Reflections on Ten Days in Johannesburg

Remarks by Andrew Williams, Matthew Whalley, Charly Stapley, Sam Robinson and Deborah Whalley at St Martin-in-the-Fields, October 7, 2018

Sam W Two weeks ago I sat in the deanery garden of St Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, with Godfrey Harwood, who was dean from 1986, during the transfer of power, and who had become a close friend of Geoffrey Brown, vicar of St Martin’s during the same period. It was a cause of great satisfaction to both of us that the link which began in Godfrey and Geoffrey’s time had now been revived in a new era. Andy’s now going to tell us about two of the symbols of that new era.

Andy South Africa doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to storytelling. Nor should it, as the narrative of twentieth century South Africa includes horrific tales of the greed of a goldrush, exploitation through slavery, enforced humiliation and segregation, violence and shameful inhumanity of many other kinds.

Johannesburg is home to South Africa’s Constitutional Court, the highest court in the country built on the site of segregated prison on Constitution Hill where non-white inmates were imprisoned in appalling conditions and the national Apartheid Museum.  Both buildings find a way to honestly tell the country’s story for international visitors and the people of South Africa alike.  The stories are told in a way where truth is held paramount and, rather than shamefully brushing them under the carpet as belonging to the bad old days, these stories are necessarily the foundation on which a new order has started to be built.

The Apartheid Museum dedicates a short corridor to the photography of Ernest Cole in the 1950s and 1960s. Cole’s monochrome photographs vividly capture the horror of what it was like to be black in Verwoerd’s white republic and are arrestingly direct accompanied by excerpts from his book House of Bondage.  One panel talked about how townships during the day would be full of children looking after their younger siblings while both parents were at work.  Others showed how the apartheid regime made South Africa into a country of signs, where everything – entrances, bars, park benches, and swimming pools – was allocated for the exclusive use of those who were white or non-white.  A scene of an open space littered with empty beer cartons after people took refuge in beer when the monthly pay day came around.

Cole’s mastery of documentary photography offered a glimpse into a hellish world of oppression where a repressed people still managed to stand proud with their own identity.  This experience is part of the history of all South Africans and it should not be ignored.  I found that the very walls of the constitutional court are built from the reclaimed bricks from the dismantled prison incredibly powerful, respectful and symbolic.  I thought of buying a book of Cole’s photography from the gift shop and was initially disappointed not to find it there.  However, these photographs don’t belong on my bookshelf.  They belong on the walls of the Apartheid Museum, as much bricks in the common foundation of this new country trying to build a progressive future as the bricks from the prison form the walls of the Constitutional Court.

Sam W Matthew’s now going to tell us about the human reality of life in a township that has changed disturbingly little since the transfer of power in 1994.

Matthew Alexandra (Alex) is one of the poorest townships in South Africa, separated only by a highway from Sandton, the richest square mile in Africa.

When constructed in 1912 it was one of the few places where Africans could own land. But the repayments were so large, that residents filled their plots with shacks, and rented them out, making Alex vastly overcrowded. It became the first stopping point for migrants coming from the countryside, including the young Nelson Mandela. From its inception, Alex has had a turbulent history of tribal and gang violence. This still exists today. Indeed we were warned by some against going.

However a group of us visited the Anglican Church of St Michael & All Angels in the centre of Alex. We received an overwhelming reception from members of the congregation, greeting us with food, singing and poetry and were given a tour of the church and the local area, including Mandela’s room and the recently opened township museum. It was particularly significant for Debbie and me to see the simple but beautiful new church, as we had visited 19 years ago when the building was just a shell. Learning that the church now welcomes a congregation of 300 to 400 and seeing the new lease of life given to the old church building as a community, advice and alcohol addiction centre was a humbling and emotional experience for all of us. In the small museum, in simple displays and recorded statements and through our guides, we witnessed both the hurt of poverty, oppression and violence and the pride and resilience of the community. It was the place of political awakening for leaders such as Mandela and President Machel of Mozambique and an inspiration for a vibrant musical culture.

On our tour we learnt that Africans sing with joy, praise and hope even when the words are about suffering and torment. We saw this humbling faith being lived out at St Michael’s in Alex.


Sam W You’ll be pleased to know the choir did a lot of singing. Here Charly describes two very different contexts for learning and sharing music.


Charly Unlike previous choir tours I have been on, the singing element of this tour was not simply about rehearsing concert programmes and then performing them, but much more about sharing musical heritage and developing relationships.

