Apartheid Censorship of Popular Music

This series of mixtapes focuses on the censorship of recorded popular music during the apartheid era. The apartheid government was notorious for its censorship policies, and many stories and accounts abound as to what was censored, from songs like “Another Brick In The Wall” by Pink Floyd to political pamphlets, novels and even penis shaped objects. This mixtape will focus on music which was censored in some way or another so that the South African public was not able to access music as the musician originally intended, whether because of government bannings on ownership, importation or purchasing music, broadcast prohibition of airplay, record company censorship or even artist self-censorship.

Forms of censorship of popular music in apartheid South Africa

Central Government Censorship

The Publications and Entertainments Act of 1963 and later, the Publications Act of 1974, were the central mechanism for direct censorship of publications (including sound recordings) in South Africa. Accordingly the Directorate of Publications was established, which responded to complaints received from the police, customs and excise officers and members of society in general. The Directorate decided whether or not to ban material submitted to it. Objections were referred to the Publications Appeal Board  (PAB) which was also a government-appointed committee designed to set aside or confirm decisions made by the Directorate.

Despite all the mechanisms put in place to ban material, music was very rarely banned by the  Directorate of Publications: fewer than one hundred and fifty music records were actually banned at this level between 1963 and 1992. The reason being that the Directorate itself did not go in search of material to ban: it only responded to complaints received. The Board received very few complaints about music. Director of Publications Braam Coetzee believes this was because most popular music was listened to by youth who were unlikely to complain anyway, but also because lyrics were generally unclear or inaudible. Some of the complaints received were from parents who overheard or read the lyrics, but most came from the police who wanted particular music banned, for example, in the case of Roger Lucey in the early 1980s. The police targeted Lucey once his overt anti-apartheid lyrics began to receive widespread coverage in the press. In general political music sales rarely reached more than one or two thousand copies. Warrick Sony of the Kalahari Surfers argued that: “One of the key reasons that the state unbanned my fourth LP Beachbomb was the fact that I never sold more than one thousand copies of any of my records. If the system works on its own there is no need to ban records or anything.”

Broadcasters: SABC and independent radio stations

The system to which Sony referred is a combination of radio play and record company support which is almost always crucial for success, especially in a limited market such as South Africa. This especially involved the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) with its virtual monopoly over the South African airwaves. The SABC made use of a rigorous system to vet all music played on any of its stations. Like the Directorate of Publications, it was concerned with political and rebellious messages, blasphemy and overtly sexual lyrics, but it went even further – in supporting the government’s ideology of separate ethnic groups with their independent homelands and cultural purity: no slang or mixing of languages was permitted.

The SABC committee regularly held ‘record meetings’ to scrutinise the lyrics of all music submitted to it for airplay (lyric sheets had to be submitted with music). This committee prohibited thousands of songs from airplay. Sometimes the entire repertoire of a group would be restricted, as was the case with the Beatles in the late 1960s because of John Lennon’s ‘More popular than Jesus Christ’ statement and Stevie Wonder, after he dedicated his Oscar award to Nelson Mandela in 1985. Once a song was denied airplay on SABC,  ‘Avoid’ was marked alongside the song title on the album sleeve. On many occasions a sharp object was used to actually scratch the vinyl so that it was physically impossible for a deejay to play a particular song. The SABC’s relentless attack on the freedom of musicians obscured the degree to which the government was censoring music given that the general public was unaware of the extent to which radio play was controlled in this manner, while very little was being directly banned by the Directorate. The attitude of the SABC is aptly captured in a Sunday Times article (on 11 June 1989) which reported that “…an SABC records committee member, Mr Roelf Jacobs, denied that the SABC ‘banned’ songs. ‘We just don’t play them’ he said.” SABC Television followed a similar line to the radio stations in terms of censoring the very little music coverage that was provided.

Apart from the SABC radio stations, two independent stations operated within South Africa. Capital Radio and Radio 702 (the former launched in 1979 and the latter in 1980) were the official commercial music radio stations of two of South Africa’s ‘independent homelands’, Transkei and Bophutatswana respectively. Although not strictly bound by South African government legislation (given that the SA government had granted the homelands ‘independence’) these radio stations were cautious about broadcasting overtly anti-apartheid music but did not carry out the sort of internal censorship practised by the SABC. Consequently groups like Juluka and Via Afrika who were not played on SABC (in the early 1980s in particular) were played on Capital – the more liberal of the two independents.

Record companies

The SABC’s stance put pressure on record companies and they in turn on musicians, to practice self-censorship in order to receive airplay. As a result, record companies often made changes to songs. For example the EMI International Label Manager wrote a letter to the supervisor of the SABC record library about a song which had not been passed by the committee:

“Due to problems arising from certain sections of the lyric content of this song, we have received a re-mixed and edited version of which I enclose a cassette dubbing plus revised lyrics. This is to confirm that no further copies of the original version are available or will be pressed and distributed by this Company, and that this will be the only version available for Radio play and Retail Sale in South Africa.”

In a similar dismissal of artistic integrity, when the Directorate banned Peter Tosh’s Equal Rights album because of the song ‘Apartheid’, CBS re-released the album without the banned track on it. ‘Offensive’ songs were regularly left off albums, which were then sold without the songs(s), in question.

Although independent record companies such as Shifty Records and Third Ear Music were progressive in their anti-apartheid stance, they nevertheless very occasionally practised self-censorship. In 1983 Shifty toned down the lyrics of Bernoldus Niemand’s satirical “Hou my vas Korporaal” (Hold me tightly, Corporal) in an unsuccessful attempt to achieve radio play. In 1979 Third Ear Music toned down Roger Lucey’s The Road is Much Longer album in order to avoid serious legal consequences. Third Ear were warned by their lawyers before the release of the album that certain lyrics could lead to severe prison sentences for those involved. These lyrics were left out but the album nevertheless contained four hard-hitting songs and the Directorate banned the album for possession..


Musicians often avoided political messages altogether in order to receive airplay. For example Joseph Shabalala, leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, explained that: “We keep the radio in mind when we compose. If something is contentious they don’t play it, and then it wouldn’t be known anyway.”  Other musicians wrote figuratively about the South African situation, expressing their convictions through symbols and innuendoes. An example of this is Steve Kekana’s song “The Bushman” released in 1982, about a Bushman who taught himself to shoot with a bow and arrow. This fitted in well with apartheid notions of blacks as primitive and was consequently played on SABC. However, Kekana explains that: “In my mind I didn’t really think of a real Bushman, I was thinking of the guerrillas.” Kekana’s lyrics were therefore open to radical interpretation. But as can be seen, the symbolism had to be very vague in order to receive airplay on SABC.