The Column | Still riding the Peace Train

Musician Sharon Katz grew up in South Africa during the ugly days of apartheid. As a teenager, she would sneak fromher city of Port Elizabeth into a nearby township to meet with black artists, something forbidden by law — a law she knew was wrong.

In 1993, she and her partner, Marilyn Cohen, created the Peace Train, a 10-piece, mixed-race band accompanied by 500 young singers representing every race and cultural group in South Africa. They toured the country by train, giving concerts at every stop.

Now 57 and living in Philadelphia, the vivacious, red-headed Katz is still riding the peace train — touring and singing her songs of Africa, civil rights and her Jewish heritage — and is making a documentary about some of the original Peace Train members, 20 years later.

“It was something I really wanted to do, bring people together,” Sharon told me after a semi-private concert she gave recently at the Conga Lounge in Oakland. “Music cuts through everything.”

At the concert, which was attended by many former South Africans, Sharon wore her customary garb of green, black and yellow with bits of blue and red — the colors of the South African flag. She strummed on a similarly decorated guitar made out of a petrol can — her “Afri-can,” she calls it — as she sang in English, Zulu (which she speaks a bit) and Hebrew (ditto).

Sharon credits her Jewish background with inspiring her to fight the good fight in South Africa. Her father was an ardent Zionist and socialist who dreamed of living on kibbutz but made do with retiring to Ra’anana (near Tel Aviv) with Sharon’s mother for the last 20 years of their lives. Sharon’s sister moved to Jerusalem in 1969, and Sharon was a member of Habonim, the Labor Zionist youth group. Some of her old comrades showed up for the Oakland concert.

She also went to Jewish day school, which, in view of her forays into the townships, made her life “kind of schizophrenic.”

It started in 1970 when 15-year-old Sharon attended an underground performance featuring young black actors trained by Athol Fugard, today an acclaimed playwright. She got friendly with some of the actors and asked to meet their families in a nearby black township, something that wasn’t done and was in fact quite dangerous.

“I’d hide under blankets in the car to pass the checkpoints,” she told me. “It was an education.”

There were many Jewish activists in the anti-apartheid movement — including Sharon’s uncle, who worked with the then-illegal African National Congress in the early 1960s before fleeing the country for Israel. But the Jewish establishment didn’t come out forcefully against apartheid, Sharon says. “I used to get so mad at my rabbi,” she told me. “I felt it was hypocritical [after the] Holocaust.”

After a year on a kibbutz in 1977, Sharon returned to South Africa and got a job in Capetown at an institution for developmentally challenged adults, where she created a music therapy program and put on a show using actors of all races. That got her fired.

She left for Philadelphia, where she got a master’s degree in music therapy, spent a year or two in Israel playing music with African workers, and in December 1993 came home to South Africa to organize the Peace Train. Apartheid had just ended, but the races still lived separately, and the first democratic elections were half a year away.

Parents were scared to let their children join her, she says. “These were very dangerous times,” she admits. “When we arrived in Durban to put the train together, 25 to 30 people a day were being killed.”

But the train chugged on — they performed at President Nelson Mandela’s victory party the following spring — and rode the rails for seven years, bringing the message of racial harmony to a country in upheaval. In 1995, they brought a smaller group to tour the United States.

“It was life-changing,” Sharon said.  Speaking of her young musicians, she said, “Not only were they mixing across the color lines, which they’d never done, but a lot of them were ostracized when they went back to school. Their friends didn’t understand.”

A number of Jewish philanthropists funded their efforts, including one who gave Sharon and Marilyn a car when he found out they were hitchhiking.

Not that Sharon would let that stop her. Look for the movie in early 2014.


Sue Fishkoff
is the editor of j., and can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.