by Sue Ann Rybak
Mt. Airy resident Sharon Katz, a South African musician who helped propel Nelson Mandela’s vision of a “Rainbow Nation” through music, announced that “When Voices Meet,” a documentary that chronicles the Peace Train Project from 1992 to 1998 and the role it played in helping to heal a divided South Africa in the midst of a civil war, has been nominated for the Pinkenson Feature Award and the Student Choice Award at this year’s 24th Philadelphia Film Festival.
The film, which stars Tony-award winning actor John Kani, Abigail Kubeka, Sharon Katz, Nonhlanhla Wanda and the cast of The Peace Train, will be screened at 5:05 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25, at at the Prince Theater and at at 4:55 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 1, at the Roxy Theater. Sharon Katz and The Peace Train band will perform a concert at noon at World Cafe Live before the screening on Nov. 1.
“I was inspired by Mandela to create the Peace Train Project,” said Katz, who performed at all of Mandela’s rallies after he was released from prison in 1990. “I just wanted to make a difference and join the struggle in my own way to help bring about a peaceful reconciliation in South Africa.”
She explained that after the Afrikaner National Party came to power in 1948, South Africans were forced to live in one of four groups: White, Colored, Black or Indian.
“Everything was completely segregated in South Africa,” said Katz, who grew up in the city of Port Elizabeth. “There were four separate school districts one for white children, one for Indian children, one for colored, which is a mixed race, and one for black children. You could only live and work where your race was designated.”
She said that even as a young child she realized the apartheid system was wrong.
Katz, who is Jewish, said the apartheid regime imposed a National Christian Education system and discriminated against everyone who didn’t fit their definition “of white,” including Jews.
It may have been one of the reason why she began to sneak out to cross the color lines as a teenager.
She recalled sneaking out to see a production of a play by anti-apartheid writer Athol Fugard.
“It was an underground theater,” she said. “The actors and the audience would have been arrested if the police found out.”
For Katz, it was a life-changing experience. She soon became friends with the actors and began illegally visiting them in their homes.
“I had to hide under blankets in the back of a car,” she said. “It was my first exposure to the townships – it was like being in another world.”
In 1992, Sharon Katz and her friend Nonhlanhla Wanda, a singer and educator, decided to form a 500-voice multiracial choir to unite the children and people of South Africa. Both Wanda and Katz shared a vision of a united South Africa.
Wanda said at that time the country was preparing to go to elections to vote on whether they should end apartheid.
Marilyn Cohen, the executive producer of “When Voices Meet,” said as many as 20 to 30 people were being killed a day at that time due to political violence.
Katz, who earned a master’s degree in music therapy in 1983 from Temple University, said many people in the old regime often initiated the violence, which included attacks on trains, drive-by shooting and massacres.
Cohen, who was the mental health administrator for the City of Philadelphia in the late 1980s, decided to join Katz on her mission to heal the scars of apartheid through the power of music.
Wanda, who was teaching at the Abambo Primary School at the time, said that for people to be free “they had to do more than just carry an AK-47, they had to open their minds.”
Katz added that people needed to be ready “to embrace the new South Africa.”
“Music is a powerful force when it’s harnessed for good,” she said. “Music played a huge role in keeping people’s spirits alive during the struggle, but we used it in a different way – to empower the young people to take leadership to move forward.”
To rehearse with the children, Katz and Cohen had to travel to the segregated schools to rehearse separately.
“One of the lyrics of the songs I wrote said, ‘We’ve got to sing together black and white – the world is changing, the time is right, to walk together into the light.’”
She said many of the children in the black schools, especially the high school students, didn’t believe the whites were going to sing the same lyrics as them.
“The kids would say ‘it’s not gonna happen,white kids don’t want to mix with us, they look down upon us,’” Katz said. “And I said, ‘No, we are working with the white kids, and they want to be part of the change.’ But, what reason did they have to believe whites?”
Cohen said many of the children were threatened because they were involved in a concert.
In May 1993, the 500-voice multiracial youth choir and Sharon Katz and the Peace Train band performed in a concert entitled “When Voice Meet” at Durban City Hall.
Katz said at that time that each of the country’s various political groups was vying for power, and the rate of violence was extremely high. Despite this, she said on the night of the concert every political party was represented.
In an article she later wrote for “Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy,” she noted, “The press reports the following morning said we ‘should have distributed pens instead of concert programmes that night because the Peace Accord could have been signed at intermission.’”
After the concert, requests flooded in from across South Africa asking for additional performances. It was then that the concept of “The Peace Train Project” was formed. Katz decided to take the show on the road. For two weeks, 150 children and the band joined by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, would travel from Durban to Cape Town stopping at seven cities along the way to perform and spread their message of peace and unity.
Planning the logistics for the Peace Train Tour was a massive undertaking. The project faced many obstacles.
“The railroad company didn’t want them to do it because it was against their policy,” Cohen said. “It was against the whole country’s policy. Blacks were not allowed in first-class compartments, and we insisted that all of the train cars we were renting were going to be first-class and all the races were going to sleep in them.”
She said the railroad company tried to discourage them by charging an exorbitant amount of money or charging extra for food or other items. The group arranged to have food and other necessities brought to the train at each stop.
Finally, in December 1993, the train departed. Cohen said the group created another type of society on the train – one of a united South Africa.
“The Peace Train was this amazing positive image of what a non-racial South Africa would look like,” Katz said. “It was this incredible moving billboard. For the first time in the history of the country, people of mixed races were living together, traveling together and performing together.”
Despite constant threats of being bombed, the Peace Train, she said, “steamed through barriers and let the humanity [of the South African people] come through.”
Katz said she hopes the documentary, which was awarded Best Documentary Film, Best Original Soundtrack and Best Director in the United States, will remind people that our shared humanity is stronger than our cultural, racial, and gender differences.
“Right here in Chestnut Hill, there are divisions between people that can be bridged by a project like this,” she said. “While it’s a historical film, it raises issues that are still relevant today.”
Cohen said the documentary can be used to discuss ways to bridge the divide between Philadelphia’s public schools and Chestnut Hill’s private schools.
“If the people of South Africa, 90 percent of whom were oppressed by the minority Fascist regime, could find it in their hearts to talk and move forward peacefully, then I don’t think there isn’t anything we can’t do in America,” she said.
Katz said at one point in the film actor John Kani uses the term “lest we forget what happened.”
“Let’s not forget our hardships and what people suffered,” she said. “South Africa was tantamount to the Holocaust. It was a horrendous regime that we were born into. I was born into the privileged side, but I quickly realized how unjust it was. That’s what propelled me to do what I did because I could see the injustice.”
She said she hopes the film will inspire other people not to close their eyes to injustice in their daily lives.
For more information about “When Voices Meet” go to whenvoicesmeet.com. Readers can buy tickets to see a screening or watch a trailer of the documentary. To buy tickets on line, go to filmadelphia.org/pff24-schedule/.