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The Design Train blogs are a series of articles researched and written by Andrew Knapp for submission to various publications and sites. The articles cover a wide range of topics and can be adapted and edited for use in various styles of media application.

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Human Right’s Day – The Music behind the Holiday

21st March 2021

This weekend we honour Human Rights Day in South Africa. Although human rights cover so many areas that are an ongoing global challenge, today I am exploring the role that music played during the 46-year-long apartheid regime that cruelly divided our nation. It is an interesting, if uncomfortable, topic that covers a very dark area of our history. To imagine what kind of country South Africa would be had apartheid not happened is in the realm of speculation, but this misguided system of racial segregation did manage to produce some memorable music.

Mama Afrika – Miriam Makeba

As can be seen worldwide, music has been used as a form of protest throughout modern history. Never was this more prevalent than during the period of 1948 – 1994. The early songs focused on grievances over the ‘pass laws’, that enforced the carrying of a special pass to be allowed in certain areas, or after curfew times. Failure to do so would lead to arrest. It was also the time of mass relocation where families who had been living in areas for years were forcibly relocated to ‘townships’ situated miles from main centres with little infrastructure and few amenities.

As with all colonized nation, a racial divide had naturally existed in South Africa for years, and music had been used to protest segregation long before the implementation of apartheid. When the African National Congress (ANC) formed in 1912 meetings were started and concluded with the singing of ‘Nkosi Sikelele iAfrika’ (God Bless Africa), once banned and now our national anthem. R.T Caluza’s ‘iLandAct’ protested the Native Land Act of 1913. This was the first major piece of segregation law passed by the Union of South Africa’s parliament. The song could be regarded as the first direct protest song and it was adopted as an anthem by the ANC.

The political overtones in local music increased during the 1930s, and musicians of all races started to include African elements into their songs and performances as a form of statement against the system. It was during the 1940s that musical artists started being persecuted. Although many artists didn’t see their music as political they were often harassed and performances stopped in ‘special forces’ raids. As Miriam Makeba would state “people say I sing politics, but what I sing is not politics, it is the truth”.

Image: Legendary Lady, Dorothy Masuka performs at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

In the 1950s, an increasing number of musicians began to voice explicit opposition to apartheid. Dorothy Masuka’s ‘uDr. Malan Unomthetho Onzima’ (Dr. Malan’s Government is Harsh) is an excellent example of the change of tone and increasing frustration.

When the country’s centre of Jazz music, Sophiatown, was destroyed In 1955 and its 60,000 inhabitants relocated, most to the settlement known as Meadowlands, it was the inspiration for one of the best-known known Jazz pieces in our musical history. The song ‘Meadowlands‘ was written in 1956 by Strike Vilakazi was popularised locally and abroad by Miriam Makeba.

There are many sad stories connected to protest music, but that of Vuyisile Mini is particularly powerful. He was the activist and trade unionist who penned the Xhosa song ‘Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd’ (Watch Out, Verwoerd), Mini was arrested and sentenced to death in 1963 for “political crimes” and is one of the first ANC members to have been executed. He is reported to have sung his composition as he went to the gallows.

Ironically, Prime Minister Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, was assassinated in 1966 by a white man. To start the musical side of the story I found a clip of Miriam Makeba singing ‘Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd’.

The reason behind Human Right’s Day being honoured happened in March 1960 and the Sharpeville massacre. The day after protesters gathered in opposition to the Pass Laws, an estimated 7000 people gathered outside the Sharpeville police station. The police opened fire on them killing 69, and injuring 169 others (including children).

The reaction was immediate and saw protest marches, demonstrations, riots and strikes across the country. A state of emergency was declared and the ANC banned. Over 18,000 people were arrested and detained, including Nelson Mandela. International outrage saw the UN Security Council pass Resolution 134 within weeks, and South Africa found itself increasingly isolated by the international community.

The protest music of the 1960s started to use increasingly subtle allegories and hidden meanings in a bid to overcome the stringent censorship laws that were in place. A good example of this is the 1967 song, ‘Master Jack’ that written by David Marks and taken to #1 on the local hit-parade by Four Jacks and a Jill. The sweet-sounding ballad is actually an attack against the apartheid propaganda of the time as can be read into the first verse

‘You took a coloured ribbon from out of the sky

And taught me how to use it as the years went by

To tie up all your problems and make them look neat

And then to sell them to the people in the street’

Des and Dawn Lindberg were not as subtle in their hit song that told the story of a young boy saving an oil-soaked seagull. They named the seagull after the states imprisoned number one enemy, Nelson Mandela. ‘The Seagull’s Name was Nelson’ was released in 1971 and very few of us 16-year-olds realised the meaning when we sang:

