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The Influence of Music on the Anti-Apartheid Movement
Vanya M. /  Thu, 17 Feb 2022


“The power of music rests in its ability to reach inside and touch the places where the deepest cuts lie. Like a benevolent god, a good song will never let you down.” When Tiffanie DeBartolo stated this in her book, How To Kill A Rock Star, she did it through a fictional musician who uses music to express his pain. While she wrote it for a fictional character, it touched the hearts of countless readers who resonated with the truth it holds. Music, at its core, expresses and evokes emotion. It has the power to make a person feel pain, happiness, and anger, and musicians who understand its capacity can use music to control which feelings they evoke. Throughout history, we have seen the influence of music on emotions on a large scale. Whether it is a coping tool within oppressed groups, a form of manipulation by a corrupt system, or a way for groups with similar ideas to connect and express themselves, music has, time and time again, helped move social and political movements. In this research report, I will look at how music impacted the socio-political changes during the apartheid era in South Africa. More specifically, I aim to understand if and how groups may use music as a tool of resistance, empowerment, and expression. I will consider whether the genre of music affects its ability to reach its intended goal, the patterns of which genres and styles show up within specific circumstances, and how influential music is, really, in driving tremendous social and political change.

Review of Literature

The apartheid era, which refers to the legislation that enforced segregationist policies against non-white citizens in South Africa, lasted from 1948 to 1994 ( Editors). Racial segregation was present in South African policy long before apartheid, and in 1912, black activists founded the African National Congress (ANC). Its anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” is one of the most prominent early examples of resistance music to South Africa’s racist policies. When the Afrikaner National Party won the election in 1948 under the slogan “apartheid” — meaning “apartness” — their goal was to elevate and separate the white minority population from the non-white majority population. During this legislation, the party legalized countless racist policies. Some included banning interracial marriage and sex, establishing separate public facilities, and creating a series of Land Acts that required non-white citizens to carry documents proving their racial identity and authorizing their presence in certain areas. Vuyisile Mini, a unionist of ANC, wrote politically charged music against these laws and encouraged other artists to do the same. As an activist who continued to object openly to apartheid legislation, police arrested him in 1963 for political crimes and sentenced him to death. In 1954, the apartheid government assembled The Natives Resettlement Act, which allowed them to force millions of black South Africans out of their homes and into racially segregated neighbourhoods (“The Natives Resettlement Act.”).

Racial Concentrations and Homelands From 1970 Census (South Africa Maps — Perry-Castañeda Map Collection)

In 1955, Sophiatown — a center for South African jazz — was destroyed to relocate its 60,000 habitants to the Meadowlands. This event triggered the release of songs like “Meadowlands” by Strike Vilakezi, “Bye Bye Sophiatown” by the Sun Valley Sisters, and “Sophiatown is Gone” by Miriam Makeba. Nicknamed “Mama Africa,” Makeba was an outspoken civil rights activist and musician. In response to criticism she received for her unambiguous writing style in 1985, she said: “People say I sing politics, but what I sing is not politics, it is the truth. I’m going to go on singing, telling the truth.” (Ewens) Starting in 1953, the South African Communist party used music for anti-apartheid fundraising dances and chanted “Udumo Lwamaphoyisa” — meaning “A Strong Police Force” — to warn protesters of incoming police officers and liquor raids.

Miriam Makeba performing at the Africa Festival in Delft, the Netherlands in 1990 (Mkhondo)

As the government imposed harsher punishments against growing protests, the protests themselves became more aggressive. In 1961, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu founded uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), a militant wing of the ANC. Popular songs among the MK training camps included “Sobashiya Abazali” and the Toyi-Toyi chant, which fighters used to intimidate government troops (Vershbow). These circumstances led to the aggravation of apartheid’s stringent laws and punishments. The South African government banned the ANC and tried 169 black leaders for treason. Many musicians, including Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, went into exile in fear of prosecution. Those who stayed dealt with the censorship of subversive music and the limits on recreational activities in black settlements. The feeling of isolation in black settlements prompted black musicians to write about the injustices in their communities and create adaptations of popular genres, like rock, soul, and jazz (Nyairo). In 1968, Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi wrote Yakhal’ Inkomo, an album that expressed the political spirit of the time and played a defining part in the country’s jazz history and development (Hawkins). The 1960s also marked the start of a worldwide anti-apartheid movement campaign. In 1968, the United Nations urged its members to participate in a cultural boycott, inducing a plethora of musicians from other countries to stop performing in South Africa, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Walker Brothers.

