. It was to become a familiar sight. A modest brick building with a large lawn in front, it looked English; even the withered grass accorded with an English summer, and though it was winter in Johannesburg, it was the middle of their dry season. After a long wait (we had arrived earlier than expected), we were collected in twos and threes by our hosts, organised by St Andrew’s School, a local private girls’ school, and taken home for day’s rest.

Staying in a wealthy residential district, with two other choir members, it was as if the last ten years had not happened. All the families were white, and lived in large one-storey houses, with high walls, security gates, and notices advising of armed response to intruders. Fierce dogs were commonplace, though our hosts’ three border collies seemed to worry them with their bounding energy more than they would any potential burglar. The degree of insularity was startling: when we lost a frisbee into the next door neighbours’ garden, our hosts were reluctant for us to go and ask for it back; they didn’t seem to know their neighbours very well. Later, when they drove us around the centre of Johannesburg, pointing out the mining companies’ opulent headquarters, some were as new to our hostess as to us; it turned out that she hadn’t been there for several years. Our hosts were mild people, in their fifties but without children; they had a certificate on their wall showing that their house had been blessed; the husband worked for a company that printed cheques. They seemed worn out and resigned, their lassitude only broken by occasional shafts of mild racism.

This was a pattern for many of the whites. Attitudes ranged from resignation to anger, from paternalism towards the blacks to enmity, with some content to withdraw altogether into private worlds, but rarely did I find someone wholly positive about the changes being wrought in the country. The predominant attitude to the past was that they had been deprived of their rights, and to the future, fear for themselves and the hope that their children would emigrate. To a large extent, their fears seemed justified: murder of whites is still commonplace, and while most are armed, guns must be kept unloaded in a locked safe, which makes them difficult to use in an emergency. Roadside shootings, as evinced by the occasional bullet holes in road signs, have led to legislation permitting drivers alone in their car to ignore red lights if they deem it unsafe not to. The black taxis, or “combies”, minibuses run as taxi services by and for blacks and coloureds, engage in atrocious driving, often directed specifically against whites.

But it is the blacks that have the worst of it, of course; while some of them have moved into formerly exclusively white areas, the shanty towns still stretch alongside the main roads, and are still growing. Outside Port Elizabeth we saw a bizarre field full of concrete cubicles resembling lavatories. On inquiry we found that that is exactly what they were; the government, anticipating expansion of the neighbouring squatter settlements, had laid drainage and built sanitation facilities ready for families to build houses around. This may be better than the past, but it still looks like crisis management, albeit in a rather more farsighted mode than previously.

The next day the itinerary promised a 4pm start, but one of the presenters of Good Morning South Africa, an Anglican minister, had other ideas, and arranged for the choir to be on breakfast television at 8am. Because the studio was far too small to hold us all, and so as not to exhaust the boys, six men were duly detailed to represent the choir. It was probably the earliest that the Gentlemen of St John’s have ever performed, and it was fortunate that we only had to sing a short madrigal. Beforehand, Christopher Robinson was his usual jovial self in what was the first of a series of radio and television interviews; he uncomplainingly spent more than one “free” afternoon in stuffy studios with sometimes stuffier presenters.

Our first concert was that evening in Pretoria’s UNISA Hall. We arrived to discover that the UNISA complex had been attacked by rioters earlier in the day; the staff treated this as a commonplace, and the atmosphere was one of calm efficiency. The usual first-night jitters did not prevent an enjoyable concert.

The next day we flew to Durban, thence to drive to Pietermaritzburg. At the airport we discovered that the Dean’s seat had been mysteriously cancelled on all our internal flights. This proved to be a favourite trick of SAA; on the return flight to England they booked the Organist and his namesake son-in-law into the same seat.

The concert at Pietermaritzburg was in the City Hall; for one item we joined forces with a local black choir, to sing some Handel. After the concert the delighted choristers were beset by girls from a local school wanting autographs. We left the adulation to suffer a two-hour coach ride over increasingly pitted roads to the forbidding whitewashed buildings of the Drakensberg Choir School, dour in the dim lights that illuminated them. Struggling with our luggage, we were directed variously; in my case, with three other gents, up a hill to a distant light which looked to be miles distant but was in fact only thirty yards away. The house was that of the choir’s director, Bunny Ashley-Botha, whose wife had sent us to the house while she and her husband made sure that everyone else was matched with their hosts. Having been told to make ourselves at home, we broached the CD collection, and listened to an astonishing rendition of Der Hölle Rache by a past Drakensberg boy. This combination of wild beauty and rough living summed up our visit.

