by Len Lear
Nelson Mandela, who died recently at the age of 95, was unquestionably one of only a handful of figures in the past century whose names will be recalled centuries from now — along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and perhaps the Dalai Lama — for their courage, vision, inspiration and humanity — giants spreading the gospel of peace and love in a world wracked by war, ignorance and cruelty.
Ordinarily, though, a newspaper like the Local would have to ignore even such a momentous event as Mandela’s death because it happened so many thousands of miles away from our community. However, in this case there is definitely a “local angle,” a Mt. Airy resident who might just have been closer to Nelson Mandela than any other American.
Sharon Katz, 56, is a composer, recording artist and peace activist who has lived in our area for three decades but who grew up in South Africa and has made numerous trips back to her homeland. Sharon, who performs with her band, The Peace Train, in countless concerts yearly around the U.S. and Africa, is a household name throughout much of Africa and has performed on CDs with Elton John, Paul Simon, Sting, Tina Turner and Luciano Pavarotti.
In 1994 her band played a concert for 90,000 people in a South African stadium in the last political rally before the election of Nelson Mandela as the nation’s first post-apartheid president. “The electricity in the air was so powerful,” Katz told me in a previous interview. “That was a memory to treasure. I don’t think anything will ever match it.”
Sharon told us last week from South Africa, where she went to attend Mandela’s funeral, “My life has been defined by my personal relationship with Nelson Mandela for the past 20 years, ever since I first met him when I performed at his 75th birthday celebration in Durban, South Africa. When I met Nelson Mandela after my performance for him, he told me, ‘Sharon, you embody the vision of the African National Congress for a non-racial society, which we have strived for all of these years,’ and I have never forgotten these words.
“I was inspired by Mandela to create The Peace Train, at first a tour around South Africa with singers and dancers and Ladysmith Black Mambazo and continuing as a project involving thousands of young people over a period of six years. I have continued spreading Mandela’s message ever since. Now, as he leaves us, I feel, as does our entire nation and the world, bereft, of the most magnanimous and visionary person I have ever met.
“He has had such an enormous influence on me and my team and musicians that I have performed with, as well as so many people all over the world. But I feel strengthened in the knowledge that we must continue to spread his vision for the creation of a just society. We must always stand up to oppression and what is not right. I am thankful to be surrounded by warmth and love of South Africans here at home right now and to have the pleasure to work with the finest group of individuals in the U.S. in spreading Mandela’s message of peace, unity and the ending of all forms of oppression.”
Much of the money earned by Katz’ concerts is donated to the Peace Train Foundation, started by Katz, which provides scholarships for students in South Africa as well as leadership training and other community projects. “The foundation is not just about money,” explained Sharon (who has been called “a peace activist with rhythm”). “It’s about helping people realize their potential. After all the years of apartheid and repression of non-whites in South Africa, the needs are so great, and we are just trying to do the little bit we can to meet these needs. I love working with South African singers and musicians and taking them to the stage to share their skills.”
In 1993 Katz and The Peace Train put on the first concert ever for an integrated audience in South Africa. (Under apartheid such concerts were banned by law.) To celebrate its 10th anniversary, Sharon and the original band members put on six concerts in 2003 — all sellouts — in Durban, Capetown and Johannesburg.
“Many Americans said the trip was life-changing,” said Sharon. “I wanted them to see the spirit of the new South Africa, with blacks and whites working together to build a new nation. Their spirit is contagious. We revere Nelson Mandela because he paved the way for a peaceful transition, unlike what happened in Zimbabwe.”
When Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years in 1990, Sharon performed at all of his rallies, singing about unity and a peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa.
In 1993, she formed a 500-voice, multiracial and multicultural performing group to show what a “normal” country could be like. They toured throughout South Africa by train, The Peace Train, and used their music to promote their country’s first democratic elections.
Katz grew up in the city of Port Elizabeth on the Indian Ocean. The metropolitan area of one million people was only three percent white, but those whites controlled almost all of the wealth and major institutions. Katz’ late parents knew something about repression themselves, however, having fled Russia because of attacks against Jews there, and even as a child Sharon believed in shaking the tree of complacency. “When I was 10 years old,” she said, “I could see everything about the apartheid system was wrong.”
A self-taught musician, Sharon earned a degree in music instruction in 1980 from Trinity College of London and a master’s in music therapy in 1983 from Temple University. For several years she practiced music therapy in Philadelphia prisons and mental health facilities. “You can often reach people’s feelings with music that cannot be reached in any other way.” Katz returned to her homeland and formed the nation’s first multi-racial band and choir, but they were threatened with death if they put on any concerts. Marilyn Cohen, who was mental health director of the city of Philadelphia in the late ‘80s, left in 1992 to live in South Africa and join Katz ’ crusade to transform that nation through the power of music.
“At times we were literally dodging bullets,” Cohen said in an earlier interview. “People kept telling Sharon she would never be able to put on a multiracial concert, but if you say that to Sharon, she just becomes more determined to do it.”
The “illegal” history-making concert did come off, filling an auditorium twice with a seating capacity of 1800. It was also the first time many of the youthful singers and many in the audience had ever socialized with members of other races. As a result of the ensuing publicity, Katz, who speaks several African languages as well as Hebrew, Afrikaans and Arabic, was deluged with requests to put on multiracial concerts in other parts of Africa.
“The Peace Train trips were like the Freedom Rides of the 1960s in the Deep South,” said Cohen, “because there were constant bomb threats. Many people had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new South Africa, just like they did in Mississippi and Alabama.” As a result, Nelson Mandela asked Katz and the children’s choir to perform for him on three different occasions, including his inaugural celebration.
“Nelson Mandela was truly an extraordinarily decent and sincere man,” said Sharon . “He insisted on talking to every one of the children individually, even though it took two hours to do so. Performing for him was the greatest honor of my life.”