South African Songs About Political Places

Music has the ability to capture moments and sentiments. On occasion it reminds us of places and also of events which transpired in those places. This mixtape includes a selection of musical pieces written about political events which unfolded in specific places in South Africa. Some of these focus on particular events such as the Rivonia Treason Trial, the Mdantsane bus strike, and the Marikana Massacre, while the majority reflect in one way or another on that especially heartless apartheid practice of forced removals: moving people against their will from the place they called home to a different, hostile, and unfriendly place: away from one’s community, away from all the familiar associations of home. Because forced removals were so painful it is no surprise that there are so many compositions about places from which people were forced to move by the apartheid state. Sophiatown, Cato Manor, Crossroads, and District Six are covered in this mixtape . People lost their homes and their communities but held onto their memories … and the songs remain.

One of the songs included here captures the mood of most, if not all, the pieces featured on this mixtape. In Mdantsane in July 1983, in response to severe price increases, a boycott was called, of buses partly owned by the Ciskei government. The apartheid Ciskei security forces, supported by vigilantes, attempted to force people to use the buses, resulting in bloody assaults, injuries and death. Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu wrote the song “Mdantsane” about the bus boycott. They asked, “Why don’t you sing about the African moon; Why don’t you sing about the leaves and the dreams; Why don’t you sing about the rain and the birds?” And they answered, “’Cause mister I’ve seen mud coloured dusty blood; Bare feet on a burning bus; Broken teeth and a rifle butt; On the road to Mdantsane.”

All the musicians on this mixtape similarly chose to document government and employer atrocities rather than to only sing about the leaves and the dreams.

Mzwakhe Mbuli contemplated the apartheid legislative capital, Pitoli, Dolly Rathebe & the Elite Swingsters commemorated the accused at the Rivonia treason trial, and Lesego Rampolokeng and the Kalahari Surfers reflected on the Sebokeng siege. The Junction Avenue Theatre Company (who performed the musical Sophiatown), the African Jazz Pioneers, and Miriam Makeba & the Skylarks all lament the forced removals from and bulldozing of Kofifi/Sophiatown, while Nancy Jacobs & her Sisters sang about people’s reluctance to be moved from Sophiatown to Meadowlands, established by the apartheid state as an alternative township to Sophiatown. In a song named after Soweto, Barry Gilder sings of the struggle to live and work in South Africa, in a society where people were expected to travel vast distances under the migrant labour system, yet whose lives were not valued by business owners and the government. Stimela’s “Soweto save the children” alerted listeners to the detrimental effects apartheid was having on the children of Soweto.

The only song on this mixtape about a post-apartheid atrocity is Lilitha’s mournful “Marikana” about the Marikana Massacre. A reminder that the alliance between the government and capital continues to be problematic, even in a post-1994 government, and an even harsher reminder as to where exactly the state is prepared to draw a moral line.

Sipho Gumede & Pops Mohamed remembered Cato Manor in the Durban area and Juluka documented the violence surrounding the Mdantsane bus boycott. The mixtape ends with a series of songs related to the Western Cape. Winston Mankunku and Mike Perry, Sakhile, Syd Kitchen, and Roger Lucey all contributed songs about the apartheid state’s attack on the residents of Crossroads, targeted for forced removal. “Mooi River Textiles” is a song by workers at that factory, recorded and documented by Shifty Records. Finally Cyril Valentine (with a song from the District Six musical), Hugh Masekela (featuring Corlea) and Abdullah Ibrahim, remember District Six, another area which the apartheid state decided to bulldoze into oblivion and forcibly remove all its inhabitants because they decided to rezone it as a white area.

Sometimes the songs on this mixtape are a mournful and painful reminder of places, and sometimes they recall spirited community togetherness. They often remind us of defiance – that people resisted and continue to resist oppressive laws, policies and actions. Crucially, they are documents of the events that occurred and of the places where they took place. As long as this music plays we cannot be allowed to forget.

