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

Rocking And Rolling The Boat: Political Censorship

Despite all its attempts to silence music about sex, drugs and religion, the Directorate of Publications was most famous for its political censorship. Clearly, the main reason for its existence was to support the apartheid regime, so it was no surprise that it acted incisively when music of a contentious political nature came before its scrutiny.

One of the most notorious cases was Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” which was originally submitted to the Directorate by a religious student group at the Pretoria Teaching College, who were alarmed at the popularity of the song (and accompanying album) with its rebellious lyrics, which they believed would cultivate “an environment for communism”. The Directorate agreed, but also observed that it had become a rallying song for school children protesting apartheid education. The single had already sold over 70 000 copies nationally, and had reached the top of the charts on SABC’s Springbok Radio and Radio 5, as well as on Capital Radio. Yet the Directorate banned it anyway and the Publications Appeal Board upheld the ban, which lasted until 1982. Other internationally well-known examples of banned songs included singles which championed anti-apartheid leaders, Peter Gabriel’s “Biko”, and the Special AKA’s “(Free) Nelson Mandela”.

Further songs from international artists that were banned for opposing apartheid included: “(Ain’t Gonna Play) Sun City” – Artists United Against Apartheid, “Majority Rule” – Jimmy Cliff, “UDF” – Follow Fashion Monkeys, “Gimme Hope Jo’Anna” – Eddy Grant, “Free Mandela In Azania” – Lovemore Majaivana & Jobs Combination, “Fire In Soweto” – Sonny Okosun, “Stop The War” – Prince Far I, “Apartheid” – Peter Tosh and “Sing Our Own Song” – UB40.

Several songs by South Africans which openly opposed apartheid were also banned. A cross-section of these have been included on this mixtape, including: “Beware Verwoerd” – Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, “Nongonqo” – Harry Belafonte and Letta Mbulu, “Johnny Vorster On The Couch” – Barry Gilder, “Ngeke, Ngeke, Ngeke” – Abdullah Ibrahim and others, “All For One” – Jabula, “Thabane” – Roger Lucey, Miriam Makeba’s version of Jeremy Taylor’s “A Piece Of Ground” and “Now Is The Time” – Mzwakhe Mbuli.

The Directorate also banned songs and albums which espoused liberation struggles in neighbouring countries. On this mixtape examples of this come in the form of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Zimbabwe”, Zimbabwe’s Jairos Jiri Sunrise Kwela Band whose “Take cover” promoted the cause of Zimbabwean guerrilla freedom fighters, including a guitar approximating the sounds of a machine gun, and the SWAPO Singers’ “The Wind Of Change”, a song which later became better known in the United Kingdom when Robert Wyatt released a collaborative version adding his own vocals.

The Directorate were also wary of songs which supported liberation struggles in general, lest the message be incorporated into the South African context. Thus it also banned songs such as Black Uhuru’s “Solidarity”, Discharge’s “Tomorrow Belongs To Us” and from the early 1960s, Pete Seeger’s pro USA civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome”.

In several instances entire albums were banned because of one or more songs on the albums. Of the above, these included Live… – Harry Belafonte, An Evening With – Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, Black Uhuru’s Anthem, Jimmy Cliff’s Give The People What They Want, Follow Fashion Monkeys – Follow Fashion Monkeys, Peter Gabriel’s 3rd solo album, Barry Gilder’s Fists Against The Sky, Liberation Freedom SongsAbdullah Ibrahim and others, In Amsterdam – Jabula, Roger Lucey’s The Road Is Much Longer, Miriam Makeba’s Pata Pata, Mzwakhe Mbuli’s Change Is Pain, Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Survival, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Prince Far I’s Umkhanto We Sizwe, We Shall Overcome – Pete Seeger, One Namibia One Nation – SWAPO Singers, Equal Rights – Peter Tosh and UB40’s Rat In The Kitchen.

The most unusual of the instances of political music being banned was the case of Barry Gilder’s album, which wasn’t banned by name because when the police confiscated a bootleg copy of the cassette during a raid on the UCT SRC offices in June 1978, it was not marked in any way, other than the name of the company who made the cassette. The cassette was banned after a laborious process whereby a member of the South African Police Security Branch (Officer R.R Brand) transcribed the entire cassette and then listed the songs according to their first lines, such as “I’m a great politician”, “In the factories of Johannesburg” and “Fidel Castro’s in the mountains”. The Directorate of Publications concluded that “The incitement through the spoken word and catchy tunes, and the fact that such a cassette can be used for group meetings of activists and radicals, make it necessary to prohibit the possession of the cassette … In addition, many of the songs are radically undesirable.”