Songs of Struggle: Music and the Anti-Apartheid Movement of South Africa

“They used to clap hands. They’d think we made nice music ... ‘Oh, these blacks can sing so nice!’ and they'd clap their hands and we'd sing: ‘We will shoot you, we will kill you … (laughter) ... be careful what you say. ... You’re going to die, slowly … (laughter)... be careful what you say, what you do.'” - Sophie Mgcina, South African vocalist and actress, recalling the irony of singing protest songs in African languages in the face of white troops. From Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony

Music is dangerous. While often focused on love, loss, and personal struggle, songs can also be loaded with subversive messages and charged with rhythms that move people to rise up and fight.

Among the many social and political movements that have used song to give voice, cohesion, and power to its people, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa utilized music in a particularly powerful way. Some songs resonated internationally among exiled South African artists, while others were played in secret among the rebellious, youthful white communities. Music was everywhere. 

Most powerfully though was the music that emerged from within the communities of black South Africans weighed down by the heavy blanket of apartheid. This group maintained, by far, the most unique and sophisticated musical styles, which allowed them to organize their community on a deep and poetic level. 


South Africa and Apartheid

The social history of contemporary South Africa is complex, and the relationship between natives (i.e. descendants of innumerable African tribal and language groups) and whites (i.e. descendants of European immigrants who arrived in various waves starting in 1488) has historically been imbalanced and exploitative.

Translated from the Afrikaans as, literally, "the state of being apart," apartheid was a system of racial segregation enforced by the South African government for 46 years (1948-1994), under which the rights, associations, and movements of the majority black inhabitants were curtailed, while Afrikaner (white) minority rule was maintained.

The rise of apartheid is often attributed to the combination of two primary factors: the 20th century development of South African capitalism (with its strong reliance on cheap labor), and the country's strong history of racial prejudices and policies imposed by Dutch and British settlers. 



Undoubtedly, another major influence on the development of apartheid was the discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1886), which quickly transformed South Africa from an agrarian society at the edge of the world economy into a globally integrated industrial economy. 

The mining revolution quickly pushed European colonization into the interior of the country and, by the end of the 19th century, indigenous peoples of South Africa had lost all political and economic independence. In addition, new (racist) laws enabled the white-owned mining companies to control workers' lives, keep wages very low, and gain immense profits from the diamonds and gold.

MBW Gold miners Soth Africa 1950.jpg

Many men worked in the mines and farms under dangerous conditions and most were migrant laborers, spending nine to eleven months out of the year in the mines while their wives and children remained in the countryside. Since wages were kept so low and there were little to no other options for work, these men would often return home without sufficient wages to feed and clothe their families, with some even returning to find their wives remarried and their families torn apart.

In addition to these severely limited opportunities, apartheid laws forcibly uprooted 3.5 million non-white South Africans from their homes and moved them into segregated neighborhoods as part of one of the largest mass removals in modern history. The government also segregated education, medical care, beaches, and other public services, and provided black people with services that were inferior to those of white people.



The sound of Resistance 

During the course of the regime, the anti-apartheid resistance movements evolved and changed shape—from loosely organized unions of non-violent protestors, to powerful and armed coalitions. Throughout it all, music was there. More than any kind of performance, it was the communal act of singing that served as essential fuel for the movement and helped heal emotional wounds, shed light on the injustices of apartheid, and keep the people's spirits high. 

During the early years of Apartheid, the songs arising from within the black community were pointedly critical of the regime and expressed overt political protest. One of the many prominent musical and political leaders at this time was Vuyisile Mini, who is recognized for writing some of the most influential songs of the early resistance period. As a gifted actor, dancer, poet and singer, he is remembered both for the songs he composed as well as his powerful bass voice.


One of the most popular liberation songs he wrote in the 1950s was entitled Ndodemnyama (Beware, Verwoerd) and it carried a fierce message to Hendrik Verwoerd, then Prime Minster and the so-called "Architect of Apartheid": 

"Look out, Verwoerd, the black man is going to get you.
Look out, Verwoerd, the people have taken up the song."