In the 1970s, members of the ANC put more of their focus on cultural displays to bring global awareness to the horrors of apartheid and encourage support for the anti-apartheid movement. They formed the Mayibuye Cultural Ensemble in 1975, which performed songs and poems about the apartheid rule more than 200 times across Europe. In 1976, the government’s decision to implement schools with the Afrikaans language set off a series of protests called the Soweto Uprising. About 20,000 high school students participated, and they encountered severe police brutality and violence, leaving 4,000 children injured and at least 176 dead. The massacre sparked an uproar of protests and rioting in Soweto for several months. It inspired Hugh Masekela’s “Soweto Blues,” performed by Miriam Makeba, and Sonny Okosun’s “Fire in Soweto” (Roberts). Artists also filled songs with hidden meanings to avoid censorship. Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Mannenberg” had no words but incorporated aspects of black South African culture — like church music, jazz, marabi, and blues — and even had melodies from freedom songs during improvisations.

Three years after Stephen Biko, the founder of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement, died in police custody in 1977, Peter Gabriel wrote the song “Biko,” which gained international attention on the brutal crimes committed by apartheid’s law enforcement (Roberts). Powerful countries pressured the apartheid government, and musicians became more direct with their messages. In 1985, Stevie Wonder released “It’s Wrong,” which became a global success. The American Group Artists United Against Apartheid released “Sun City” to boycott Sun City, a whites-only resort. Several artists refused to perform in the area, including Bruce Springsteen, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and Cher (Mkhabela). In 1985, the government declared a state of emergency. In 1987, the multiracial band Savuka suffered repeated arrests and concert raids as they performed their song “Asimbonanga,” explicitly dedicated to anti-apartheid activists (Lynskey). One of the most popular anti-apartheid songs, “Bring Him Back Home (Mandela)” by Hugh Masekela, was released in 1987 on his album Tomorrow. Mandela was released in 1990 and went on a post-freedom tour of North America. Emery King, a reporter at the Boston convention, recalled that when Mandela finished his remarks, Masekela’s song was played “and Mandela broke into this very cool dance with one clenched fist in the air and all the joy of the world on his face” (Spratling). Finally, 1994 marked the end of the apartheid era, although its lingering effects on the South African population are everlasting.

Nelson Mandela in Boston 1990 (Handy)

Discussion and Interpretation

Upon finishing my research, I recognized a few relations between music and the events during the apartheid era. Music within the anti-apartheid movement would be gloomier during periods of grief and more aggressive during periods of demand and anger. For example, after the government destroyed Sophiatown, Miriam Makeba came out with “Sophiatown is Gone,” beginning with “The birds are gone / The streets look sad and dry / Old Sophia is gone.” The Soweto massacre triggered mournful songs like “Soweto Blues” and “Fire In Soweto,” which featured lyrics like “They are killing our children / Without any publicity,” and “Fire in Soweto / Burning all my people.” Songs that came out in periods of anger include “Biko,” which ends with the ominous line “And the eyes of the world are / Watching now,” and “Bring Him Back Home,” which demands the government to “Bring back Nelson Mandela / Bring him back home to Soweto.” Music could also be used as a tool to instill cultural pride, as it was for AMC’s anthem “Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica” and Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Mannenberg,” which incorporated black South African music and freedom songs. When MK troops used “Sobashiya Abazali,” — meaning “We Will Leave Our Parents” — to instill military pride, as the reminder of losing their families would inflict feelings of pain and anger and prepare them to fight. They also weaponized music, chanting “Toyi-Toyi” to intimidate government troops.

“Forward To Freedom” poster created by the ANC. (Frederikse)

The government’s recurring pursuit of removing song and culture from its black population also highlighted music’s relentless ability to drive social movements and beliefs. Despite their attempts to censor subversive music, isolate musicians, and limit recreational activities, groups would still adapt to connect through music. It is interesting to note the link between the censorship level and the type of music within black settlements. While the music was easily accessible, well-known songs unified people across the country. However, while the music and musicians were isolated, it led to the local alteration of many genres and lyrics, which were shared through word of mouth and changed so frequently that their ownership would become collective. Music’s ability to manipulate emotions was unwavering, which was made clear with its success in gaining international attention. When Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” became a global phenomenon, it captured the attention of worldwide musicians by evoking empathy, and it encouraged them to show their support of the anti-apartheid movement through song and cultural boycotting. In my research, I noticed that while South African music avoided mentioning politics and focused on the authentic emotions of the victims of apartheid, resistance music in the rest of the world, where there was little to no fear of punishment, was directly critical of the apartheid government.

