The Music of South Africa

South Africa is famed for its cultural vitality and musical richness. In the countryside, music remains a largely participatory and integral part of everyday cultural life and, in the townships and the modern cities, these deep-rooted traditions have given birth to a wide variety of popular music styles that proliferate across the country, in the global South African diaspora and in centres of ‘World Music’ around the world. The songs of South Africa are renowned for the profound social and political role they played in the struggle against Apartheid rule. South African music was also amongst the core powerhouses that fuelled the development of the ‘World Music’ movement in the 1980s and its musics continue to hold symbolic currency in the representation of ‘Africa’ in the global imagination today.

Country Profile

The Republic of South Africa is the southernmost country on the African continent and has a population of more than 55 million. It is a multiethnic and multicultural society, made up of diverse African groupings including Nguni (Swazi, Xhosa, Zulu), Sotho, Tsonga, Tswana and Venda lineages, a white minority of European descent and an Asian minority from India and the Malay Peninsula. As such, it is also multilingual, with 11 official languages including English, a variety of Bantu languages and Afrikaans, which developed primarily through the mixing of Dutch and indigenous languages. It has a highly varied topography including coastal plains, mountains, grasslands and deserts. Though rich in minerals and subtropical agricultural land, it is a predominantly urban society, with an urban population of around 65%, but, like many countries across the African continent, its rate of urbanisation has slowed in recent years (to around 1.5%) and so its rural populations are relatively stable.

Cultural History

The earliest traces of South African cultural history can be found in the form of artefacts of the indigenous San, hunter-gatherers in the northern desert region, and Khoekhoe, herders and farmers in the southern Cape (c. 40,000-500 BCE; possibly the oldest modern humans in evolutionary history). Cave paintings in the Drakensberg Mountains from these times are thought to be mainly the work of shamans responsible for the physical and spiritual wellbeing of hunting bands and even include depictions of trance dances and ceremonies. Nomadic pastoralism, Arab trade, warring kingdoms and interethnic conflicts took hold in many parts of the African continent (1stC-15thC CE) and, as itinerant migrants and refugees from Northern and Eastern Africa journeyed south, South Africa diversified and Bantu speakers became the dominant linguistic assemblage in the region. During the rise of European colonialism, Dutch, Portuguese and British traders vied for control of the sea route around Africa’s southern cape (late 15th-16thC) for its propensity for trading with the East and for transporting slaves. The Dutch East India Company prevailed, colonising the region as Cape Colony (1652), setting up urban trading centres with huge numbers of slaves imported from other parts of Africa and from India and Southeast Asia (incl. the ‘Cape Malays’, who were predominantly Muslim slaves brought over from the Dutch East Indies). While the native Khoekhoe and San were not enslaved, they were decimated by smallpox or subjugated into serfdom on colonial farms.

At the turn of the 19thC, Britain seized Cape Colony during the Napoleonic Wars and, under British rule, South African demographics and culture changed radically. English became the chief language in the colony, immigration of European settlers and traders to the region increased dramatically and Nguni lands were appropriated, repressing diversity in the colony itself. The British colonists did abolish slavery in Cape Colony in 1834 but most free citizens of indigenous and mixed descent were then exiled beyond its borders. Nevertheless, exiles set up their own rival states, reinvigorating their indigenous cultural traditions, especially those relating to war and conflict. The Sotho and Zulu states, led by Moshoeshoe and Shaka respectively, became particularly formidable forces, with the fearsome amabutho (military regiments) fending off advances from the Boers and the British for decades, and even becoming players in the ivory and slave trade. The Boers, as Dutch nomadic pastoralists who did not identify with the coastal urban centres, moved north in ‘the Great Trek’ to establish their own communities in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The region remained in continual flux during this period because of shifting supremacies and constant raiding and conflict among the different indigenous states themselves and also between the states, the Boers and the European colonialists. On discovering diamonds and gold in the Kimberly area of the Witwatersrand between the high veldt and the Kalahari desert (late 19thC), the British industrialised the colony, initiating new patterns of black labour migrancy, and annexed neighbouring territories, defeating Zulu and Boer rivals in decisive conflicts and establishing the Union of South Africa, a self-governing dominion within the British Empire, in 1910.

