Inside the historic mixed-race club in the heart of apartheid-era Cape Town

Inside the historic mixed-race club in the heart of apartheid-era Cape Town

Popular with party-goers, activists and future leaders, The Base / Jazz Den was a place of joyful defiance during a period of heightened civil unrest in South Africa.

Photographer Michael Wyeth was born in Cape Town in 1952, just four years after the National Party introduced apartheid, a harrowing system of racial segregation and discrimination against South Africa’s nonwhite majority.

For decades, the white minority stripped South Africans of human rights in every facet of their lives, begetting a rising opposition to fascist rule. Protests, boycotts and uprisings were commonplace, as were government efforts to imprison, assassinate and “disappear” anti-apartheid leadership. In 1986, the National Party declared a state of emergency, giving security forces the power to suppress dissent with violent crackdowns.

Top to bottom: Thandi Vilakazi (singer and backing vocalist) Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse. Mcoy Mrubata (Saxophone/percussion). Max Mtambo (vocalist), Mthandeni Mthembu (keyboards) – band: Jama.

“Many cultural activities and artistic expressions critical of apartheid were banned. But despite the oppressive political climate, Cape Town's cosmopolitan character remained vibrant and defiant,” says Wyeth. “A determined underground culture emerged, with artists, writers and musicians finding creative ways to express dissent and challenge the regime on all levels. Music, art, literature, theatre and graffiti were often used as mediums to convey messages of protest and hope.”

In 1987 Wyeth teamed up with photographer Natalie Goldsmith in 1987 to create UTZ, a silkscreen printing studio that made T-shirts and posters for local businesses including The Base/Jazz Den. Located at 88 Shortmarket Street in Cape Town’s historic city centre, The Base opened on August 19, 1987, during the final years the apartheid.

While civil unrest rose to a fevered pitch, the Base became a place where people of all races could joyously mix – particularly at the Jazz Den, the Sunday evening party, founded by Christian Syrén. Now in the new book, The Base and Jazz Den Cape Town, South Africa 1987–1989 (Café Royal Books), Wyeth revisits this fabled chapter of cultural history.

Hilton Schilder (keyboardist/percussion) Band: The Genuines.

A beacon for a new South Africa, The Base/Jazz Den drew future leaders, political activists, artists, and musicians together to enjoy everything from hip hop, R&B, punk and folk to homegrown genres like Mbaqanga, Mbube, Afro jazz and Boere Rock.

“One of founders, Justin Dyssell, was my brother in law, so I assisted him with the preparation of the venue just prior to opening,” says Wyeth, who designed the Base logo, created promotional posters and began photographing shows. He also helped to paint the club’s interior, which was featured large African animal art, Ndebele murals, and zebra skins interspersed with patterns in green, gold, and lack – the colours of the African National Congress (ANC).

The government immediately took action. “One night just prior to the opening, three security vehicles pulled up outside, and two plainclothes policemen warned Justin that venue was being watched and that the club would be closed,” Wyeth remembers.

African Youth Band.

Although the police regularly sent spies and informants, as well as organised raids on the club, patrons and musicians openly flouted unjust laws forbidding mixed race assembly. “They revelled in the unifying power of music,” says Wyeth.

While the unbanning of the ANC, the collapse of apartheid, liberation and election of Nelson Mandela was just a few years in the future. “It seemed like an improbable reality,” Wyeth says, making these photos all the more poignant and powerful.

The Base and Jazz Den Cape Town, South Africa 1987–1989 by Michael Wyeth is out now via Café Royal Books.

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