As expected, overt protest and popular uprisings were met with violent repression from the government, which quickly banned all forms of opposition and imprisoned numerous anti-apartheid leaders: 

"The political climate of South Africa soon changed with the general intensification of apartheid and increasing repression of political dissent. The Sharpeville massacre on 21st March 1960, where sixty‐nine unarmed protesters against the pass laws were shot and many more wounded, represents the beginning of the era of repression which stunted all political development among black South Africans in the 60s." (Schumann, "The Beat that Beat Apartheid")

In 1963, Mini was arrested and charged with 17 counts of sabotage and political crimes, including complicity in the death of an alleged police informer. For this, he was sentenced to death. While it would have been unthinkable for him to resist his execution physically, it is widely known that Mini went to the gallows singing many powerful protest songs. A prisoner serving time in Pretoria prison at the time of Mini's execution recalls his last moments:

“The last evening was devastatingly sad as the heroic occupants of the death cells communicated to the prison in gentle melancholy song that their end was near... It was late at night when the singing ceased, and the prison fell into uneasy silence. I was already awake when the singing began again in the early morning. Once again the excruciatingly beautiful music floated through the barred windows, echoing round the brick exercise yard, losing itself in the vast prison yards.

And then, unexpectedly, the voice of Vuyisile Mini came roaring down the hushed passages. Evidently standing on a stool, with his face reaching up to a barred vent in his cell, his unmistakable bass voice was enunciating his final message in Xhosa to the world he was leaving. In a voice charged with emotion but stubbornly defiant he spoke of the struggle waged by the African National Congress and of his absolute conviction of the victory to come. ... Soon after, I heard the door of their cell being opened. Murmuring voices reached my straining ears, and then the three martyrs broke into a final poignant melody which seemed to fill the whole prison with sound and then gradually faded away into the distant depths of the condemned section." (from the South African History Online)

Mini's execution was the first of many tragic and abrupt shocks to South Africa's vibrant creative scene during the 1960s. The removal of the country's creative seat—Sophiatown—was a huge blow and triggered the exile of many prominent artists and musicians, including Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Abdullah Ibrahim, among other. 

Combined with the consistent and widespread imprisonment of resistance leaders, these shocks also inspired songs of mourning. One particularly beautiful song from the early years is Nongqongqo ("To Those We Love"). While Miriam Makeba's 1966 recording propelled the song into popularity, the following clip from the 1973 film A Warm December spotlights a young singer—Letta Mbulu—whose voice carries incredible emotion as she laments the imprisonment and torture of many powerful black freedom fighters (lyrics below): 

Nongqongqo (To Those We Love) 

Bahleli bonke etilongweni (They are together in prison)
Bahleli bonke kwa Nongqongqo (They are together at Nongqongqo*)

Hee, hee, hee, Halala (Oh, oh, oh, oh)

Nanku Nanku, Nanku uSobukhwe (Here he is, here he is, here is Sobukwe**)
Nanku, nanku etilongweni (Here he is, here he is, in prison)

Hee bawo Lutuli (Oh, father Lutuli**)
Hayi uzotheni, uzotheni (What have you done? What is your sin?)

Nanko Nanko Nanko uMandela (Here he is, here he is, here is Mandela**)
Nanku, nanku etilongweni (Here he is, here he is, in prison)

Nanko Nanko Nanko uSisulu (Here he is, here he is, here is Sisulu**)
Nanku, nanku etilongweni (Here he is, here he is, in prison)

Yini wema-Afrika? (What is wrong with us, Africans?)
Hayi uzotheni, uzotheni (What have we done? What is our sin?)

Bahleli bonke etilongweni (They are sitting together in prison)
Bahleli bonke kwa Nongqongqo (They are sitting together at Nongqongqo)

* Nongqongqo is the name of a prison in East London, South Africa.
** The names of popular political leaders of the resistance movement:


Soweto, militarization, and Toyi-toyi

In 1974, the apartheid regime passed the Afrikaans Medium Decree, which deemed Afrikaans the only language to be used for upper level mathematics, arithmetic, and social studies in both black and white public schools, with English relegated to instruction in general science and practical subjects (e.g. home economics, needlework, woodwork, metalwork, art, agricultural science).

This was a strong symbolic and practical act of oppression since black South Africans had long preferred English over Afrikaans, which was widely viewed as "the language of the oppressor." English had gained so much prominence that it had become that language most often used in commerce and industry and this change was intended to forcibly reverse the decline of Afrikaans among black Africans. It also required black students to refocus their time and energy on understanding a language they were less familiar with instead of subject material, imposing additional challenges to their learning process.

In response, on June 16, 1976, between 3,000 and 10,000 students in the Soweto township mobilized and marched peacefully to demonstrate and protest against the government’s directive. On their way to a nearby stadium, the students were met by heavily armed police who fired tear gas and live ammunition, killing many and wounding thousands. This initial clash resulted in a widespread revolt and developed into an uprising that spread across the country and carried on until the following year. 

