The Sounds of Resistance: The Role of Music in South Africa's Anti-Apartheid Movement

By Michela E. Vershbow
2010, Vol. 2 No. 06 | pg. 2/4 |

Forced Removals, Massacres, and the New Armed Struggle

“Sophiatown! It is not your physical beauty which makes you so loveable; not that soft line of colour which sometimes seems to strike across the greyness of your streets: not the splendour of the evening sky which turns your drabness into gold - it is none of these things. It is your people.” – Trevor Huddleston, Naught For Your Comfort

Forced removals under the Group Areas Act and Bantu Resettlement Act (1954) forced millions to migrate from their homes to live in native “townships.” The laws divided into zones, in which members of only one racial group could live. Most remarkable was the destruction Sophiatown, a community west of Johannesburg that is often compared to Harlem, New York City for its lively arts, , , and entertainments. In 1955, army trucks and armed police removed 60,000 people from Sophiatown by to an area designated for Africans. One white observer remarked:

“It was a fantastic sight. In the yard [opposite the local bus station] military lorries were drawn up. Already they were piled high with the pathetic possessions which had come from the row of rooms in the background. A rusty kitchen stove; a few blackened pots and bans; a wicker chair; mattresses belching out their coir stuffing; bundles of heaven-knows-what; and people, all soaked to the skin by the drenching rain” (Huddleston pp.179-80).

His observation reveals the condescension with which Africans were perceived by whites, as well as the poverty which had already swept through even the most vital communities.

Africans perceived the forced removals as a cleaning up of the country, erasing ‘black spots’ to make ‘the picture look white.’ Sophiatown was rebuilt as white suburb called Triomf, the Afrikaans word for triumph. The removals sparked the creation of a song called “Meadowlands”, in reference to the Meadowlands township to which many Sophiatown residents were forced relocate. The lyrics express the devastation of the evacuation: “we will move all night and day/to go stay in meadowlands/you’ll hear the white people saying/let’s go to meadowlands.” Recordings by Nancy Jacobs and Sisters, as well as famed singer Miriam Makeba popularized the song, which was composed originally by Strike Vilakezi. The international performances of the song allowed international audiences a window into South Africa, and expose the injustices suffered by oppressed racial groups.

The resistance movements underwent significant changes as it began to reflect the increasingly violent struggle against white rule. The reacted to the increasing strength (and size) of the resistance by declaring a state of emergency; they arrested approximately 18,000 demonstrators, including the leaders of the ANC and the PAC, and banned both organizations from any legal existence. Known as the Sharpville Massacre, in 1960 69 non-violent Africans were killed by government troops for protesting pass laws. This became the main precursor of the transition from non-violent protest to armed struggle in 1961. Prohibited from operating in South Africa, both the PAC and the ANC established underground organizations, and he ANC began military training outside the country. The newly formed Umkhonto we Swize, translates as Spear of the Nation, and was known as the MK. The military wing targeted specific places such as police stations and power plants, but specifically avoided taking any human lives. In an explanation of the ANC’s adoption of a policy of violent resistance, Nelson Mandela says:

“…we felt that without there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation and were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the Government” (Clark and Worger 150).

Mandela and other leaders were sentenced to life in prison, while Tambo managed to escape from South Africa and serve as president of the ANC in exile.

It was during this transition to violent resistance that music was often talked about as a “weapon of struggle.” A song called “Sobashiy’abazali” (“We Will Leave Our Parents”) became one of the most popular songs sung at the MK training camps. The lyrics evoke the sadness of leaving home, as well as the persistence of freedom fighters:

“We will leave our parents at home/we go in and out of foreign countries/to places our fathers and mothers don’t know/Following freedom we say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye home/We are going into foreign countries/To places our fathers and mothers don’t know/Following freedom” (Olwage pp. 169).

The music was more upbeat and energetic, with faster, more militaristic rhythms and accompanying marching actions as a gesture towards the marching steps of soldiers.

