The Sounds of Resistance: The Role of Music in South Africa's Anti-Apartheid Movement
IN THIS ARTICLE
Music and Resistance in South Africa
“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!” – Sifiso Ntuli
The history of South Africa under white British rule is marked by the existence of one of the most brutal systems of racial segregation that the world has ever known. A system by the name of Apartheid, literally meaning “separateness” in the Afrikaans language, made Africans of color aliens in their homeland. The laws of Apartheid forced millions to live in impoverished townships where they were denied the most basic human rights. Apartheid, under which the white minority held power over the entire population, was met with strong internal and external resistance, prompting global boycotts of sales and trade with South Africa. The most powerful form of resistance, however, was the refusal of South African blacks to remain prisoners in their own land.
In the 46 years that the system of Apartheid was in place, the resistance movements evolved from loosely organized unions of non-violent protestors to powerful and armed coalitions such as the African National Congress (ANC). Throughout every stage of the struggle, the “liberation music” both fueled and united the movement. Song was a communal act of expression that shed light on the injustices of apartheid, therefore playing a major role in the eventual reform of the South African government.
This paper explores the connections between music and politics as exemplified by the case of South Africa. While avoiding oversimplifications of a supposed “music revolution,” it examines the resistance to Apartheid through the lens of its music. As historian Grant Olwage notes,
“There has yet been little investigation of how music was used by political movements, either within the country or in exile. In addition, little detailed research has been conducted on freedom songs, the ubiquitous but largely informal and un-professionalised genre that was probably the dominant musical medium of popular political expression” (Olwage 2004).
By attempting to understand the role that music played in the struggle against, and eventual dismantling of the Apartheid government, we can begin to understand the power that music can hold in a political context.
300 Years of Oppression: The Foundations of Apartheid
The liberation music of the Apartheid-era was in response to a history of oppression that dates back to long before the implementation of Apartheid. The segregation of racial groups in South Africa began with the first European settlers in 1652, when a Dutch company began using the Cape of Good Hope as a base for ships travelling trade route between Europe and Asia. The Khoi people, who practiced extensive pastoral farming (animal husbandry), were driven from their land in a series of frontier wars, replaced with European settlers’ commercial farms, and used as slave labor. The British arrived 150 years later, forcing the Dutch to migrate beyond the coast and further into African lands. During the course of the 300 year Dutch and British rule in South Africa, new racial groups developed out of the intermingling of Europeans and Africans, which would later be categorized as ‘White’, ‘Black’, ‘Coloured’ and ‘Indian’. The discovery of diamonds in 1867 and gold 1886 in Southern Africa came the beginning of the economic and political structure that would greatly increase the division between white and black, British and Boer, and rich and poor. The music that would follow in the next 100 years largely reflected this widening gap, and to communicate across it.
Throughout the early 1900’s the British, who had gained complete rule over South Africa after the South African Wars (1879 – 1915), enacted a series of laws that were designed to perpetuate white rule by segregating racial groups. By requiring documentation to prove authorization to be or live in “white” South Africa, the introduction of Pass Laws effectively regulated the presence of blacks in urban areas. The passing of 1913 Native Land Act restricted African land ownership to 7% of the country’s total land area, most of which was of poor quality and could not meet the needs of the African population. Under the Native Urban Areas Act of 1923, Africans were allowed to reside in the cities and townships only to “minister the needs of the white population”, and were returned to rural areas or imprisoned if they remained without work. In a report by the South African Native Affairs Commission in 1905, it was decided that “no native shall vote in the election of any member or candidate for whom a European has a right to vote” (SANAC, 1905: 35-6, 97). The central legislative, judicial, and administrative bodies were shared amongst the capitals of “white” South Africa, ensuring that only white South Africans would be involved in the government. These policies institutionalized racial segregation, and laid the foundation for Apartheid as well as for the resistance movements. The efforts to organize a resistance were consistently met with crushing, government-sanctioned attacks on non-violent protesters, inciting the sparks of a conflict whose intensity would increase in the following years.
As Clark and Worger describe, after three hundred years of white settlement South Africa was “divided on nearly every conceivable level.” (Clark and Worger 31) The numerous racial groups we separated by race, language, wealth, politics, residence, jobs – in practically every aspect of daily life. Few could reap the rich benefits of life in South Africa under such a system, creating a instability and discontent amongst the different groups. The answer to this situation, reached by the ruling white leaders, was to “further entrench the existing divisions under an ironclad system of racial separation that would be known as Apartheid” (Clark and Worger 31).
The General Election of 1948 and the Implementation of Apartheid
“Apartheid was schizophrenic. If you look at apartheid as a character, he was a very schizophrenic character, one minute smiling and by the very same token, by the very same minute, murdering.” - Sifiso Ntuli, “Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony”
The system of Apartheid rested on a long history of racial discrimination; though many of its policies were merely elaborations on previously established frameworks, the sheer brutality of its implementation and “overarching impact” (Clark and Worger 35) on the country signaled a monumental shift. The Afrikaner (white South Africans of Dutch, German, or French descent) Nationalist Party (NP) that was voted into power by white South Africans in 1948 were known for their “‘frontier mentality” derived from years of brutal discrimination towards Africans and economic deprivation experienced by Afrikaners since the 19th century.” Without engaging in the debate over the reasons for the implementation of Apartheid, seemingly backwards in comparison to gaining of human rights elsewhere in the world, I will examine the influential figures and policies of Apartheid, and the role of music in the progressively powerful responses of the undying resistance movements.
Vuyisile Mini and Hendrik Verwoerd: The Father of Protest Songs and the Architect of Apartheid
Hendrik Verwoerd was prime minister of South Africa from 1958 until his assassination in 1966. Often called the “Architect of Apartheid” for his role in the implementation of Apartheid during his tenure as Minister of Native Affairs, Verwoerd was the subject of a protest song composed by legendary composer Vuyisile Mini. The song, titled “Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd” (“Watch Out, Verwoerd”) became one of the most popular songs in South Africa. Mini’s soulful compositions and booming bass voice led him to emerge as one of the most powerful organizers of the resistance. In the words of poet Jeremy Cronin “Song had become an organizer, and he was the embodiment of this reality” (Hirsch 2002). The singing of Ndodemnyama was a statement of protest and a tribute to the strength of freedom fighters. “That song sounds like a fun song,” said musician Hugh Masekela, “but it’s really like ‘Watch out Verwoerd, here comes the black man, your days are over” (Hirsch 2002).
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 South Africa 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 discrimination. 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 politics 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, religion, 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 conflict 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 violence 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 technology of warfare, the tear gas and tanks, but we had this weapon” (Power to the People 2008).
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.
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 part 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 South Africa 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 human rights 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 culture, 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.”
“Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”
Nkosi, sikelel' iAfrika
Lord, bless Africa
What Have We Done?
What have we done?