The founding of the new state was the dawn of what would become the most repressive system of racial segregation in modern history. Native populations were forcibly ‘retribalised’, restricted to living in ‘homelands’, and black (77%), mixed race (9%) and Asian (3%) populations were denied constitutional equality and forced to work in separate spheres from white (11%) citizens.

The ANC (African National Congress) was founded in 1923 to challenge these conditions but it made little progress and, when the mainstream United Party lost power to the white supremacist National Party in 1948, apartheid (‘separateness’) enshrined the status quo in official policy. The ANC galvanised dedicated resistance to apartheid, buoyed up by its resolute lawyer-cum-politician Nelson Mandela, but its leader- and membership became victims of harassment, imprisonment, brutality and even execution, and ultimately the organisation was unable to thwart the rapacious tide of racial segregation, authoritarian suppression and cultural censorship unleashed by the regime over this period of ‘long apartheid’ (‘long’ pertaining to the cumulative escalation of separateness policies). This intensification of black marginalisation gave rise to appalling living conditions in the ‘homelands’, in the sprawling slum ‘townships’ (e.g. Soweto) that ascended on the outskirts of major cities and in the urban ghettos that developed around black workplaces in the cities themselves.

Following British criticism of apartheid, South Africa withdrew from the British Commonwealth and became an independent republic in 1961. The ANC fostered resistance to apartheid, especially amongst young people and through alliances with sympathetic white, mixed race and Indian organisations, and the PAC (Pan-Africanist Congress) galvanised a black liberation movement. They organised non-violent protests and mass strikes and demonstrations, as well as direct, sometimes violent, action through the Umkhonto we Sizwe(‘Spear of the Nation’), the military wing of the ANC. State repression, which included imprisonment, exile, executions and outbursts of violent brutality (notably the Sharpeville Massacre (1960) and the Soweto Massacre (1976)), became a matter of international attention, and sanctions were imposed against South Africa, including an economic and cultural boycott.  The ANC eventually prevailed: in 1990, the new Prime Minister De Klerk announced the repeal of apartheidlaws and authoritarian measures and, working with the ANC and its president Nelson Mandela, he agreed to release political prisoners and allow black exiles to return to South Africa. In the country’s first representative democratic election (1994), the ANC won a landslide victory, propelling Nelson Mandela to President.

Since then, reconciliation and amnesty have been the political consensus in South Africa and, despite outbursts of violence from both black and white radicals and civil unrest due to persistent economic inequalities along racial lines, it has been reborn from the darkness of apartheid as a cohesive, open and multicultural country.

Music Culture

From Roots to Rebellion

The story of traditional music in South Africa is characterised by multiplicity: both in the cultural diversity of its indigenous song and dance traditions and in the transformation of these rooted traditions into new syncretic traditional/popular music forms, novel in both musical style and in social purpose. Music has regularly served as a tool for social comment and political opposition in history all over the world, but in few contexts has it been harnessed so potently as a vehicle for cultural resistance and social rebellion and so powerfully as a force for radical socio-political change as in the struggle against Apartheid. This remarkable journey from roots to rebellion is important not only in understanding the history of traditional music in South Africa but also in appreciating its current musical output, as this legacy remains at the heart of musical practice across the country today.

Roots: Indigenous Traditions

The region that encompasses modern-day South Africa has been linguistically and culturally diverse for centuries. Nomadic pastoralists established the main ethnic lineages (Nguni, Sotho, Tswana, Tsongaand Venda) which each have their own distinct cultural customs and traditional musics that are themselves highly varied. Moreover, there has long been a great deal of exchange between them (a customary Ngunigreeting to those arriving from trading with other groups roughly translates as ‘Good to see you, have you learnt any new songs or dances?’). An important commonality amongst these oral traditions is the dominance of song and the use of songs to accompany dance (in Nguni, ingoma (‘dance-songs’)), as opposed to instrumental music and drumming. It is worth stressing that many music and drumming traditions do of course exist, but the emphasis on song and on ‘dance songs’ somewhat sets it apart from other parts of the continent, and indeed from reified assumptions about ‘African music’ as pervasively drum-centric.