A possible error factor could be that I only analyzed individual songs and failed to look at large consensus and data — perhaps a conclusion I drew from one example makes sense but does not align with the majority of songs. Another potential issue is that many of these songs were not originally in English, which risks their authentic meaning being lost in translation. Lastly, despite the connections I discovered between music and socio-political change, I did not dive into how music hacks into the brain and plays on emotions to make people act a certain way. So, while some connections are direct cause and consequence, others may be more indirect or simply coincidences. For further inquiry, it would have been beneficial to analyze data about music genres and their demographics. I could have also included psychological reasoning behind why certain music can have this drastic effect on a group and whether other non-musicals factors affect the research’s results. It would be interesting to dive deeper into how the government used music to dissipate the anti-apartheid movement and spread pro-apartheid propaganda. Finally, it would be valuable to draw parallels between other socio-political movements in the 20th century and note any repeating trends for the relationship between events and the influence of music.


All in all, through analysis of popular music in the apartheid era, I saw the impact music had on the events of the anti-apartheid movement. I concluded that music’s tendency to play on a person’s emotions played a vital role in creating a sense of cultural pride within black settlements in South Africa, fueling a desire to resist the government’s racist policies. Music also contributed to spreading global awareness and putting pressure on the government to end its legislation. We have seen the power of music in past socio-political events, and we will inevitably see it in the future. Shortcomings of my paper include the lack of depth in looking at various genres of music, how they affect people emotionally, and why it makes them act the way they do. While I fail to explain the science behind the trends I observed, those trends are undeniably there. As much as humankind tries to understand why music affects us on such a fundamental level, we can at least find comfort in the truth that it does.


In the 1950s, as part of a campaign against the legislation that required non-white citizens of South Africa to carry documents proving their racial status, several black women released protest songs. One of them includes “uDr. Malan Unomthetho Onzima’’ by Dorothy Masuka.

On March 21, 1960, 7,000 protesters gathered in front of Sharpeville police stations. Law enforcement began shooting at the crowd, injuring 180 people and killing 69. The only photographer who documented the Sharpeville massacre was Ian Berry (Havlin). This massacre was a brutal display of how merciless government law enforcement will be and several artists went into exile shortly after, including Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Jonas Gwangwa, Chris McGregor, and Kippie Moeketsie. Some photos included:

The Sharpville Massacre photos taken by Ian Berry (Halvin)

When large gatherings in black settlements were banned and recreational activities were limited, the South African Broadcasting Corporation made its guidelines more strict, which prevented any subversive music from airing.

When Dorothy Masuka released her recording about the killing of African nationalist Patrice Lumumba, her studio was raided and the government declared her a wanted person, which drove her out of South Africa for the following 30 years.

In an interview with Ngozi, where he was asked about the meaning behind the title “Yakhal’ Inkomo,” — meaning “The Bellowing Bull” — he responded: “It’s easy to imagine loneliness and pain in exile. But we often do not think the same about the musicians that get left behind, not having people to play with. [...] This lonely bull in the kraal [...] doesn’t really have company, like in the case of Mankunku in terms of musicianship.” (Hawkins)

Hugh Masekela wrote “Bring Him Back Home” after Mandela, who was a fan of Masekela, sent a letter out from jail to him for his birthday, wishing him luck on his recordings and other encouraging messages (Greenwald).

Stevie Wonder was an active supporter of the anti-apartheid movement, and he was arrested during an anti-apartheid protest in Washington D.C. He dedicated his Oscar for “I Just Called To Say I Love You” to Nelson Mandela (Roberts).

A few songs that had a significant impact on the anti-apartheid movement that were not mentioned include Youssou N’Dour’s “Mandela” (1986), Brenda Fassie’s “My Black President” (1989), and Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse’s “Nelson Mandela” (1994).

In 2021, the five most-streamed artists in South Africa were Drake, Juice WRLD, Justin Bieber, Kanye West, and The Weeknd. The most-streamed South African artists were DJ Maphorisa, Kabza De Small, Busta 929, De Mthuda, and MrJazziQ, all of whom are black musicians.