How music and resilience beat Apartheid in South Africa

Etsey Atisu June 06, 2019

Apartheid wasn’t only a cruel, brutal and oppressive regime for the black majority in South Africa, in the very land of their birth – it also denied them of their confidence and robbed them of truly everything that had to do with just living.

The long years of revolutionary struggles by the likes of Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Oliver Tambo, Helen Suzman, among others, were among the brightest things that kept the hopes of the native South Africans alive.

But then, there was one other good thing that the apartheid system of 46 years birthed that is in no doubt its biggest spirit for resilience and the country’s lifeblood.

Music. Yes, music played a pivotal role in the struggles for the abolishment of South Africa’s white minority enforcing the strictest racial segregation, political and economic discrimination against the majority non-whites in world history.

Truly far from being an easy journey, music and those who sang them pushed the struggles further and further, undaunted by the obvious and almost insurmountable opposition they received in their attempt for freedom.

The lyrics, tones, and styles of their music, which apartheid helped to shape because of the universality of the outlet that music serves for those with experiences to share, a message to send, or an oppression to protest, gave them hope relentlessly.

And, the longer and louder these songs were sung, the swifter and harsher the oppression and rejection they received from the minority white leadership, with many of those songs removed from the shelves at music stores, or were banned by the apartheid government for having protested the human rights atrocities in the country.

Mama Miriam Makeba was one of these people. Born in 1932, Makeba saw, lived and experienced at firsthand, all the prominent things that happened during apartheid, informing her inspirations to write and sing during the era.

Today, South Africa boasts of a vibrant music scene populated by a wide variety of genres and styles. Throughout the years, the country’s political environment has had a major influence on its music, leading to the birth of original genres like kwaito, African jazz and mbube. 

Kwaito Music…YouTube Video
Mbube…YouTube Video

And then there was the legendary trumpeter and singer, Hugh Masekela. Masekela wrote music that spoke about the hardships faced by men who left their homes to work in foreign countries — the men he sang about in Stimela (Coal Train), for example, were forced to leave behind their families only to be met by xenophobic attacks in countries like South Africa and exploitation from employers who didn’t want to pay workers better salaries.

In 1976, the man who became known as the father of South African jazz composed Soweto Blues in response to the uprising in the vast township. He toured with Paul Simon in the 1980s while continuing his political engagement, writing Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela) in 1987. The song became an anthem of the anti-apartheid struggle.

How music and resilience beat Apartheid in South Africa
Hugh Masekela/The Conversation

And, although there is a long list of musicians who helped through their music to champion the struggle for freedom, the popularity of the likes of Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Johnny Clegg and Brenda Fassie placed them steps ahead in the struggle. The music by these musicians reinforced confidence and pride in the natives as well as a global recognition for the longing of the natives for a new and democratic dispensation.

South Africa’s national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika“, whose lyrics employ five of the most widely spoken of South Africa’s eleven official languages – Xhosa (first stanza, first two lines), Zulu (first stanza, last two lines), Sesotho (second stanza), Afrikaans (third stanza), and English (final stanza) is an even bolder evidence of the power music wields in the country. The lyrics are sung in these languages regardless of the native language of the singer.

During the apartheid era, it was difficult for black musicians in South Africa to perform, especially as a means of formal employment. Black musicians were not seen as equals and were denied opportunities and rights. At the same time, performances by white musicians who were outspoken about apartheid, or those who performed alongside black musicians, were often subject to police raids. However, their talent and music was indeed still heard; many of these musicians fought hard to oppose the political limitations, and their resistance is a vital part of the story of South Africa’s resistance and recovery during and after the apartheid years.

Today, the story is different and music, without censorship or any forms of restrictions as grave as in the days of apartheid has come to stay with the people of South Africa. Movies enacting the era and its various struggles, and even those who led the fights towards independence, (Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom; Invictus; Cry, The Beloved Country; Sarafina, Cry Freedom) have also made good use of music establishing the forte that South Africans now have for music.

Last Edited by:Victor Ativie Updated: July 22, 2020


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