The school is in the middle of nowhere, and has an odd history: it was founded almost by accident by a couple who bought the farm on which it is built just after the Second World War, intending to become farmers. Until recently, the choir has had to travel to its audiences, but in June, just before our visit, a new auditorium had been erected, and finally audiences were beginning to come to the choir.

The next morning we awoke to a splendid surprise; having arrived in the dark, we were unprepared for the grandeur of the Drakensberg Mountains which loomed only two days’ walk away, framing the border of the mountainous Lesotho. After a morning spent exploring, we gathered at the school for lunch, followed by a rehearsal for that evening’s concert. The Drakensberg boys looked on, intrigued by Christopher’s lackadaisical direction, and then joined in, for there was one joint item in the programme, the Gloria from Mozart’s Coronation Mass. After a supper, which in common with lunch emphasised vigour rather than refinement, was the most magical concert it has ever been my privilege to attend. We shared the programme equally with the Drakensberg boys, and were able to sit in the audience while they sang. They were split into two choirs of about forty boys each, one performing in each half of the concert. The first sang choral music, including the Sanctus from Gounod’s St Cecilia Mass with a superlative fifteen-year-old tenor, and Ashley-Botha’s evocative setting of his own poem about the Drakensberg, with atmospheric vocal sound effects supporting soaring solo lines.

The magic was in the second half, though, when the second choir performed a series of traditional African song-dances, some with instruments. From simple stories to a complete evocation of the savannah’s wildlife, we were transported by an undirected group of boys, who, Ashley-Botha later confessed, largely taught themselves the steps, though most of them were white. Here were the fruits of the severe discipline we had observed (“Boys are only beaten for serious offences,” we were told, “such as having their shirts untucked”). I was not the only member of St John’s looking dazed as we left the auditorium. Inspired and moved, I will not forget that evening.

The next day we returned to Durban to give a concert, and then flew to Cape Town, where we gave two, the first in the Nico Milan Opera House, the biggest venue of the tour. I lost myself more than once in the backstage maze, and the choir felt rather lost in the dry auditorium, whose ungenerous acoustic did not return our sound. Nevertheless, the large and sophisticated audience seemed to enjoy the concert, and the city newspaper’s critic, of whom we had been warned, was smiling pleasantly afterwards.

Most of the tourists to South Africa come to see the wildlife, and we had our share. Here, as often, it paid to tag along on the well-organised choristers’ trips, rather than risk the rather more haphazard and often less satisfying arrangements one could make oneself. On our second day in Cape Town we took ship, lurching through seas higher than the tallest member of the choir, to Seal Island, a bare rock barely out of the water on which dozens of seals reclined, evidently used to the attention. We were also hoping to see whales, but were, except for some of the more imaginative boys, disappointed. On disembarkation the choristers bought about a quarter of an astonished quay-side sculptor’s soapstone works.

In the afternoon we drove along the coast to Cape Point. On the way monkeys loped along the side of the road. Later we went down to the beach to see the penguins. I thought penguins only lived in and around Antarctica, and these birds were brown with brightly-coloured bills, but penguins they undoubtedly were, with the inimitable lurching gait, wings clutched tightly to the sides.

I was taken up the tallest building in Africa in Johannesburg, but Table Mountain was unrivalled for exhilaration. A two-hour wait in the queue at the bottom allowed the unpromising mist to evaporate from the top, so that the perilous drop from the cable car could be fully appreciated, and by the time we reached the summit the view of the sea was clear. We dashed around the un-table-like plateau, and perched on boulders for photographs, as if about to leap over the edge. Perhaps the mountain’s name actually refers to the restaurant, which was well provided with flat surfaces for eating, and of which many of us took advantage for lunch.