‘And the seagull’s name was Nelson – Nelson who came from the sea

And the seagull’s name was Nelson – Nelson the seagull free’

Image: Musical and Theatre activists Des and the late Dawn Lindberg

Musicians like Hugh Maseke, Jonas Gwanala, Abdullah Ibrahim and Miriam Makeba went into exile in fear of detention. As an example of how musicians were affected, a recording by Dorothy Masuka referring to the killing of Patrice Lumumba resulted in a raid on her studio. She became a wanted individual and went into exile for 30-years. This was the period when Hugh and Miriam began consciously using their music to raise awareness of apartheid internationally.

Musicians who remained found their activities constrained with no performance or recreation facilities in the new townships. To add to the frustration, large gatherings of people were banned. Meanwhile, the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) prevented anything vaguely subversive from being broadcast.

When the United Nations called for their members to “cut cultural, educational, and sporting ties with the racist regime” it brought pressure to bear on international musicians to avoid playing performing in South Africa. This was strengthened by the complete cultural boycott of our country in 1980 being implemented

Before continuing the story, let’s take a listen to a young Letta Mbula and the song she performed in the 1973 film A Warm December, Nongqongqo (To Those We Love), a song lamenting the imprisonment and torture of Black freedom fighters.

Although the ANC’s primary activity was political, the Mayibuye Cultural Ensemble was formed in 1975 by activists Barry Feinberg and Ronnie Kasrils to promote cultural events and help promote political change. It consisted of several local performers who used poetry, songs and narrative to describe life under an apartheid government. They performed over 200 times across Europe before disbanding in 1980 and were regarded for a time as the ANC’s cultural wing.

Another massacre marked the 1970s with the Soweto Uprising on 16th June 1976. This was in reaction to a protest led by schoolchildren in opposition to the ruling that Afrikaans be used as the medium of instruction in local schools. Over 20,000 students took part and were met with fierce police brutality that left 176 people dead (official count), including Hector Pietersen, who is identified as a martyr of the event. It is in remembrance of this horrible incident that 16th June was declared Youth Day in South Africa.

This event led to songs like Hugh Masekela’s classic ‘Soweto Blues’ being released in 1976. This period saw increasing awareness of apartheid on the international front, and when activist Steve Biko died in detention the ripples were widespread. His fame spread posthumously and when Peter Gabriel released his song ‘Biko’ in 1980, it served to spread South Africa’s inequality to a younger audience. Even U2’s Bono said that the song ‘Biko’ was the first time he had become aware that apartheid existed. Biko’s biography was the basis of the 1987 film, Cry Freedom.

In a bid to stop subversion, the Directorate of Publications was formed in 1974, but they only responded to complaints. Surprisingly, less than 100 pieces of music were banned by this body during the 1980s, but it was the government’s control of the SABC where the majority of censorship happened.

No ‘undesirable’ songs were permitted to be played on air. These included songs which included slang, mixed-race band members, a political message, calls to rebellion or anti-social behaviour, blasphemy or overt sexuality. In 1971 TV was introduced in South Africa. This helped to strengthen cultural segregation with the practice of different area-specific programming aired to the various racial groups.

This segregation even extended to the few mixed-race bands that existed. They had to have any people of colour play behind a curtain where they couldn’t be seen. Can you imagine the frustration of both audience and artists?

Image: Roger Lucey, who abandoned music after continuous harassment from the security police. Fortunately he resumed his musical career recently

The process of having a song accepted for broadcast was arduous. Artists were required to submit their lyrics and music to ‘the board’ where they would go through tight scrutiny before being given the green light.

A name that I have often mentioned often in connection to the development of local music is Tully McCully. His studio, Shifty Records, was instrumental in spearheading the White artist’s resistance to apartheid. The Directorate banned numerous albums and singles from the record label, while the SABC made them prime target and restricted airplay on most of their ‘not banned’ songs.

I told the story of Roger Lucey’s song “Longile Tabalaza” in some depth a while ago. The song is the story of a young man who died in police custody. The song was banned outright and even owning a copy could result in a 5-year prison sentence at the time. Lucey himself was targeted and victimised, even having one of his performances tear-gassed. He gave up music under this continuing pressure but has fortunately returned to his musical career recently.

We’ll explore the 80s shortly, but first, let’s watch a live clip of Miriam Makeba at the 1988 Nelson Mandela concert with ‘Soweto Blues’.

