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 Six – Cyril Valentine
  19. District SixHugh Masekela & Corlea
  20. District SixAbdullah Ibrahim

Censorship – No Anti-Apartheid Sentiment On The SABC

The SABC was a central component of the apartheid government’s propaganda machine, bombarding South African citizens with entertainment and information which either promoted the government’s ideology or at the very least did not overtly oppose it. The SABC censorship committee was therefore following a very clear mandate when it prohibited any music which in some way or another opposed the government’s apartheid system.

This mixtape documents songs which tackled a variety of issues dealing with the injustices of apartheid. Most of the songs featured are by South African musicians: The Cherry Faced Lurchers, Brenda Fassie, Jennifer Ferguson, The Genuines, the Gereformeerde Blues Band, Koos Kombuis, Louis & The Jive, Sipho Mabuse, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Edi Niederlander, Savuka, Stimela and Condry Ziqubu. There are also a few international artists: Aswad, Harry Belafonte, Nona Hendryx, Latin Quarter, The Maze (featuring Frankie Beverly) and Joe Smooth.

These are just a few of the thousands of songs which fell foul of the SABC’s political censorship but nevertheless capture a cross section of the issues political songs dealt with: calling for political freedom in South Africa generally as well as the freedom of political prisoners in particular (for example Nelson Mandela), calling for justice, drawing attention to atrocities such as political detention and apartheid policing in support of unjust laws, and protesting against politicians (such as PW Botha).

A previous mixtape focused on political songs banned outright (for retail and import) by the Directorate of Publications and all songs featured on that mixtape were also necessarily banned from airplay on the SABC. They have been left out here to avoid repetition but that mixtape is recommended as an essential companion to this one.

  1. Jail To Jail – Brenda Fassie
  2. They Want To Be Free – Joe Smooth
  3. Confusion (Ma Afrika) – Condry Ziqubu
  4. Bring Him Back Home – Hugh Masekela
  5. Chant Of The Marching – Sipho Mabuse
  6. Where’s The Justice – Louis & The Jive
  7. Do It Right – The Genuines
  8. Sit Dit Af – Gereformeerde Blues Band
  9. Shot Down In The Streets – The Cherry Faced Lurchers
  10. No Rope As Long As Time – Latin Quarter
  11. Asimbonanga – Savuka
  12. Swart September – Koos Kombuis
  13. Suburban Hum – Jennifer Ferguson
  14. A New Day – Edi Niederlander
  15. Set Them Free – Aswad
  16. Move It – Harry Belafonte
  17. Freedom (South Africa) – The Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly
  18. Winds Of Change (Mandela To Mandela) – Nona Hendryx
  19. Soweto Save My Children – Stimela
  20. Soweto Blues – Miriam Makeba

Capital 604 – The Miss Parade: 1986

There were just nine South African songs on the Capital Radio Top 40 in 1986, which is remarkable given the wide array of good South African music recorded and released that year. In particular the independent label, Shifty Records, was continuing to pick up on a variety of worthwhile music which nobody else was prepared to record.

Indeed, the idea behind Shifty was to document (by recording) music that reflected South African life – both musically and lyrically – and we have included a variety of their release on the 1986 mixtape: the Cherry Faced Lurchers, Dread Warriors, the Genuines, Isja, the Kalahari Surfers, Noise Khanyile, Mapantsula, Mzwakhe Mbuli, Simba Morri and Nude Red all deserved to be heard by a wider audience. But to Shifty’s and the artists’ frustration, radio stations were not interested. However, it ought to be noted that the Cherry Faced Lurchers (The Other White Album) and the Dread Warriors albums were recorded but not released at the time. We think they most definitely should have been.

Three songs included here – “Don’t Dance”- Kalahari Surfers, “Pambere” – Mapantsula and “Too Much Resistance”- Nude Red – are taken from the anti-conscription Forces Favourites compilation album which Shifty brought out in partnership with the End Conscription Campaign. The album was actually released in December 1985 but released internationally (through Rounder Records) in 1986, which is the year we went with for the mixtapes. In the mid-1980s South Africa was in a state of civil war (and emergency) and many of Shifty’s artists reflected this reality through their music. In fact, Mzwakhe Mbuli’s Change is Pain album was banned by the apartheid government’s Directorate of Publications.

London-based Kintone’s single ‘State of Emergency’ also captured the turbulent times in South Africa, as to a lesser extent did Stimela’s “Who’s Fooling Who”, David Kramer’s “Dry Wine” and (by now also London-based) eVoid’s “Sgt. Major”, a song which could easily have fitted on the Forces Favourites compilation. 1986 also saw the first release from Bayete, who would soon be recording and performing politically astute songs of their own. Other politically relevant new music in 1986 came from Edi Niederlander, who had been performing on the folk scene for years, and Johnny Clegg’s new band, Savuka.

1986 saw the introduction of Keith Berel’s new band, Carte Blanche, Jonathan Handley’s new band, Titus Groan, and Zasha. We also saw the return of Lesley Rae Dowling, Falling Mirror, Steve Kekana, Sipho Mabuse and Zia. All in all a wide and enjoyable spectrum of new music.

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Capital 604 – The Miss Parade: 1983

1983 was the year in which the fewest South African songs charted on the Capital Radio Top 40 countdown: only eight songs made it. Yet this week’s playlist reveals that there were many more chart worthy songs. As per usual, there artists who charted but who had further songs that could have been hits, for example eVoid, Juluka and Via Afrika. But there were several others who inexplicably did not chart at all, such as Brenda and the Big Dudes (with “Weekend Special”), Steve Kekana (with “Night Boot Control”), Sipho Mabuse (with “Rise”) and Stimela (with “I Hate Telling A Lie”).

While Juluka had been experimenting with a fusion between western and South African musical styles for several years and Hotline had begun to do so in 1982, 1983 saw such musical hybridity becoming more of a trend than something unusual, especially with the very noticeable arrival of debut albums from eVoid and Via Afrika. In addition, The Dread Warriors and Splash provided a South African influenced reggae sound while The Boyoyo Boys, Steve Kekana, Sipho Mabuse, Letta Mbulu, The Soul Brothers and Stimela performed pop songs based in neo-traditional township forms. Dog Detachment and What Colours released songs influenced by the UK new wave scene and Sue Charlton, Lesley Rae Dowling and The Insisters released more mainstream pop songs. James Phillips, in his Bernoldus Niemand guise, continued the satirical tradition of the likes of Jeremy Taylor and David Kramer by using his voice as a vocal costume, critiquing society from the perspective of what Randy Newman referred to as an untrustworthy narrator.

1983 was also the year in which two members of Splash – Jose Charles and Rufus Radebe – were sentenced to effective four-year prison terms (later reduced to 17 months) for singing ‘revolutionary songs’ at a Wits Free People’s Concert. One of the songs was a cover of Steel Pulse’s “A Tribute to Martyrs”, which included references to Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela. They were charged with promoting violence and supporting the ANC, even though they argued in their defence that they were Rastafarians and as such were anti-violence.

Indeed, it was difficult to perform as a South African musician with left-leaning sympathies in South Africa. Pete Spong of the Dread Warriors noted that it was difficult for a band with a white and black members to travel together, especially when it came to arranging travel documents (including to neighbouring countries). Sipho Mabuse and Johnny Clegg both spoke about being stopped at road blocks and interrogated because of whites and blacks travelling together while touring, with Harari and Juluka respectively (Harari has a white woman manager who travelled with the group).

All the artist here have their stories about how difficult it was to be heard at the time. Fortunately we can give them a listen now.

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