Toyi-Toyi, thought to originate in Zimbabwe, a classic example of this shift and became a symbol of the apartheid resistance. Usually performed in a group setting, it is a dance consisting of foot stomping and spontaneous chanting. Toyi-Toyi was often invoked during the ANC’s “Amandla” chant: in call and response, the leader of a group would call out “Amandla!” (“Power”) and the group would respond with “Awethu!” (“Ours”). The power of this chant builds in intensity as it progresses, and the enormity of the sounds that erupt from the hundreds, sometimes thousands of participants was often used to intimidate government troops. As one activist puts it, “The toyi-toyi was our weapon. We did not have the of warfare, the tear gas and tanks, but we had this weapon” (Power to the People 2008).

A R in Four-Part Harmony

The capacity of music to forge change in South Africa is investigated in Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, a powerful that focuses specifically on the ‘liberation music’ of the struggle against white domination. The word ‘Amandla’ is translated as ‘power’; within the context of the resistance, it was an affirmation of African strength and perseverance. The latter half of the title is derived from jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim’s observation that there has probably never been a revolution that did not use songs to give voice to its aspirations, or to unite and strengthen the morale of its adherents (Hirsch, 2002). The toppling of Apartheid may be an exceptional case, he says, “the first revolution to be conducted in four-part harmony” (Hirsh, 2002). As A.O. Scott of The New York Times notes in his review of the film, Mr. Ibrahim’s observation, “which supplies this restless, moving film with its subtitle, points to the central role that music -- in the streets, on records, in prison and in exile -- played in black South Africa's long struggle for liberation from white domination” (Scott 2003).

Before discussing the significance of the view presented in this film, it is important to recognize its shortcomings as well. The flaws of a study which so narrowly focuses on the music are made clear in Grant Olwage’s book Composing Apartheid. Though he recognizes the effectiveness of the film in demonstrating the “strength of the black struggle through music,” he also asserts that the film distorts the picture of the rise and fall of apartheid by “failing to recognize the complexity of the revolutionary process.” He argues that in doing so the film suggests “potentially dangerous conclusions” for protest movements in general: First, that effective protest consists simply of “unidirectional thrusts of contention, by dissidents, against a regime”; and second, that such a strategy results in long term resolution rather than “a temporary ‘changing of the guard,’ as is usually the case with unidirectional overthrows” (Olwage 2008: pg. 262). Amandla certainly fails to tell the entire story of the struggle against Apartheid. Indeed, it fails to make clear that the toppling of the Apartheid did not solve the all of South Africa’s problems, but rather it dismantled the racial hierarchy that oppressed and ruled over the majority of the population, disallowing them from having a say over decisions that drastically affected their lives.

These assertions, however, are not grounds for a complete dismissal of the film; most critically or politically minded viewers would not be led to suppose that the Africans “ ‘toyi-toyi-ed’ (1) around the Wall of Jericho (2) until it tumbled” (Olwage 263). The exposure of the situation in South Africa through such entertaining and inspirational portraits as Amandla may oversimplify the politics involved the toppling of Apartheid, but they provide a window into a world that the apartheid regime hid so well. As such, the film should be regarded not as a comprehensive picture of the revolution, or even of South African music. It would be better seen as an attempt to allow the viewer to hear and see (and perhaps feel) the power of music in forging political change, resisting oppression, strengthening community, and uniting people of different races and statuses.

The reflection that music was played not only to strengthen existing communities, but to unite members of communities that were in supposed opposition to one and other is exemplified in the combining of British and African national anthems after the end of Apartheid. Although fourteen thousand people were killed in politically related incidents, South Africa’s first free election in 1994 nevertheless drew nineteen-million African voters to the polls, who unanimously voted the African National Congress into office. In the words of Nelson Mandela at his inauguration speech as the first president that a majority of South Africans elected,

“The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. […] we enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall” (Clark & Worger 2004: pg. 153).

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