Racially-mixed bands were few-and-far-between during the 1970s with Johnny Clegg’s Juluka being the most well known. In a bid to jump on the bandwagon, the Bureau of Information spent millions of Rand on a song named “Together We Will Build a Brighter Future’‘, ostensibly to “communicate to the vast majority of people in the county” however, the overwhelming backlash from opposing groups, and news of the song making it into the international press, halted any commercial release of the record. As The Star newspaper said, ”Simply singing about togetherness won’t make it come about.”

I remember the state of emergency in 1984/5 very well. I was living in Cape Town at the time and got caught up in a demonstration protest that had blocked most of the main road, Adderley Street. As I was swept along with the crowd one of the water cannons let rip drenching us with a purple-coloured dye. It didn’t matter who you were in the throng that day, we were all the Purple People, and the Purple People had made a stand!

Nelson Mandela was the subject of two big songs of the ’80s. Hugh Masakela’s ‘Bring him Home’, and Brenda Fassie’s ‘Black President’ were strong statements about the icon’s ongoing imprisonment. Mandela was a huge fan of Masakela and smuggled a letter from Robin Island to ‘Bra Hugh’ to thank him for the song. The letter was discovered which (yet again) fingered Masekela as an anti-apartheid activist.

Many local bands were affected by apartheid in various ways, whether it was banned, having performances interrupted, or their songs prevented from airplay. Some groups could have gone on to have great careers but disbanded before heading overseas to avoid the national conscription campaign. They deserve our respect and I have covered the stories of a number of them in past articles.

Image: Bernoldus Niemand aka James Pillips – Pioneer of the Voelvry movement

The 80s saw a rise in Afrikaans musicians making a stand against the repeated states of emergency with what was known as the ‘Voëlvry Movement”. Thanks to the Shifty Record’s mobile recording studio, it was the first time that protests were heard in the Afrikaans language. The goal was to persuade Afrikaner youth to understand that their embedded cultural norms had to undergo change before racial equality could be achieved. These brave, outspoken protagonists consisted of Johannes Kerkorrel (John Church Organ), the stage name of Ralph Rabie, Andre du Toit, and Bernoldus Niemand (Bernie Nobody), the moniker of James Phillips.

These guys are heroes in their own right for withstanding the criticism they endured for flying in the face of Afrikaans conservatism. Although segregation was firmly embedded in the law, racially-integrated bands became more common, as did audiences from across the racial and cultural lines, thanks to the Voëlvry Movement.

Sadly Bernouldus Niemand passed away in a motorcycle accident while performing a series of solo shows at the Grahamstown Arts Festival in 1995. To honour his memory my next choice is an Afrikaans song ‘Hou My Vas Korporaal’ (Hold Me Tight Corporal). The song is an anti-conscription statement that rang true to huge numbers of teens forced to fight a war they knew little about except for the propaganda they had been fed for years.

As a British citizen I was luckily exempt from national service, however, I have many close friends who have been deeply scarred by their part in the madness.

“Oogklappe bring die skoon gewete

Dis my plig, dis nie my keuse

Hier sit ek, ek sit en vrek

Dis nie my skuld, maar ek hou my bek”

(Putting blinkers on the eyes brings the clear conscience

It’s my duty, it’s not my choice

Here I sit, I sit and die

It’s not my fault, but I shut my mouth)

It’s not my fault, but I shut my mouth)

South Africa had a cruel history of censorship. All music by the Beatles was banned during the 60s. Stevie Wonder joined their ranks in 1985 when he dedicated his Oscar to Nelson Mandela. Thank goodness there were two radio stations that kept the music flowing into the country. This was made possible when Capital Radio launched in 1979, followed by Radio 702 in 1980. They were both based in the ‘independent homelands’ of Transkei and Bophuthatswana and not bound by the government’s regulations.

When the blatantly anti-apartheid song ‘Sun City’ was released they refused to play the track as Sun City was located in Bophuthatswana to avoid South Africa’s gambling laws, and had partial ownership of both radio stations.

One of my all-time favourite South African songs of the era comes from the Cape Town band Bright Blue. ‘Weeping’ is a prime example of how some songs slip through the cracks of the censor board. The allegorical lyrics about a man living in an oppressive society are set against the backdrop of the banned ANC anthem ‘Nkosi Sikilel iAfrika’. The song shot to #1 on the government-owned radio station.

Shifty Records made a statement with their compilation album ’A Naartjie in Our Sosatie’ (A tangerine in our Kebab) but was a play on ‘Anarchy in Our Society’. The devious fellows fooled the censors and the album was snapped up.

