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. 4/4 |

The Sounds of Resistance: Freedom Songs and the Struggle for Liberation

South Africa’s Radio Freedom broadcasted a discussion on the liberation music of the anti-apartheid movements in which disc jockey Rude Boy Paul defines freedom songs as “liberation songs that were sun by activists and protesters that were used to mobilize and strengthen the community at large” (Hirsch 2002). Another journalist taking p in the discussion, Gail Smith, said of the music: “The freedom songs evoked a kind of pride in me. You could be standing next to a 60 year old woman who would be singing Senzenina and there would be a bond, an immediate acknowledgment of commonality in what we were about” (Hirsch 2002). This discussion points directly to music as the heart of the anti-apartheid movement. Motivated by political and social oppression, the resistance was held together and reinforced by its’ musical outpourings.

Exiled Musicians: Broadcasting the Anti-Apartheid Message on a Global Scale

“Apartheid created an environment of denial and lies. You had to live it from day to day.” –Abdullah Ibrahim

The Apartheid era drove its music and its musicians away from home, underground, and apart from fellow musicians, or into “the banalities of commercial music-making”. (Olwage 146) The apartheid state prohibited broadcasting of musicians who went into exile or who sang in opposition to apartheid. The government destroyed archives of black music such as African Jazz, deeming them unworthy of a remembered past. In addition, Olwage notes,

“…many black artists who remained in throughout the struggle… resent the spotlight given to exiles who to were away during the height of the struggle, leaving, as singer Dorothy Rathebe pronounced, “us ‘inziles’ to keep the home fires burning” (Olwage 263).

Holding up “selective pockets of resistance” as definitive of the protest movements and the liberation music fails to tell a comprehensive story. Still, there is value in focusing the lens upon exiled musicians who found commercial success abroad. Musicians such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masakela, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Vusi Mahlasela, who became internationally acclaimed South African voices, were able to broadcast anti-apartheid messages to an audience that ‘inziled’ musicians could not have reached under the governments’ censorship laws.

The “luminary names” of exiled musicians are often held up as the key revolutionaries in the struggle (Olwage 263). This is insufficient in that the influence of musicians and activists within the country was equally vital to the struggle. It must be recognized that the music of exiled and ‘inziled’ musicians played very different roles within the body of the resistance, but equally essential to its eventual triumph.


The questions one faces when writing about music in the context of political struggle are numerous: Firstly, what role(s) can music play in the context of a political struggle, and how do these roles resonate in practical political terms? How is this music generated, i.e., is the music created with the intent of socio/political activism? Or does any music created by an oppressed racial group constitute freedom songs? And lastly, can music ever be separated from its political context?

These questions are investigated with striking clarity in Daniel Fischlin’s and Ajay Heble’s Rebel Musics. The book outlines the diverse ways in which sonic projections have impacted and social justice issues, and explores the concept of music as dissident practice, as power, and as the contradiction of “being silenced” (Fischlin 2003: pg. 10). The authors use the term “rebel musics” to describe music that functions within a political context. How this music functions politically is dependent on the situation that the artist is responding to; however, there are consistencies in the ways in which music is practical and effective as a form of political activism. It inspires community members into individual and collective action, and plays a key role in the dissemination of pertinent information through the “activation of the emotive powers that are all too often detached from the actual instruments of rights legislation” (Fischlin).

Nothing in sound is intrinsically revolutionary, rebellious, or political. Simultaneously, to imagine sound as divorced from its social and political contexts, “meaningful in its abstract and metaphysical potential but irrelevant in what it has to say to the here and now of daily life,” (Fischlin 11) is to imagine sound as an abstraction, separate from its worldly consequences. As the case of South Africa exemplifies, communities give shape to music, and are in turn shaped by it. Music can serve as both an expression and a critique of , and as such has the power to inform, influence, and instigate change.

The role of music in South Africa’s struggle to free itself from white supremacy is evident in the music itself, which responded directly to government actions. It is also evident in an examination of the resistance movements in every stage of their evolution; music was central to their communication and to their survival. Looking beyond South Africa, I speculate that music plays a key function in every struggle against socio-political oppression. From the civil rights movement’s “We Shall Overcome” to the “Rockers” music of Jamaica, it is difficult to find a resistance movement that did not utilize the power of music in some form. This recognition allows for the utilization of rebel musics in every community, in every struggle, and in every voice. For, as they say in South Africa, “the struggle is still on.”

Works Cited

  1. Clark, Nancy L.; Worger, William H.; South Africa: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid; Harlow; Pearson , 2007.
  2. Olwage, Grant; Composing Apartheid: Music For and Against Apartheid; Johannesburg; Witwatersrand University Press, 2008.
  3. Fischlin, Daniel; Heble, Ajay; Rebel Musics: Human Rights, Resistant Sounds and The of Music Making; Montreal; Black Rose Books, 2003.
  4. Reddy, E.S. 1974. 'Vuyisile Mini: Worker, Poet and Martyr for Freedom' in Notes and Documents, No. 31/74, November 1974.
  5. Hirsch, Lee; Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony; New York City; Artisan Entertainment, 2002
  6. A. Uhlig, Mark; Apartheid In Crisis; Toronto; Random House, Inc., 1986.
  7. Cook, Nicholas; Music: A Very Short Introduction; Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1998.
  8. South African Native Affairs Commission; Report of the Commission with Annexures; Cape Town, 1905 (The SANAC Report).
  9. Huddleston, Trevor; Naught For Your Comfort; Great Britain; William Collins Sons, 1956.


“Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”

In Xhosa

Nkosi, sikelel' iAfrika
Malupakam'upondo lwayo
Yiva imitandazo yetu

Yehla Moya, Yehla Moya,
Yehla Moya Oyingcwele

In English

Lord, bless Africa
May her horn rise high up
Hear Thou our prayers And bless us.

Descend, O Spirit,
Descend, O Holy Spirit.

“Senzeni Na?”


Sono sethu ubumnyama
Sono sethu yinyaniso
Mayibuye i Africa.

What Have We Done?
(English Translation)

What have we done?
Our sin is that we are black
Our sin is the truth
They are killing us
Let Africa return.

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