Yusuf Ganief, Executive Chairperson of Cape Town Festival and lead singer and manager of the music duo Desert Rose, invites us to join his journey in search of freedom.

Yusuf Ganief, Executive Chairperson of Cape Town Festival and lead singer and manager of the music duo Desert Rose, invites us to join his journey in search of freedom.

The article below is an op-Ed written by our Executive Chairperson Yusuf Ganief and was published on The Big Issue for their March – April 2021 issue. 

In 1994 we voted for liberty as people in the hope and faith that the world would change with the advent of “freedom”. Before 1994 we protested in many ways against an apartheid regime that disallowed the liberty to love who we wanted without getting arrested under the banner of the Immorality Act or the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act.

We protested and stood as one to have the freedom to live wherever we wanted to. We voted to have the liberty to educate ourselves at an institute of our choice and to work for equal pay and equal opportunity. We protested the restrictions of movement so we could enjoy the freedom of swimming at a beach or eating at a restaurant of our choice.

Bob Marley’s lyrics “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery” (Redemption Song) echoed through our downtrodden beings as they kept our hopes for freedom alive. As a child, I grew up in an environment where buses and trains were segregated, as were public toilets and even benches to rest on, and if you transgressed the “whites only” or “non-whites only” laws you could land in jail. It was an environment of degradation, institutionalised prejudice, and condemned millions of South Africans to an incubator for lifelong low self-esteem, poverty consciousness, and the illusion of “difference”. Growing up in a staunch Muslim family and community, this illusion of  “difference” was further exacerbated through narrow-minded teaching of the Islamic faith by uneducated religious leaders. So, while there was institutionalised apartheid based on “colour” when you left your house, there was suppression of “freedom of expression” when it comes to religious beliefs within your own home and community. To question any belief was tantamount to sacrilege and one was judged as someone with weak faith or none at all; another reason to see “difference”.  In 1983 I had a major wake-up call when I was hospitalized because of a motorcycle accident. I spent a total of 15 weeks in hospital with broken bones, unable to walk for 12 months. This was a life-changing event for me and kick-started a new phase – where I found the courage to express myself and to seek the meaning of freedom. It became a long walk to understanding freedom.


Twenty years passed, and in 2003 after a short stint working as a general manager for the Marketing Association of South Africa, I returned to Cape Town to head up the One City Many Cultures (aka Cape Town) festival as CEO.  This noble initiative was founded by Ryland Fisher to address the cultural divide in the city of `cape Town while he was Editor of the Cape Times in 1999.

A chance, at last, to create a safe environment where freedom of expression through the arts and conversation could perhaps address the ills of the past and inspire tolerance and acceptance beyond colour, religion, culture, and social status.  The creative energy flowed for the next four years and we created employment for 1800 artists in 2006 and 2007, using 10 venues to promote local artists who voiced the challenges of the time with branded events such as Local Goes Vocal Cape Town International Performing Arts Festival, the Youth Music Festival, and Jou Ma Se Comedy Club.


In 2005 I met my partner Lynne Holmes who is a leading world music composer. Through her compositions, I discovered the true power of music to change the hearts of listeners in a manner that could bring about a deeper consciousness of our common humanity. In 2008 she recorded The Prayer, her first album as a soloist. It went viral in Cape Town and Turkey within the sacred world music category. This inspired us to create a new album in 2009 and an interfaith sacred song called The Lord’s Dua that included both the Christian Lord’s Prayer and the Islamic counterpart, the Al-Fatihah. What happened next was a most unexpected response from the Muslim community in which I was raised. As Desert Rose, we became “proud” owners of an illegal fatwa(ruling) issued by the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC). We made headlines with “Music couple banned by MJC”. The raging conversations that followed in the Cape Argus sadly depicted the depth of religious fundamentalism and the cultural divide in Cape Town. Was it hidden under the common enemy banner of apartheid? Despite the support of various religious leaders including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the late Father John Oliver and Sheikh Seraj Hendricks, the MJC continued with their fatwa and asked all the outlets to return all the Desert Rose CDs.

Through the illusion of “difference”, I became an outcast in my own family and community. But alas! The silver lining was the freedom at last to express myself. From 2009 to 2019 I followed my passion as a sacred world music singer. We produced 19 albums in nine different languages and toured 20 countries to promote and express our common humanity through sacred world music. It was a journey to highlight our universal nature that loves freedom in all its forms. But unlike the common understanding of freedom, I finally understood my favourite poet Gibran Khalil Gibran, who said “Pleasure is a freedom song, but it is not freedom”. And after 40 years of actively seeking it, I realized the greatest obstacle is our conditioned mind, and that freedom is ultimately an inside job.


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