Band’s like Savuka, Johnny Clegg’s follow-up to Juluka, were more direct, and were often arrested or had their concerns raided for playing the beautiful anthem to Mandela, Biko, and others of the apartheid movement, ‘Asimbonanga’.

Time for another song, this time the aforementioned favourite of mine. Bright Blue’s ‘Weeping’.

Paul Simon’s decision to break the cultural boycott and record his hit album ‘Graceland’ in South Africa caused a huge controversy. Although he claimed to have the go-ahead from the ANC, Dali Thambo, head of Artists United Against Apartheid denied it. Thanks to an idea from Hugh Masakela who had known Simon for many years, the concert went ahead after a decision to make it a joint tour featuring various Black artists.

‘Bra Hugh’ justified the tour to the government claiming that the cultural boycott had led to a lack of growth in local music and this was a way to start rectifying the situation. This was the same time that Steve Van Zandt persuaded Bono, Springsteen and Miles Davies to record ‘Sun City’. It was his protest about artists from America and Europe who were willing to perform in the Whites-Only luxury gambling resort located in the ‘homeland’ of Bophuthatswana.

I worked at Sun City during the 80s and can ascertain the fact that although the racial barriers were pretty much non-existent amongst the staff, there were very few black faces amongst the visitors and guests.

The late 1980s saw a number of international artists lend their voices and songs to the call for the release of Mandela and the fall of the National Party. Stevie Wonder released ‘It’s Wrong’ and was arrested demonstrating outside the South African Embassy in Washington brought his message home even more than the song.

A song that offended many whites working toward change was released by the crew of Spitting Image, ‘I’ve Never Met A Nice South African’ may have been satire, but it was in extremely bad taste. Eddy Grant hit the world charts with ‘Give Me Hope Jo’anna’ (Jo’ana = Johannesburg).

Image: Paul Simon And Joseph Tshabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo

The Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Concert arranged by Jim Kerr of Simple Minds was held at Wembley Stadium in 1988. The show ended with the songs ‘Biko’, ‘Sun City’ and ‘Bring Him Home’. The concert featured huge international acts like Whitney Houston, The Eurythmics, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Salt-N-Pepa and Dire Straits, and was televised to over 600 million viewers worldwide. Sadly the cultural boycott also affected musicians who had fought so hard against apartheid over the years, and the fact that Johnny Clegg and Savuka weren’t allowed to play at the concert is sad.

For those of you who like facts and figures, it was found in a survey after the concert that his use of music to raise awareness of apartheid had worked, with 75% of people between the ages of 16 and 24 knowing about Nelson Mandela and supported his release.

Mandela’s release in 1990 saw the start of apartheid’s dismantling and many exiled artists returned to their home, some for the first time in years without the fear of detention. Fortunately for music lovers, mixed-race bands and audiences are allowed, commonplace, and not the threat that they were once feared to be.

Although the problems that beset our beautiful country since the Rainbow Years of Mandela’s release ended are many, hopefully, the corruption and vested interests of the politicians who were put in place thanks to the struggle of people of all races, are stemmed, and we can finally use our country’s vast resources to the betterment and equality of ALL South Africans.

We should always remember that it is the artists, the musicians, the writers and the performers of these dark times who could be relied on to tell the truth while we were all being fed a lie. In that, they will always be heroes who have earned their place amongst the country’s other struggle icons.

I’m closing tonight with a tribute to two men who are both icons, Johnny Clegg and Nelson Mandela. This clip is the surprise appearance of Mandela on stage at a Savuka concert in Germany in 1999 and is a powerful and emotional clip that never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

Image: The legendary wild child – Brenda Fassie, whose ‘Black President’ rocked the boat.

I could have included dozens of stories and shared many more songs, but I think the ones I have featured represent quite a wide spectrum. I could have also included many personal stories of growing up as a white British child in South Africa during this time, and how oblivious we were of what was happening in front of our noses. I chose not to as it would have got in the way of the main story. Maybe I’ll cover my personal take in a future blog.

There was a time when I would have probably been detained or put under house arrest for writing this article. Thank goodness those times have passed, and although they should never be forgotten, my hope is that we can find it in ourselves to move forward to an era of true equality for everyone in our country.

Thank you for taking this sad journey into our musical past with me. It wasn’t an easy article to write, but a necessary part of history to cover on this day, and I feel better for having written it.

Happy Human Right’s Day everyone.


The Loving the Music mini-features are written and compiled and written by The Design Train to support Loving the Music’s Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that do more than just share a song.

The Author owns no copyright on the images or videos in this article. All images and links sourced from YouTube and Google and within the public domain.

Words © Andrew Knapp 2021

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