After the Soweto uprising, it became clear that the South African government was not interested in dialogue and thousands of youth left South Africa to join growing underground armies in nearby countries. When they returned, they brought both technical skills to organize and fight, as well as a new sound:

“The strategy became to train the people from within, people living in the cities and townships, who are already fighting. And with that, came the militarization of songs. You saw an army of South Africans with grenades, mackerels, AK47s, and that’s reflected a lot in the songs because the songs had to articulate a new urgency and a new direction. ... The songs were now of people in a war situation ... and those songs started beginning to take on those overtones. Just changing a word here, changing a word there. Putting an 'AK' here, taking out a 'bible' there.” - from Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony

One particularly powerful form of revolutionary music picked up abroad during military training (most likely coming from Zimbabwe) was the toyi-toyi. With its charging, uptempo rhythms and aggressive sound, toyi-toyi quickly became commonplace in massive street demonstrations.

“You can’t beat these people physically, but you can scare the shit out of them with the songs.” - Hugh Masekela, from the film Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony

“You can’t beat these people physically, but you can scare the shit out of them with the songs.” - Hugh Masekela, from the film Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony

And when the police replaced rubber bullets with machine guns, it helped instill fear in the enemy. A former police chief corroborates:  

“You can’t go into a situation like this with batons, because people could get killed. You have to have heavy weapons. … And if you send them into a situation with 100,000 screaming, singing, dangerous, weapon-waving crowd approaching you, you’ve got to stand. You can’t fall back, you have to stand. You have to make a stand. Even for the older guy—most of them won’t admit itbut I can assure you that a lot of the older guys they were also frightened stiff." - from Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony

Below is a clip from the Lalela Cape Town Choir singing a selection of famous toyi-toyi songs: 

And while the increased militarization of the movement and music in the 1970s was a necessary shift in the fight for freedom, many citizens and leaders had their doubts about whether they would be able to overcome the oppressive regime and violence: 

“This country was going somewhere. You didn’t know where, but—damn—this country was going somewhere, and not all of us were convinced that it was toward liberation. We were like, the whites are going to wake up one day and shoot everyone dead because of what was happening. … it was like our young people were running straight into the sea at high speed.” - Duma Ka Ndlovu, from Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony

By the 1980s however, the combined internal resistance and international sanctions placed on South Africa by the international community—including exiled artists Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela—made it increasingly difficult for the government to maintain the regime. In particular, from 1984 to 1989 the country was in a near a state of emergency, with townships in an almost constant state of revolt. By 1990, then President, Frederik Willem de Klerk, began negotiations to end apartheid.  


The end of Apartheid 

With Mandela's release from prison in early 1990, the country began a long and arduous healing process, including major political reconfigurations and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Police watch an ANC rally while children taunt them by toyi-toying on the other side of the fence. Johannesburg. 1991. (Photo credit Graeme Williams, in his series  The Struggle for Democracy – 1989 to 1994 )

Police watch an ANC rally while children taunt them by toyi-toying on the other side of the fence. Johannesburg. 1991. (Photo credit Graeme Williams, in his series The Struggle for Democracy – 1989 to 1994)

Similarly, artists and communities had to carry out their own processes of remembering and documenting the musical traditions of the revolution since nearly "every phase of our struggle had its own kind of songs, and all the songs were composed to fit in to a particular phase of the struggle ... it’d be really, really difficult to know how many songs could have been composed." 

Thankfully, in the nine-year process of creating the film Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony—which includes many songs that were banned by the apartheid government—the director and producer were able to compile hundreds of hours of songs that they subsequently donated to the South African national archives to preserve this part of the country’s cultural history. 


Additional Resources



  • Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony - Interviews, archival footage, and filmed performances highlight the role of music in the South African struggle against apartheid.

  • Mama Africa - powerful biopic about the life and music of Miriam Makeba

  • Come Back, Africa - a film about the life of Zachariah, a black South African living under the rule of the harsh apartheid government in 1959 (with special appearance by a young Miriam Makeba). 

  • Cry Freedom - a film about South African journalist Donald Woods, who is forced to flee the country after attempting to investigate the death in custody of his friend, activist Steve Biko.

  • Sarafina - a film about a group of South African teenagers and their fight against apartheid during the Soweto Uprising

  • Searching for Sugar Man - a documentary about two white South Africans who set out to discover what happened to their unlikely musical hero, the mysterious 1970s rock 'n' roller, Rodriguez, who helped inspire revolutionary ideas among white youth under apartheid.