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 |

Known as “the organizer of the unorganized,” Mini was actively involved with the ANC and was one of the first to be recruited into its military inception in 1961. He was arrested in 1963 for “political crimes,” including sabotage and complicity in the death of an alleged police informer; when he refused to give evidence against his comrades, he was sentenced to death. Fellow prisoner Ben Turok describes him as walking defiantly to the gallows while singing Ndodemnyama. Turok’s recollection reads:

“And then, unexpectedly, the voice of Vuyisile Mini came roaring down the hushed passages. Evidently standing on a stool, with his face reaching up to a barred vent in his cell, his unmistakable bass voice was enunciating his final message in Xhosa to the world he was leaving. In a voice charged with emotion but stubbornly defiant he spoke of the struggle waged by the African National Congress and of his absolute conviction of the victory to come... Soon after, I heard the door of their cell being opened. Murmuring voices reached my straining ears, and then the three martyrs broke into a final poignant melody which seemed to fill the whole prison with sound and then gradually faded away into the distant depths of the condemned section" (Reddy, E.S. 1974).

The song was sung in for years after Mini’s death, and is still being sung today by internationally recognized voices such as Miriam Makeba and Afrika Bambaataa.

The ANC: The Organized Resistance

The formally recognized opposition to Apartheid known as the ANC began in 1912 when several hundred members of South Africa’s educated African elite gathered to establish a national organization to protest against racial . The meeting opened and closed with the singing of “Nkosi Sikelel’I Afrika”, which was adopted as the ANC’s official anthem.

Changes in African attitudes to were articulated by the newly radical approach of the ANC. Under the leadership of Alfred Xuma (1893 -1962), they adopted a method of non-cooperation with government, and began to link their struggle with the efforts of oppressed people globally. Xuma saw no reason to expect change from “polite requests,” and as such began to mobilize what he saw as a more powerful form of resistance. In 1944 members of the ANC such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu formed the established the ANC Youth League with the aim of “invigorating the national organization and developing forceful popular protests against government segregation and discrimination” (Clark and Worger 38). Though ANC demands were met with government silence, the forced removals from thriving black communities such as Sophiatown, and the brutally violent police responses to peaceful protesters led the ANC towards armed struggle.

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 South Africa 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, politics, , 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 government 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).