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South African music group spreads Mandela's message of reconciliation and healing


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Amna Nawaz: South Africa recently celebrated 30 years since its first racially integrated elections, marking the official end of apartheid and making Nelson Mandela the nation's first Black president.

Here in the U.S., a South African musical group continues to spread Mandela's message of racial reconciliation and healing, while also reminding us that the fight for equality in both nations is far from over.

Special correspondent Megan Thompson reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Megan Thompson: Dance lines, whistles, electric guitars, and the full Minnesota Orchestra. The house was packed with schoolchildren at this recent performance in Minneapolis by the South African Group 29:11 International Exchange.


Man: The country of South Africa was ruled and governed by a system of racial discrimination and segregation known as apartheid.

Megan Thompson: Today's themes also included inequality, resistance, and reckoning with history.

Roshane Solomons, Vocalist, 29:11 International Exchange: We stand for truth. We stand for transparency. We stand for openness to speak about difficult topics like race.

Bontle Nxoyi, Vocalist, 29:11 International Exchange: We are here initiating forgiveness and reconciliation, not to just look at each other in color, but look at each other as the human race.

Megan Thompson: 29:11, whose name comes from a Bible verse, has been working with the Minnesota Orchestra since it toured South Africa in 2018.

Brendon Adams, Co-Founder, 29:11 International Exchange: Good morning, everybody!

Megan Thompson: Musician and 29:11 co-Founder Brendon Adams grew up in a poor Cape Town neighborhood during apartheid, not allowed to even enter a music hall.

Brendon Adams: As a child, I have seen a lot, which any child should not see.

Megan Thompson: When Adams was 8 years old his best friend was killed in front of him by white soldiers.

Brendon Adams: It was that time where I realized that my skin color is a sin.

Megan Thompson: Apartheid ended in the early 1990s, and Adams eventually met and married an American, Gaylene. He moved to her home state of Minnesota in 2000.

Adams wanted other South African musicians to have the opportunities he had in the U.S., so he and Gaylene started 29:11 International Exchange.

Brendon Adams: 29:11 was founded to create hope where there seems no hope. And it's also to make sure that people understand Africans from a deeper place.

Megan Thompson: Adams now spends four months a year in Cape Town rehearsing with the group, which is as diverse as South Africa itself.

Members hail from five different tribes and there are two refugees from Congo. The group arrived in the U.S. in January for four months of performances and workshops around the Midwest...

MAN: One, two, three.

Megan Thompson: ... including visits to more than 60 schools.

At Cityview, an elementary school in a low-income section of North Minneapolis, 29:11 partnered with the University of Minnesota to provide an after-school music and movement program.

MAN: There we go.

Megan Thompson: Adams sees himself in these students and aims to instill a sense of connection and pride, even buying them drums with money the group raised for its tour.

Brendon Adams: That excites us, the opportunity to actually tell the truth better than any history books.

Megan Thompson: In addition to African songs, the group performs original pieces about their lives, struggles, and lessons learned.

Brendon Adams: I thought America was free.

Megan Thompson: Adams says it didn't take him long to realize he had not escaped racism when he came to the U.S. more than 20 years ago. He wrote the song "Still Love" about his fury at the killings of Black men like George Floyd at the hands of police and the unity he witnessed at the peaceful vigils that followed Floyd's death.

Brendon Adams: It wasn't a thing of black and white. It was one tribe, one culture. And there is forgiveness happening. All I can say is still love, still peace, still have your joy.

Megan Thompson: This daily work of singing and talking about forgiveness has helped the groups members heal too.

Growing up, Nisa Mlondleni experienced trauma during childhood that led to alcoholism as an adult.

Nisa Mlondleni, Vocalist, 29:11 International Exchange: As I was spreading the word of reconciliation to different people in America, I felt the forgiveness in me and I felt the peace.

Megan Thompson: Mlondleni says 29:11 has kept her sober and the monthly $500 stipend she earns on tour helps support her three kids back home. She'd never traveled outside South Africa before she joined the group five years ago. Now she's soloing in front of a major American orchestra.

Nisa Mlondleni: 29:11 has helped me know my self-worth.

Megan Thompson: The final piece was "Shosholoza," a song of unity sung by protesters during apartheid.

Brendon Adams: And here it is, years later, still a joyous occasion, and you see other cultures singing it, not only singing, but celebrating it. That is a good feeling.



Megan Thompson: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Megan Thompson in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Amna Nawaz: We will take a little music and hope as we say goodbye.

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