Collegium in Cape Town: From Table Mountain to Robben Island

On the morning of Monday, June 17th, Collegium gathered at the Pimville Methodist Church in Soweto before driving to O.R. Tambo International Airport for our flight to Cape Town. As we touched down at the final destination of our three-week tour, we felt reinvigorated and ready to experience the vibrance of Cape Town and the excitement of our final performances. That evening, we gathered at Marco’s African Place Restaurant, where we enjoyed a delicious meal and shared music with a group of talented performers and enthusiastic audience members.

Collegium and Village Harmony singers ventured to the top of Table Mountain — designated one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World — on Tuesday morning. We travelled up the mountain via the Cableway, a suspended gondola system, and explored the summit — all while enjoying breathtaking views of Cape Town and the Lion’s Head mountain peak. After descending the mountain, we headed to Simon’s Town to witness both the sunny beaches of the South African coast and the adorable penguin colonies nearby. We concluded this busy and exciting day with an uplifting concert at the Old Apostolic Church to which one of our conductors, Bongani Magatyana, belongs. There, we were welcomed warmly by the congregation and invited to collaborate with the church’s musicians, including a local brass band, an elders’ choir, and the Nazareth Youth Choir.

Stunning views from the top of Table Mountain! Featuring Nivi (Soprano I, ’21) and Nazeli (Alto I, ‘21)

On Wednesday, we drove to the Drakenstein Correctional Centre (formerly Victor Verster Prison), a facility in which Nelson Mandela spent the final days of his imprisonment. We began our visit by sharing music with three talented ensembles comprised of imprisoned offenders. Collegium singers were impressed by the skill and passion exhibited by the choirs, and touched by their enthusiastic enjoyment of our repertoire. From there, we ventured out to the edge of the prison compound, where the Mandela House stands as a museum and memorial to Nelson Mandela’s personal history. We toured the grounds where Mandela was granted his release and walked to freedom in 1990, and heard a variety of anecdotes about his time at the prison. In a particularly poignant moment, the group had the opportunity to sing a song — written by our friend and tour leader Bongani after Mandela’s death — which acknowledges the leader’s fight for justice and wishes him peace in his eternal rest, in the very house in which he lived and strategized about the future of South Africa and the world. This powerful experience brought many of us (including our tour guide) to tears and stands out as a highlight of the entire three-week trip.

Collegium singers listening to tour guide and former political prisoner in a Robben Island cell.

On Thursday morning, we travelled to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront where we explored and enjoyed the seaside views (including a picturesque look at Table Mountain, which we had experienced up-close earlier in the week). We then embarked on a ferry trip to Robben Island, a former prison and current museum recognizing the history of South African political prisoners. There, we took two informative tours and walked through the spaces in which Nelson Mandela and other leaders spent decades of imprisonment. Our tour guide, himself a former political prisoner on the island and a participant of the Soweto student protests of the mid-1970s, shared his experiences and gave us an intimate look at the oppression of the Apartheid regime and its mechanisms of enforcement and control. Once again, we were able to connect with those around us and wrestle with these difficult themes through music by singing Bongani’s eulogy to Nelson Mandela in the enclosed complex in which he spent 18 years. That night, we traveled to St. Paul’s Church in Bellville, where we participated in the final performance of our trip.

A picture-perfect view of Table Mountain from the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront below. Featuring Sophia (Soprano II, ‘20), Sam (Alto I, ‘20), Cailey (Alto I, ‘20), and Emma (Soprano I, ‘21)

On Friday, our final day in South Africa, we drove to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens for one last indulgence in the natural beauty of the country. We enjoyed a final group meal and debriefing session amid the soaring cliffs of Cape Town, which encouraged us to reflect on the triumphs and challenges — both musical and otherwise — that we faced throughout our three weeks together.

From the incomparable views from the top of Table Mountain to the eclectic vibrancy of Long Street nightlife, Cape Town served as the perfect capstone to the diverse and enriching experiences that defined our tour. We were given countless opportunities to serve as thoughtful observers and listeners, but also welcomed to become active participants in the creation of music and the building of community. With the help of our brilliant South African leaders and hosts, we were able to join (and even contribute to) a long and rich history of the South African choral tradition. We were empowered to use the tools provided to us by that tradition to share our joy and camaraderie with audiences large and small, planned and impromptu. Together, and with lots of help, we created something that we could take pride in. Now, as we sit in an airport in Paris awaiting the final leg of our journey back home, it seems clear that this experience has fortified and enriched our relationships with each other.

By Samantha Heavner, a history and literature concentrator, class of 2020