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  • Writer's picturekristina jacobsen

From one “Deep South” to another: The Merlettes in Ocean View, Cape Town, South Africa

When I come to South Africa I continually ask myself the following question: “How can a place with this much physical and cultural beauty be the locus of so much violence and pain”? It’s a journey, for me as an Anglo, middle-class woman and a US citizen, to reconcile these two worlds. And I am lucky to get to do this through the communicative tools of music and ethnography.

Last Wednesday, we were introduced to much of this beauty, and also some of the very real struggles many contemporary South Africans living on the social margins are facing.

My bandmates (The Merlettes) and I, along with other musicians from the Womad South Africa festival, were invited to participate in a South African Heritage month event in two townships on the Western Cape.

This is one of the most stunning parts of South Africa I have seen to date. It’s green, and moist, with vineyards stretching as far as the eye can see, and a turquoise sea in almost every direction. It is Africa’s southernmost point, and very breezy: we had to tie our hats down with ribbons to keep them from blowing away!

Grooet Constantia Vineyard, Western Cape

Yoga Shala, back yard

View of the sea from Yoga Shala, Cape Town, South Africa

Having spent our previous days playing shows in more “uptown” spaces along the Victoria and Albert Waterfront in Cape Town, as a band involved in various social justice issues in New Mexico, we were eager to balance out our South African experience with something a little more on-the-ground and in community at the grassroots level.

Dair Obenshain, performing as part of The Merlettes at the V&A, Cape Town, South Africa

Kristina Jacobsen and Dair Obenshain, performing as part of The Merlettes at the V&A, Cape Town, South Africa

Dair Obenshain, performing as part of The Merlettes at the V&A, Cape Town, South Africa

Jackie Chacón, Kristina Jacobsen and Dair Obenshain (The Merlettes), in profile, Cape Town, South Africa

The Merlettes, performing with guest artist Terrence Scarr, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

So we were delighted when we were invited to spend the day in the townships of Ocean View and Masiphumelele,[1] along with the Guinean kora player and griot (storyteller), N’faly Kouyaté and his band, hosted by Prójekt Ubuntu, Yoga Shala, the Noorul Islam Mosque, and many many local grassroots activists and community organizations. For reasons tied to apartheid and longstanding social hierarchies therein, the communities of Ocean View and Masiphumelele, even today, barely mix. So part of this event was to build community across two townships who are geographically very close but culturally and for reasons of history very far away from one another.

N'Faly Kouyaté (center),with bandmates Muriel (left) and Sandra (right)

MC Teba Shumba with cup of coffee, Yoga Shala

In the case of Ocean View (my next blog post will focus on Masiphumelele), families were relocated from places like Simon’s Town under the Group Areas Act during Apartheid. Many families were relocated from freestanding homes and ample seaside land, between 1966-1968. Ironically, it’s called Ocean View because, somewhere off in the distance, you can see the ocean that many folks once lived much closer to, before relocation. This forced relocation, reminisicent of many forced relocations during this same decade for Native Nations across the United States during our own Urban Relocation program, was incredibly traumatic: reminiscent of the forced relocation of Palestinians in 1948 in what became known as the ‘Al Naqba’ (the Disaster) in 1948, it is said that some older people, wrenched away from everything beautiful that they know, died of a broken heart in Ocean View.

Ocean View is a beautiful example of the arbitrariness of race as a social category and the social meanings we as humans attach to such categories. Technically a “coloured” community—a term specific to South Africa that indicates persons of mixed black and white descent and considered a separate social and racial category than Black or White—coloured communities, as I learned, were and are betwixt and between, Ocean View is in fact a conglomeration of multiple so-called ‘racial’ groups, all designated below whites during Apartheid-era racial hierarchies (these designations are discussed in another blogpost, here).

According to the amazing community organizers, activists and leaders of the Muslim community that hosted us, Ocean View is a mix of so-called ‘coloured’ people, former Cape Malay slaves, and descendents of Samoan and Philippino families that came to Cape Town to work the ships. In a bizarre turn of history, it also includes Khoisan community members, the original Indigenous inhabitants of the Cape who were also displaced prior to and during Apartheid (many were displaced to neighboring countries like Namibia). Some of these residents are the last South African speakers of the Khoi language, also referred to as Khoekhoe, a language family that features ‘click consonants’ and is understood to be a precursor to Nguni languages like Xhosa. One of these speakers, a community member who is doing active language revitalization, attended the day’s events, and is featured below with MC, musician and activist known as “the original social worker,” Teba Shumba.