Although the Nguni, Sotho, Tsonga, Tswanaand Venda‘became’ the ‘indigenous’ traditions of South Africa, the native Sanand Khoekhoegroups also had their own particular cultural practices. However, with the near annihilation of these groups through European colonisation and the acculturation of the survivors, little is known of their traditional music or the specificities of its influence on other traditions.

Amongst the Nguni, the largest indigenous group in South Africa that includes the Swazi, Xhosaand Zulupeoples, song and dance were chiefly functional, with specific roles in everyday cultural and ceremonial life of the tribe. Work songs embodied the nature of the labour, in rhythmic responsorial collective trench-digging songs and wandering small group agricultural cattle-rearing songs, while, in recreational contexts, song and dance, often accompanied by flutes, musical bows (both mouth-resonated and gourd-resonated varieties) and rattles, acted as a means of self- and collective-expression (as opposed to entertainment). Historically, the use of drums in Nguni culture was minimal, though they were employed along with dance-songs for devotional purposes in the spirit ceremonies of ‘medicine men’. Although there was historically no ‘professional’ musicians despite the reverence for the talents of singers and dancers, the most important Zulu‘musician’ was the imbongi(praise-poet), who sang izibongo (recitative praise-poetry) for the chief and/or for the ancestral spirits in ceremonial contexts and also acted as an educator and a conduit for public opinion, with their song as the primary cultural means of social comment and critique.

Community ‘initiation’ dance-songs performed at rite-of-passage events to symbolise and regulate cultural norms: at circumcision ceremonies, solo dance-songs evidence the maturity of the new adult and group dance-songs welcome them into adulthood and envoice traditional values; at weddings,collective dance-songs symbolise the union of the two families, while solo dance-songs comprise a competitive practice between the rival families where talented individuals and small groups flaunt their skills to ‘win’ pride and prestige for their family.

The stunning incwala(Swazi) or umkhosi  (Zulu) is one of a number of spectacular harvest festivals in Nguniculture where the dramatic spectacle of mass collective devotional dance-songs serves as an embodiment of the power of the tribe, of solidarity of the tribe to the Ingwenyama(‘Lion’; priest-king) and of social hierarchies (as participants are organised according to social standing).

Stylistically, Ngunidance-songs mostly comprised a form of polyphonic singing accompanied by choreographed dance. The vocal polyphony, with at least two melodic lines, is rhythmically complex and involves intricate imitative interactions between the lines. Typically, each line has its own distinctive melodic motif, which each enter in succession, layering on top of the previous motif. The first line to enter is usually the chorus melody line, which often repeats ostinato throughout the song, while the other melodic lines offer their own statements of counterpoint and subsequently develop through variation, through imitation with and against the chorus melody and through improvisation (often featuring heavy syncopation). The melodic and rhythmic drive of the composition evolves embryonically in this way until the performers feel it has run its course, at which point there is a gradual return to the opening statements (no cadential resolution as no functional harmony), closing with the suspended starting notes of each line. Harmonically, there is significant diversity in the scalic systems of different Nguni groups, but generally ‘altered’ pentatonic and hexatonic scales are common (‘altered’ because, supposedly based on ancient Zulu scales distinct from the most common pentatonic scales around the world, they include ‘chromatic’ notes e.g. Ab-G-F-E-Db-C and so make use of major and minor 3rd/6ths, the precise intervals used make use of microtonality and ‘grainy’ vocal timbres that do not map clearly onto Western aesthetic temperament and because they are conceptualised as ‘descending’ scales, their melodic contours tend to fall and rise rather than rise and fall). The scales mean that melodic motions of falling and rising 4ths and 5ths are often fundamental to harmonic procedures. The number of singers varies from two singers to large choral collectives, and even a single singer can perform solo ‘polyphony’ by singing the chorus line followed by other melodic lines and then jumping between the chorus line for fundamental motions and imitative lines for counterpoint. Singing is always unaccompanied, though sometimes only by hand-clapping rhythms and/or rattles, but it often makes use of flutes and musical bows to double the chorus or to add their own individual melodic lines in the texture. The dancing that accompanies song is semiotic (i.e. where movements and gestures are meaning-laden and particular gestures express specific actions or emotions with a whole dance enacting something e.g. a marriage or a battle), and the song and dance are considered expressively symbiotic, so work in harmony to produce an overall impression.

