SABC Censorship of Popular Music

Our focus on music censorship in apartheid South African moves from the central government Directorate of Publications censorship to that of the national broadcaster, the South African Broadcast Corporation (SABC). During the apartheid era virtually all music radio stations were owned by the SABC, which gave it extensive control over what South Africans were able to listen to. The SABC made use of a rigorous system to vet all music played on any of its stations.

An all-white SABC committee regularly held ‘record meetings’ to scrutinise the lyrics of all music submitted to the SABC for airplay (lyric sheets had to be submitted with music, failing which a staff member would transcribe the lyrics). Over the years this committee prohibited thousands of songs from airplay. Once a song was denied airplay on SABC, ‘Avoid’ was written or a ‘To be avoided’ sticker was placed alongside the song title on the sleeve of the SABC’s copy or copies of the album. In addition to the ‘avoid’ labels and scratched out title, the vinyl itself was often defaced: obscenely neat diagonal crosses were often scratched into the vinyl in the middle of condemned tracks, so that the needle would jump if a DJ were to disobey the intention behind the ‘Avoid’ stickers on the cover. According to former SABC censor, Cecile Pracher, the practice of scratching records was most commonly executed on records destined for play on Radio Bantu Stations because the SABC censors feared black DJs were the most likely to disregard record committee orders.

Importantly, it needs to be remembered that SABC censorship was not the same as Directorate of Publications censorship: an SABC ban meant that the song could not be played on SABC radio stations but could still be played on the independent radio stations Capital 604 and Radio 702 and could still be bought in shops and be imported into South Africa.

There were many categories of censorship at the SABC but the most common had to do with sex, drugs, bad language and mixing of languages, blasphemy (including promoting Rastafarianism and Satanism) and politics (from anti-apartheid sentiments to the promotion of racial mixing and general rebellion or songs about liberation and freedom).