SA refugees flock to Cape’s international jazz festival

Immigration officers at Cape Town's asylum office spent Wednesday, Thursday and most of Friday processing the papers of South African refugees landing at Cape Town International Airport. The refugees said they were fleeing persecution, toll gates, philistinism and assorted ills in South Africa. Most arrivants were from Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban. They went to the Cape Republic for the annual jazz pilgrimage. Anonymous sources in the Cape Republic said an influx of this magnitude hasn't been seen since Jan van Riebeeck docked on their shores a few centuries ago.

"We haven't seen anything on this scale," a flustered, sweaty official said as she stamped the papers of hundreds of South Africans who just landed from a huge Airbus. "I mean, it's not like we don't know things are bad in South Africa but we hadn't imagined the scale. Just today I processed the papers of exactly 3 433 people. That's just me alone."

The renegade country, which recently managed to secede from federal South Africa, has been complaining for years about refugees settling in the city. Years ago, its feisty premier described people from other South African provinces who were coming to learn in the schools of what was then known as the Western Cape as "education refugees". When the restive denizens of the online republic of Twitter quizzed her on this, she defended herself by pointing out that "Refugees are ppl who have to escape because their rights are violated. That describes E Cape pupils exactly." A Cape government spokesperson would not confirm if this particular strain of asylum seeker is a "jazz refugee".  In an angry text, he wrote: "We have a massive problem on our hands and all u think of is semantic quibbling."

What shocked close observers of the long-running secession battle was the number of people who turned up in the normally sleepy, coastal city. The refugees whose papers have been processed are far from being the typical refugee, a development that is certain to confound migration scholars. In their Gucci shoes and handbags, Breitling watches and assorted bling, the South African jazz refugee is the face of the new exile. Hotels are reporting brisk business. Even South Africa's troubled national airline is said to be fully booked. They have had to wheel out their big Airbus planes to transport the thousands who have tired of the rot in South Africa.

When this reporter asked what exactly it was they were running away from, one refugee said: "We are fleeing philistinism in Jo'burg," while applying red lipstick. "I just can't deal with a city that doesn't have a jazz festival of this magnitude. I have heard that there are 37 artists performing at this year's festival. I want to check out drummer Jack de Johnette, Robert Glasper, Thandiswa Mazwai and many others."

When things go bad in South Africa, you imagine they can't get worse; but invariably they do. In what might turn out to be a major coup for the renegade country, the vice-president of South Africa, Kgalema Motlhante, was reported to be among tens of thousands of people whose papers had been processed, while South Africa's Minister of Arts and Culture Paul Mashatile was the first to decamp; he has been here for days now. Last night Motlanthe was sighted enjoying the music of Louis Moholo (a Cape Republican exiled in Britain), whose band comprising "Four Blokes" includes Cape pianist Kyle Shepherd, and South African bassist Herbie Tsoaeli, horn man Sydney Mnisi and a vocalist described by Moholo as "One Doll" but whose real name is Fany Galada.

Efforts to get comment from the office of the Cape presidency were fruitless. Senior bureaucrats were said to be in long meetings to plan course of action.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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