Sotho, Tswana and Tsongadance-songs function in similar ways to those of the Nguni, but with some important distinctions. The emphasis on praise-song is even greater in Sotho culture, with almost all songs across society incorporating elements of recitative praise for celebrating lineages, for recounting historical and mythic stories and for educating and reinforcing norms, especially through the use of traditional idioms. For example, mohobelo dance-songs are explicitly men’s praise songs and women’s mokhibo dance-songs, whilst primarily recreational collective dances, include stylised praise singing and exultant ululations.

The texture of Sotho dance-songs is responsorial rather than polyphonic, with improvised calls from masters of extensive textual and vocal spontaneity and ostinato refrains from chorus, and includes prominent hand-clapping and foot-stamping, which serves as the basis of rhythmic accompaniment as well as choreography. The diphotha is a particularly striking embodiment of this in its symbiotic ‘step’ movements which feature synchronised rhythms and choreographies of claps, slaps, steps and stamps (later known, for its use of heavy boots for thunderous ‘step’ dances, as ‘gumboot’ dancing).

Tswanaand Tsonga dance-songs tend to be even more socially functional than those in the Sotho tradition. Both include elaborate work songs, drinking songs, cyclical seasonal dances and wedding and burial dance-songs. The Tswanahave distinctive all-night initiation ceremonies, featuring a whole host of dance-songs, nurtured by the moama (preparatory schools for initiation rituals) that teach children pinapalo(counting rhymes) and tshameko ya pina(singing games) and ready those on the verge of adulthood to performthalagae(processional dance-songs for boys) or radikgaratlane(virility dance-songs for girls) and thojane (ceremonial dance-songs that confirms readiness for marriage) at their own initiation. The dance-songs have similarities with those of the Sotho, and rhythm is similarly tied to bodily movement, but they make greater use of melodic instruments, including the reed-pipe, which is used for the kubina dithlaka (a reed-pipe ensemble and also a moonlight dance directed by polyrhythmic melodic improvisation on the reed-pipe), as well as musical bows and the moropa (a resonant round clay drum).

The Tsonga dance-songs are notably more dramatic in purpose than those of the Tswana, featuring tinsimu ta mintsheketo (dance-song drama) where dance-songs not only recount but actually re-enact folkloric tales. The music is less rhythmically complex but even more intricate in its responsorial singing, where calls and responses envoice the human and animal characters in the stories, often adapted with the purpose of articulating topical social comment and spiritual reflection. Another characteristic feature of the Tsonga tradition is the development of perhaps the only major ‘drumming’ tradition in the region (i.e. that its drumming is not simply an accompaniment for dance-song): the ncomana (small, hard hand-beaten drums) are used for the mancomana(exorcism ceremonies), where both men and women pound the drums all night to appease the ancestral spirits using complex polyrhythmic and interlocking rhythms that follow a fast, strict and driving metre, accompanied at points by devotional responsorial singing, and also in murhunduandtikhomba (boys and girls initiation ceremonies), where boys dance fierce war dances to driving polyrhythmicdrumming and where girls dance graceful synchronised dances to intricate interlocking patterns.

