A rainbow legacy

2011-12-10 00:00

YOU may need to fight your way through hordes of taxis to get to the Rainbow Restaurant, but once there you’ll be embraced by the best jazz in the country and a regular crowd to whom this 30-year-old music venue­ is a second home.

The Rainbow began its life as a protest against the previous government’s apartheid policies and it soon proved to be a haven for political activists, including Mosiuoa Lekota, Kader Asmal, Vuka Shabalala and United Democratic Front leader Archie­ Gumede.

Ahead of a planned three-day party­ to celebrate its 30th anniversary, founder Ben Pretorius reveals that he only decided to open the Rainbow after having his arm twisted by his friend and business partner, Billy Mthembu, who told him that instead of joining the exodus of those disillusioned by the apartheid regime’s draconian laws, he should showcase the music he had grown to love.

“As music was one of the few avenues­ you had to get a message across to people, I wanted to use South African music as a form of protest. At the time our music was also being used by the government for propaganda. I wanted to do the same thing, but in a different context,” Pretorius said.

But the task, says Neil Comfort, who took over the running of the club in Stanfield Lane, Pinetown, in 2001, wasn’t easy. “Ben and Billy had to go through quite a process to get permission for the club because at the time Pinetown was a white area in terms of the Group Areas Act.”

Left: Jimmy Dludlu.

The first artists to take to the Rainbow’s stage were Philip Tabane and the Malombo Men, but Pretorius would also get poets and writers from the townships to perform in poetry­ afternoons.

In 1985 the Rainbow’s original home in Stanfield Lane was bought and the club moved to its current location­ — a former boxing gym — in the same street. To mark the occasion Pretorius hosted a concert that started with a band of musicians playing at the old venue and then walking down the street to the new place. Those involved in the street parade carried a banner which said: “Jazz for Struggle. Struggle for Jazz”, photos of which were flashed around the world and ensured that the music club remainly firmly on the radar of the regime.

The Rainbow continued to play an important role in the struggle. “It was a protected place for activists to meet,” Comfort said. “Baba Archie Gumede was one of those who frequented the Rainbow. He had a banning order preventing him from making speeches in public, so he and Ben would get up on stage, and Baba Archie would talk through Ben.”

Among the many concerts staged by Pretorius was the memorable 1987 event to celebrate former president Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday. The plan had been to stage two concerts, one at the University of Durban-Westville (UDW) on the Saturday­ and the other at the Rainbow on the Sunday.

Above: Ben Pretorius handing out gifts to a joyous crowd at the Rainbow in 1994.

“On the Friday I got a call from UDW to say that the police were shutting the campus down,” Pretorious said. “So Baba Archie and I drove there to see what was going on.” What they found was a ring of steel ring around the campus and a banning order for the concert.

“The place was abuzz with police and there were even guys in army gear in ditches along the side of the road,” Pretorius said. “We decided to cancel the UDW concert and to just have something at the Rainbow on the Sunday instead. I was warned that I would be locked up, but we went ahead anyway.”

“About 500 people turned up, and then the security police arrived. Ben got up and said the event was about guitars not AK47s, mics not limpet mines ... it was about the music. Then the security police left. Ben said: ‘We all know why we’re here, for Mandela’s birthday, so let’s party’,” added Comfort.

Those political links continued­ into the nineties when, in February 1991, the ANC launched its Highway branch at the Rainbow.

But the club has been more than just a venue for protest. For many of the regulars it is a home away from home and during the political violence that erupted in Mpumalanga between the ANC-UDF and IFP factions in the eighties, it provided a safe haven for those fleeing the fighting.

“One day Ben got a call asking him to go to the Rainbow,” Comfort said. “When he got there, there were about 600 women and children camped in the driveway. The men had sent them to the Rainbow so they would be safe when the violence started.”

And then there is the music. The cream of South African jazz has also played at the Rainbow. Among those who’ve performed are the late Busi Mhlongo, Brian Thusi, Basil Mannenberg Coetzee, the African Jazz Pioneers, Sipho Gumede, Jabu Khanyile­, Darius Brubeck, Feya Faku, Zim Ngqwana, Lex Futshane, Thandie Klaasen, Pat Matshikiza, Sakhile percussionist Mabi Thobejani­ and saxophonist-flautist Steve Dyer.

While Pretorius believes that Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba did great work when they were overseas, the real heroes are the musicians who stayed and played music in trying circumstances. “I think they deserve a lot more credit that they have gotten for the role they played during apartheid,” he added.

As for what he believes the legacy of the Rainbow is, Pretorius says: “It gave whites and blacks the chance to mix socially, and it still has the same standing in the community that it did 30 years ago.”

Related article: Iconic venue celebrates.

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