Teba Shumba and Khoisan Chief from Ocean View, Ocean View, Cape Town

Khoisan Chief with students and community members, Noorul Islam Mosque, Ocean View, Ocean View, Cape Town

Ocean View is also a vibrant inter-faith community, with 650 Muslim families (there is one mosque), traditional Khoi-San spiritual practitioners, and Christian families (there are seven Christian churches, including a Dutch Reformed Church). Neighbors interact and support one another across the lines of both religion and race. Ocean View is also home to many talented artists, including the world renowned printmaker, writer and poet, Peter Clarke, born in Simon’s Town in 1929, forcibly removed to Ocean View, and who passed away in Ocean View in 2014.

painting by Peter Clarke

painting by Peter Clarke

painting by Peter Clarke

The primary language spoken in Ocean View is a variant of Afrikaans specific to coloured communities, called Afrikaaps. Like many colloquial language forms that deviate from the “standard” language that is dominant, Afrikaaps or “kaaps” often marks its speakers as being from the Cape Flats. it is a creative and ever-evolving language variant that has been used to publish multiple works of literature, with its own grammatical complexity, nuance and beauty.

Many of the households in Ocean View—70%--are single parent households. This is for many reasons, as it is in so many socially marginalized communities, including where I’ve had the privilege to live and work on the Navajo Nation in the American southwest. One reason for so many single-parent households (and also child-headed households), however, is more Cape-specific, and can be traced back to what is known as the dop system. A “dop” or a “tot” is a small bag of cheap wine, and, in the long history of South Africa’s famous vineyards, farmers paid their (mostly male) workers in cheap wine instead of wages, sometimes offering rations of wine up to five times a day. As a system, it began in the 1830s, with Afrikaner farmers who moved to the Cape to grow vineyards. This created a cycle of alcohol dependency that, as it has in so many communities, has led to much higher rates of GBV and violence against children (on Navajo Nation, this takes the form of predatory liquor stores and bars, bordering the reservation). While South Africa has officially outlawed the dop system, it is estimated today that between 2-20% of farmers still pay their workers with alcohol (London in Larkin 2014). This also has led to extremely paternalistic views of Coloured men in particular, as expressed by the former rugby hero, Jan Boland Coetzee, who stated that “Coloured labourers were like children…didn’t know what was good for them, and only want their daily dop (tot) of wine” (Coetzee in Larkin 2014).[2] Stereotypes of coloured communities and alcoholism is also revealed in jokes that circulate in South Africa, for example the one that asks, “What is the Coloured peoples’ contribution to philosophy”? With the response being: ”I Drink therefore I am” (Adhikari in Larkin 2014). This, in turn, has led to high rates of alcohol-related trauma, TB, child and adult malnutrition, and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). This phenomenon is also addressed in the controversial song, “Larney Jou Poes,” a song critiquing the exploitative practices of Afrikaaner farmers and the dop system, performed and written by Cape Town protest rap group, DOOKOOM (Young 2014).

But what was striking to me, and to us, as a band, was the love and acceptance in the room where we met with Ocean View community members at the mosque. And the ways in which, during the darkest days of the pandemic, this community came together to feed between 8,000-10,000 people/day, an incredible feat under any circumstance. As we sang the song, “We shall not be moved,” taught to us by bandmate Dair Obenshain, what came to mind was the deep mystery and ultimate joy of human resilience, and the shared love of lifting up our voices in song.

The Merlettes at Noorul Islam Mosque, Ocean View, Cape Town, South Africa

The Merlettes teaching "We Shall Not Be Moved" at Noorul Islam Mosque, Ocean View, Cape Town, South Africa

Merlettes' fiddler, Dair Obenshain, with fabulous new fiddle tattoo, done just before leaving for South Africa! Tattoo artist: Victor Magallanes Flores

Overall, my experience in Cape Town was one of profound connection across lines of race, class and poverty, brought together through music, through the sharing of delicious Cape Malay food, and a shared belief that listening with care—to words, to music, to life stories—can heal. It can heal the speaker, but it can also heal the listener. What a privilege to have had a small sliver of peoples’ stories shared with me, and may I be able to carry these stories in song to other parts of the world with intention and care.

Merlettes with community activists Teba Shumba and Warda Petersen

Ocean View community activist and Yoga Shala team member, Amy Rosslind

Performing "Maison Dancer" in Masiphumele with the Merlettes and guest artist Teba Shumba

with community members, artists and activists in Ocean View, Moorul Islam Mosque

~Thanks to Yoga Shala and Prójekt Ubuntu for their amazing hospitality during our week in Cape Town. You can learn more about Yoga Shala, here:

You can learn more about Prójekt Ubuntu, here:

~Thanks to my bandmate, Dair Obenshain, for bringing this article to my attention to the article by Larkin on the dops system.

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