A third day ended with our second concert, but beforehand expeditions set out to Stellenbosch, one of South Africa’s prime wine-growing areas, to take advantage of one of the best things about the tour: the exchange rate. Three Rand seemed to be worth about a pound, but the rate of conversion was nearly six to one. This led to an unprecedented spending spree; as well as the inevitable liquor, cheaper in supermarkets than in European duty free shops, and several cases of Stellenbosch wine, there were more exotic purchases; Adam Green staggered on to the homeward flight with enough tribal memorabilia to furnish a Zulu hut, or, as it turned out, his third year rooms. The powerful pound was also used to advantage in the excellent sea-food restaurants of Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. The men enjoyed several well-lubricated evenings out eating astonishing food; in particular the sight of Toby Watkin devouring a lobster nearly as big as himself is not easily forgotten. Curiously, the fruit was often second rate; this, it was explained by our hosts, was because all the best produce is exported.

We flew next to Port Elizabeth, the eastern-most point of the tour. In the afternoon we fulfilled the dream of many on the tour: we went to an elephant park. It was a long time before we sighted our first elephants, and longer still until we arrived at close range, but they were just as I had always imagined them: slow, gentle and incredibly good-humoured. Along the way we also saw a pair of ostriches mating. We were able to eat lunch in front of a small group of elephants, sitting at tables looking down a slope and across a hedge to a cunningly-placed water trough.

Our concert in Port Elizabeth was in St Mary’s Church, founded in 1825 and one of the oldest Anglican churches in South Africa; it was proud of its long history and recently granted coat of arms. The jolly rotund vicar would not have been out of place in an English church, and the strong Anglican tradition made this the most homely venue of the tour.

Finally, we returned to Johannesburg. After flying into the airport we had a day free, it says in the itinerary, for sightseeing; I have no recollection of our activities. The next evening we recorded a concert for television; we had a token audience, who disorientingly occupied only one side of the auditorium. We were introduced at incredible speed in both English and Khosa; in neither introduction could I make out more than the names of Christopher Robinson, and one “Sir George Guest”.

Though used to early Sundays, it was a grumpy choir that left at eight o’clock the next morning for Soweto. We filed into the front pews in the church, and waited for it to fill up, which it did, until overflowing. The singing started and seemed to continue for the duration of the service, our Victoria mass sounding drab beside the exuberance of the resident choir and congregation. The only significant gap was during the sermon, which was preached in English and simultaneously translated into Khosa. At the peace the whole church was in turmoil; it seemed that everyone shook everyone else’s hand; and when the children came in for the communion, they entered in a singing procession. We were introduced at the beginning and applauded at the end, and the Dean was given a special welcome, as his is the translation of the psalms in use there. He also enjoyed being addressed as “father”, a sobriquet absent from the rarefied atmosphere of his usual haunts. To see such joy amid such poverty would have made one feel ashamed were it not for the infectious nature of their happiness.

After another big concert in Johannesburg’s Linder Auditorium, we had our oddest engagement of the tour: in return for lunch and dinner at a private game farm and hotel, we sang a concert in the small thatched church for the hotel guests. The hotel was run by a friendly and energetic woman whose husband, after being a fighter pilot in the Second World War, had had a career as an archaeologist. Some of us saw his intriguing collection of finds, though I was content to sit in the shade and doodle. The hospitality was tremendous, and we enjoyed the most relaxed day of the tour.

On the last day we visited Gold Reef City, a theme park devoted to the gold industry, in which we descended to the higher levels of a worked-out mine, and watched gold bars being poured. The audience were offered the chance to walk away with the bar if they could lift it, but the profile and slipperiness proved too much, as presumably they always do. The demonstrator informed us that bars were given out for free on 30th February, but that was little help, it being the middle of September. The appetite for fairground rides, junk food and junk shopping that had been festering throughout the tour was finally satisfied, and we left, wondering how much we could really take on to the ’plane as hand luggage.

As we flew home, the customarily asinine films allowed me to ponder the tour. It had lived up to all expectations, and looking around, everyone seemed happy, though exhausted. There had been some lessons, too. It is to be hoped that the opening up of cultural links with Europe, allowing tours such as ours, and that of the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir who, a few days after we heard them, started their first tour of Western Europe, will bring a much greater appreciation of the complexity of South Africa’s situation, which in its bizarre mixture of backwardness and sophistication is unlike that of any other country in the southern hemisphere. South Africa is well named the Rainbow Land.

This document was translated from LATEX by HEVEA.

Last updated 2007/10/02