The music of the Venda, due to their isolated mountainous locale and their more insular language and customs, is markedly distinct from these other lineages. Song and dance have a place of primacy in Venda society, and are taught in school with equal intensity to language, literacy and numeracy. As a result, all members of Venda society have a remarkable aptitude for singing, rhythm and movement. Song is the centre of all ‘musical’ practice. There is no word for ‘music’ in Venda, firstly because it is so fundamentally embedded in society and secondly because all music, even instrumental performance, is considered as ‘nyimbo dza Vhavenda (‘Songs of the Venda people’); indeed, instruments are zwilidzo (‘things that cry/sing’). Song and dance are both highly responsorial, with a song-leader ‘planting’ a song and the chorus ‘thundering’ a response and with a dance-leader ‘showing’ steps and the chorus ‘pouring’ their steps after him. The singing revolves around pentatonic and heptatonic scales and the dancing is underpinned by percussive hand-clapping patterns, often supported by drumming and by melodic ostinato patterns on lamellophones (e.g. the mbila), which set the metre and create an interlocking rhythmic texture conceptualised as a liminal, and quasi-spiritual, ‘world of time’. Yet, there is an enormous variety of core indigenous dance-song genres: more than 70 (impressive bearing in mind many entire nations have around 3-5 core traditional dance genres on equivalent classifications of what constitutes a dance genre as both distinct and indigenous), which vary from responsorial collective events (as above) to solo virtuoso ecstatic spectacles, but aesthetic values of strength, vitality, virtuosity and precision are common.

Collective performance functions in the seasonal cycle, as in work songs (e.g. planting songs and harvesting songs) and ritual dance-songs (e.g. for circumcision and spirit possession). Zwilombe (semi-professional musicians) perform at social and ceremonial events ostensibly as a form of entertainment but also as a socially-accepted form of social critique, as their mastery of song, verse, dance and rhythm deems them worthy of oppositional opinion; Zwilombe would expressive personal opinion and envoice communal comment and, in return for beer, they could be solicited by leaders a political pawn for spreading criticisms and ridicule of rival chiefs. Yet, music also serves to enact tribal authority, as with tshikona(dance-songs performed to honour rulers at initiations) and mabepha (musical expeditions performed when Vendarulers send zwilombe to pay tribute to other chieftains by performing dance-songs for them).

Rebellion: Colonial Resistance & Anthems Against Apartheid

The subjugation of indigenous peoples by European imperialists initiated radical cultural transformations in the region. The white and ‘Cape Coloured’ (i.e. mixed race) musical practices included Boeremusiek (the European-derived Afrikaans folksongs and dance musics which had few discernable differences from their European sources except language), Christian religious musics (at first, Dutch Reformed church chorales and liederwysies (folksongs with religious texts) and, later, Anglican hymns and US evangelical gospel songs), European military band musics (French-style ‘cavalry bands’ under the Dutch and German/English-style regimental marching bands under the British and ghommaliedjdie (Euro-Afro-Islamic-Asiatic songs closely associated with the ‘Cape Malays’ which combined Afrikaans folksong, European instrumental harmonies and Arabic-style melismatic singing and percussive rhythms).  Within the confines of the colony, the traditional customs of black indigenous populations faced heavy suppression and those engaging with them suffered brutal persecution.

In response, black slaves in Cape Colony started to syncretise their traditional musics, fusing their vocalities, melodies and rhythms into Christian religious musics as a means of preserving them without harassment. Yet, the British expulsion of the vast majority of the black population and the resultant establishment of the rival exile states (e.g. Shaka’s Zululand and Moshoeshoe’s Sotholand) actually reinvigorated traditional customs and their musics. As oral traditions that adapted to the times, a great deal of traditional music was nurtured around warfare and social struggle: for example, under King Shaka, immense ukweshwama ceremonies were held in Zululand where they morphed from a harvest festival into a symbolic enactment of the might of the Zulu amabutho, with spectacular dance-song performance featuring new warfare-derived choreographies against a powerful beat provided by collective foot-stamping (as before) and also now the smashing of spears against shields from the amabutho themselves.

