The Sounds of Resistance: The Role of Music in South Africa's Anti-Apartheid Movement
Keywords: Ethno-musicology African Studies South Africa Apartheid Anti-apartheid Movement Music Apartheid South African Music Music Revolution
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.
A Revolution 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 film 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).
Towards this end, a national anthem was composed with elements of both the African and British hymns.
Before the creation of the combined anthems, “Nkosi Sikelel’ Afrika” (God Bless Africa) was the unofficial national anthem of South Africa; freedom fighter Thandi Modise describes it as a “soothing prayer” that would raise everyone’s spirit “just by listening to it” (Hirsch 2002) Even more so, the song symbolizes more than any other piece of expressive culture the struggle for African unity and liberation in South Africa. The ANC, as well as political and religious leaders across the African continent adopted the song as their anthem and as an emblem of hope and unity (Olwage 186). The combining of the two songs (Britain’s “Die Stem van Suid Afrika” coupled with “Nkosi Sikelel’ Afrika”) was a political act that actively contributed to the “construction of a community that is the new South Africa” (Nicholas Cook 1998: 75-76). Indeed, the meaning of the liberation songs emerges out of the act of performing them; it is a communal expression and movement that not only symbolizes unity, but enacts it (Cook 1998). For the lyrics to the original song, composed by a Xhosa poet in the early 19th see the index on page 23.
The meaning of the word culture in the vocabulary of the ANC facilitated the mobilization of music in the service the struggle against apartheid. The word was used to refer to music, poetry, graphic arts, theatre, dance, crafts, and other “peoples’ arts”. In this sense, the strengthening and preserving of an oppressed culture becomes inherent in the act of creating art. Music was able to bridge especially powerful divides; though the songs were often used as a mode of communication that was inaccessible to police and government, they also functioned as a way of communicating across cultural and racial borders. As Sufiso Ntuli notes in Amandla,
“A song is something that we communicate to those people who otherwise would not understand where we are coming from. You could give them a long political speech – they would still not understand. But I tell you: when you finish that song, people will be like ‘Damn, I know where you nigga’s are comin’ from. Death unto Apartheid!” (Hirsch)
This observation, which comments on the power of song to communicate across opposing cultural dogmas, points directly to the central role that music can play in the context of political struggle. The communal ownership of liberation songs, and the adoptability of their message within different movements, allows for them to strengthen, mobilize, and unify a community. Music does not create political change as a solitary force, as some viewers of Amandla may mistakenly conclude; rather, it is a conduit for change that stirs a community into action, expresses and calls attention to oppression, and bridges the divide between people of different cultures. In the next section I will trace the history of Apartheid through the events that created the framework for its implementation, the major figures and events of Apartheid, and the resistace that resulted.Continued on Next Page »
Subscribe to Updates
Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe to the Student Pulse RSS or follow us on Twitter to receive our latest updates.
On Topic These keywords are trending in Music
Calling All College Students!
We know how hard you've worked on your school papers, so take a few minutes to blow the dust off your hard drive and contribute your work to a world that is hungry for information.
It's a good feeling to see your name in print, and it's even better to know that thousands of people will read, share, and talk about what you have to say.