On the Wednesday we visited St John’s College, a prestigious independent boys’ school. The choir took part in a workshop where we learnt to sing ‘Bawo Thixo Somandla,’ a song in Xhosa, one of South Africa’s eleven official languages. Although we all started the workshop full of our British reserve and inhibitions regarding singing from memory and dancing while doing so, by the end, our skilful and charismatic South African workshop leader had even the most cynical members of the choir shaking their hips and waving their arms in the air. We later rehearsed the song with the school’s chapel choir as well as one of our pieces, which, impressively, they knew from memory, and were further impressed by their uninhibited enthusiasm for dancing to the Xhosa and Zulu songs. During a tour of the school’s very impressive grounds, we learnt about an initiative the school had set up to provide boys from underprivileged local areas with the opportunity to take science and maths lessons at the College during the afternoons, as well as other enrichment activities, helping the boys to access tertiary education and thus enabling them to make meaningful differences to their communities. At the end of the day we sang a joint concert with St John’s College choir as well as the choir of the University of Johannesburg, joining together at the end to sing Bawo.

The next day took us to Kwasa College, a very different school. Like St John’s academy programme, this school represented everything positive about what is being done to change education for the underprivileged in South Africa today. The apartheid government’s ‘Bantu Education’ system had attempted to teach black children to aspire to less than and not expect equality with white Europeans.

In 2002, Kwasa College was set up in Springs, just north east of Johannesburg to serve children from a nearby informal settlement, originally formed to accommodate workers from a now disused gold mine. The school brought opportunity to a community of young people who had no access to education and very little else. Sharon, the priest who set it up sixteen years ago, has dedicated her life to fundraising for this school and building it up from nothing to a primary school up to year 5, with boarding houses to accommodate those who suffer from abuse at home. Her eventual aim is to build this school up to age 18.

At Kwasa we participated in a workshop with some of the primary children. We started with Rachel teaching them (and re-teaching us!) the Hokey-Kokey, and then they taught us one of their South African songs which we would perform with them a couple of days later.

We then performed one of our own pieces to them, encouraging them to join in with sounds and actions, and they performed to us. The sharing of music together provided an amazing platform of communication, breaking through any barriers of language, age and culture.


Sam W For me, the highlight of the trip was the worship we shared with the congregation at Holy Cross, Soweto. Sam is going to tell us how it felt to be in that service.


Sam R Our first weekend in South Africa was in Soweto in the Holy Cross church. This church is in the heart of Soweto just opposite the memorial to Hector Peterson, a young student who was famously gunned down in the 1976 student protests and whose statue is at the back of St Martin’s. It became very clear early on that we were in for a ride when, during the first rehearsal on the Saturday a lady came in in the middle of our singing and surprised us (well certainly me) with a burst of EEEEEOOWW. This spontaneous informal singing from the soul would characterise the tour for me.

It kept us on our toes – in the Holy Cross, completely unplanned, the dean of Johannesburg would say mid service – ‘in a minute, while we prepare, the choir will give us a rendition’ causing a hasty conference between ourselves and Tom to work out exactly what we were going to be singing…

However what we most striking for me was the real sense of spirituality that accompanied this informal approach.

In Holy Cross, where many of the families in the congregation had suffered first-hand the horrors of apartheid, the sincere emotion during the worship, joyful at times, was extremely moving. I have never seen before such a deep sense of prayer as I saw in Johannesburg, not just in Soweto but for example at Kwasa School when the children prayed the Lord’s Prayer as though their lives depended on it. It was an experience that was incredibly humbling.


Sam W Finally Debbie is going to tell us about our last day in Johannesburg, just seven days ago.


Deborah There was a feeling of déjà vu when we attended the Eucharist at the Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin in Johannesburg on Sunday; back in 1999 with the Choir of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Matthew and our children, David and Rachel, and my mum, Gloria, first visited the cathedral. Nineteen years later, the choir was greeted by the same spaciousness, calm and welcome after the noise and bustle outside. We joined the cathedral choir to sing the mass setting and Lord’s Prayer in isiZulu and sang motets during communion.

Later that day, the fundraising concert to launch education bursaries was a joint collaboration between the Quava Vocal Group – formed by alumni of the University of Johannesburg Choir wanting to continue singing together performing choral music from classical, jazz and African influences, The Ionian Strings Ensemble – an initiative supporting young musicians gain professional qualifications towards professional orchestra employment, Soweto Melodic Voices – an initiative founded in 2005 to encourage younger people and nurture traditional music and dance heritage and the Choir of St Martin-in-the-Fields. The cathedral was filled with joyful music and dancing and the groups led the singing of the national anthems of the United Kingdom and South Africa. At the close, we led the singing of Bawo, Thixo Somandla in isiXhosa which we had been taught by Sdumo at St John’s College, as we processed out of the cathedral. Our confidence had certainly grown from the first attempts only five days before.

Our time in South Africa was filled with warm hospitality, generosity and the sharing of music and making new friends to create lasting memories. Thank you to everyone who supported and organised our choir tour to enable us to participate in an unforgettable experience. Nineteen years on and the sharing and friendship is still there.