Under the Afrikaans-dominated independent Union of South Africa (1910), indigenous traditional musics underwent radical transformation as all non-white populations were forcibly ‘retribalised’ into ‘reserves’. From here, black traditional/popular musics developed along three general lines: traditional indigenous musics were preserved and maintained in the ‘homelands’; a ‘welter of the tribes’ in the ‘townships’ brought a huge variety of languages, customs and musics together into sustained close proximity for the first time and, especially in the shebeens (Irish Gaelic word for illicit drinking dens where patrons gathered to drink and perform/dance to neotraditional musics), this encouraged fusion into traditional/popular musics featuring urban, primarily Western, influences; and traditional/popular music were adapted into new urban music practices of the ghettoised mining/factory hostels where migrants from the townships were confined to work. A prime example of these processes of recontextualisation was the transposition by the isolated maskanda (wandering migrant musician) of collective Nguni traditional ingoma (‘dance-songs’) onto voice and guitar, translating traditional melodic lines, textures and techniques onto the instrument and composing new songs to comment on new social realities (e.g. exile, longing, urban marginalisation).

Collective spaces in the townships (in schools, churches, union halls, shebeens) and in the cities (in mining/factory hostels) thus became focal places for new cosmopolitan creativities for these marginalised and dispersed communities and three prominent syncretic traditional/popular trends developed in this context were makwaya, marabi/mbaqangaand mbube/isicathamiya. Makwaya (an indigenisation of the English word ‘choir’) was a genre of sung hymns (established from late 19thC), pioneered by educated black composers who had been taught Western musical composition in the mission schools, that merged the triadic melodies and diatonic harmonies of Christian hymnody with indigenous vocality (timbre, idiomatic phrasings and spontaneous exclamations), textures (dense, overlapping textures from melodic heterogeneity and responsorial interactions) and vernacular texts (especially in Zulu and Xhosa).

Marabi (‘African jazz’) and mbaqanga (‘maize porridge’ in Zulu) were interrelated hedonistic dance music forms cultivated by popular music performers as entertainment in the shebeensby fusing primarily American jazz and indigenous influences; the former (established 1920s-1930s) essentially constituted American jazz with ‘local flavour’ (e.g. melodic heterogeneity and variation and responsorial singing between soloist and chorus over cyclical repetition of primary chord progression of I-IV-I(6/4)-V(7)) while the latter (established 1950s-1960s) was a neo-traditional genre, characterised by the indigenisation of jazz style (e.g. ‘straightening’ of swung rhythms into a pounding beat, the use of more complex polyrhythms and the use of linear melodies in the accompaniment (i.e. independent lines of counterpoint in the guitar and bass rather than ‘vertical’ harmonic role)) but at the same time electrification (standard line-up of electric lead, rhythm and bass electric guitars, alongside vocalists, solo saxophone and drums) and high mediation (i.e. recorded in the studio using studio production techniques so lower fidelity to ‘liveness’).

Mbube (‘Lion’ in Zulu), and its mature form isicathamiya (from Zulu catham(the ‘c’ is pronounced as a dental click), ‘to stalk or tiptoe softly like a stalking cat’), were the acapella vocal ingoma ebusuku(‘nightsongs’) of the Zulu workers in the cities based around extensive all-night song and dance competitions in their all-male urban hostels: the former was a prototypal mixing of Christian, especially African-American, song (e.g. improvisatory declamatory introduction followed by choral section and diatonic harmonies) with traditional Zulu song and dance (e.g. dense overlapping vocal textures, intricate semiotic dance choreographies and traditional vernacular texts); and the latter was an intensification of this (e.g. use of chromatic jazz-style harmonies and lush spiritual-style vocalities, use of circular setup mirroring spirit invocation rituals and use of new texts reflecting on contemporary struggles (e.g. themes of dislocation and exile)).

In the early days of apartheid, these traditional/popular genres became cumulatively a vehicle for black unity and a platform for political mobilisation in the black liberation movement. Makwaya was both staged as a presentational ‘concert’ performance in schools and churches, helping to sow the seeds of inter-ethnic solidarity and pan-African consciousness, and enacted as a participatory community musicking in union halls and political meetings, where it became an embodiment of political engagement and opposition in itself. Indeed, the most famous hymn, Enoch Sontonga’s ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ [God Bless Africa] (1897), became the official anthem of the ANC and, eventually, the national anthem of post-apartheid South Africa. In the shebeensof the townships, Marabiand mbaqanga, as pan-tribal dance forms, helped to unify the diverse indigenous tribes further into a united black liberation movement. Beyond this, it also offered a form of relief for participants, serving as a source for strength in facing up to immense hardships and envoiced the struggle directly through political reflection and critique (e.g. in the political songs of Vuyisile Mini). Though less central to the black South African struggle than the others,mbubeand isicathamiyaoffered isolated Zulu workers in the cities a means of building community and a vehicle for escape, for catharsis and for maintaining links to their traditional customs and identities.