  1. Pitoli – Mzwakhe Mbuli
  2. Rivonia – Dolly Rathebe & The Elite Swingsters
  3. Sebokeng Siege – Lesego & Kalahari Surfers
  4. Kofifi Sophia – Junction Avenue Theatre Company
  5. Kofifi – African Jazz Pioneers
  6. Sophiatown Is Gone – Miriam Makeba & The Skylarks
  7. Meadowlands – Nancy Jacobs & Her Sisters
  8. Soweto Song – Barry Gilder
  9. Soweto Save The Children – Stimela
  10. Marikana – Lilitha
  11. Remember Cato Manor – Sipho Gumede & Pops Mohamed
  12. Mdantsane – Juluka
  13. Crossroads Crossroads – Winston Mankunku & Mike Perry
  14. Crossroads – Sakhile
  15. Crossroads – Syd Kitchen
  16. Crossroads – Roger Lucey
  17. Mooi River Textiles – Fosatu Worker Choirs
  18. Heart Of District SixCyril Valentine
  19. District SixHugh Masekela & Corlea
  20. District SixAbdullah Ibrahim

Blasphemy!

This mixtape focuses on songs banned by the apartheid government’s central censorship board because they were deemed blasphemous.

The apartheid government propagated a form of Calvinism so conservative and tainted that it justified apartheid, restricted nudity and sex to the procreative bedroom and exalted a bigoted and prudish god, whose sabbath was kept boringly sacred. It comes as no surprise therefore, that the central apartheid censors took a dim view on any song that undermined their narrow view of god, ridiculed Christians and, even worse, promoted Satan.

John Lennon’s “God” was banned simply because John Lennon stated that God is a concept and that he didn’t believe in the bible and Jesus.  Meanwhile Chris De Burgh’s song “Spanish Train” was viewed as blasphemous because in the song God and the devil play chess and poker over the souls of the dead, and the devil cheats and wins more souls, without God realising.

Both Peter Sarstedt’s “Take Off Your Clothes” and Glenda Kemp’s “Strip Tea” raised the ire of the censors because they brought into disrepute men of the cloth, especially in a sexual context. In the former, because the protagonist’s “daddy is the pope you know, and I just want to grope you know” while in the latter, Glenda Kemp’s vicar comes to visit for a pastoral cup of tea but ends up partaking in an unexpected “Strip Tea”.

Don McLean’s “American Pie” offended the censors because of lines like: “No angel born in hell could break that Satan’s spell; And as the flames climbed high into the night; To light the sacrificial rite, I saw Satan laughing with delight” and “The father, son and holy ghost, they caught the last train for the coast.”

Two musicals based on the life of Jesus – Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell – were controversially received by some Christians far and wide. The South African censors were no exception. They objected to the way Mary Magdalene tried to seduce Jesus on both soundtracks: Yvonne Elliman’s sensual “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar and Sonia Manzano’s burlesque-style “Turn Back, O Man” from Godspell, with the provocative line “C’mere Jesus, I’ve got something to show ya!” The theme song, “Superstar” from the former show, sung by Murray Head and the Trinidad Singers, was viewed as blasphemous for calling Jesus a superstar, banned by way of being a song on the album but also as a single.

The censors thought that Des & Dawn’s humorous treatment of ‘Dese Bones Gonna Rose Again” was unacceptable, and that the Kalahari Surfers’ protest about the SADF Maseru cross-border raid, through adapting the words to the Christian “Lord’s Prayer”, was equally unacceptable. Similarly, “Prayer” by Spooky Tooth and Pierre Henry was deemed undesirable by the censors, because of its use of the same prayer in a progressive rock context.

The censors strongly objected to Christ The Album by Crass; believing the album title was blasphemous, as were lyrics to the song “I Know There Is Love” which was critical of the role of Christianity in propagating war: “You’ve … thrust in my hands your gun and your bible, you told me to kill for the lord up above.”

“Ishmael” by Abdullah Ibrahim was the only song banned by the Directorate of Publications for reasons of blasphemy according to a religion other than Christianity. In this instance, the Muslim Judicial Council objected to Abdullah Ibrahim putting words from the Koran to a musical backing, an act which they deemed blasphemous, and which was upheld by the state censors.

The censors also objected to the name of a group called Satan and banned their album Court In The Act because of songs like “Hunt You Down”, which they argued promoted the power of Satan. Likewise, Mercyful Faith’s “The Oath” and “Mark Of The Beast” by The Sinyx (off the Crass Records Bullshit Detector compilation) were regarded as anti-Christian by means of promoting Satan. Finally, Diamanda Gala’s “The Litanies Of Satan”, affronted the censors, who objected to what she looked like on the cover, what she sounded like on the record and the fact that she prayed to Satan. The song and album were promptly banned.