Yet, in the context of ‘long’ apartheid, these musics faced increasing suppression and censorship and their practitioners faced brutal persecution. In the 1960s, the state set up institutions that enacted cultural censorship for music, most notably the DoP (Directorate of Publications), the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) and Radio Bantu. In their own ways, these three institutions sought to reinforce the existing racialised power structures and to enact the ideology of apartheidin culture: the Directorate focused on censoring any oppositional song texts; the SABC excluded black musicians who showed any signs of challenging the status quo; and Radio Bantu, in an attempt to pacify black populations with the illusion of some cultural representation, promoted black musicians who seemed to either embody a passive acceptance of apartheidor who could be manipulated and misrepresented in line with stereotypes of ‘savage’ tribal traditions as propaganda for racial separateness. On top of this, the state intensified its direct persecution of musicians: huge swathes of musicians were imprisoned and a great number of outspoken oppositional musicians were executed (including famous names like Vuyisile Mini). This repression resulted in an exodus of musicians from South Africa, initiating a diaspora that included eminent South African musicians (e.g. Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim) who helped to bring global attention to the music and plight of black South Africans around the world.

However, in spite of, and perhaps even to some extent because of, this censorship, music became increasingly politicised over the next decades under apartheid. Indeed, the fact that musicians faced similar harassment and subjugation as political activists and trade unions is testament to the regime’s fear of the power of music to unite and galvanise a formidable black resistance. Yet, after the implementation of censorship, engaging in music became a powerful act of cultural resistance in itself and music became ever more prominent as a tool for political organisation in uninhibited autonomous black environments in the townships and cities.

Music was even employed as a tool for direct social rebellion: makwayawere sung collectively at protests and at mass demonstrations of mourning (e.g. after the Sharpeville and Soweto Massacres); new grassroots marabiand mbaqangasongs with powerful meta-political lyrics of unity, hope and liberation (e.g. the ‘Soweto soul’ of Miriam Makeba) strengthened the resistance movement; and the toyi-toyi (a traditional warfare-derived stomping march from Zimbabwe accompanied by raucous chants (e.g. ‘Amandla!’[Power! in Zulu]) was used as a symbol of black power and resistance and was even used by the Umkhonto we Sizwe as a tool of intimation against white Afrikaner police.

Moreover, musicians developed shrewd ways of bypassing censorship (e.g. the use of allegory (e.g. ‘the train’ became a metaphor for black suffering), bootleg cassette networks and alliances with sympathetic independent distributors (e.g. Shifty Records)), enabling them to exploit new channels of broadcasting for envoicement and empowerment without detection.

Outside South Africa itself, diasporic musicians helped galvanise an international solidarity effort: the Artists United Against Apartheid and the Rock Against Racism movements brought attention to the suffering of black South Africans; the cultural boycott, though controversial (e.g. on whether it ended up hurting suppressed black musicians too), enacted a poignant international condemnation of apartheidand hurt the regime’s cultural economy (e.g. most Western rock stars refused to play the luxury resort of Sun City); and Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986), though again controversial (e.g. due to its breaking of the boycott, which was condemned by the ANC, its conspicuously apolitical stance and its somewhat ‘unfair trade’ in which the South African collaborators were paid as ‘session’ musicians rather than given a stake in the copyright for what became one of the best-selling World Music albums of all time), nevertheless helped to raise the profile of its participating black musicians (e.g. Ladysmith Black Mambazo), who helped to further expose the horrors of apartheid.

It is difficult to judge the degree to which the anthems against apartheidtruly helped to bring down the regime, the extent to which it was the ‘beat’ that really beat apartheid, but historians and political figures (incl. Nelson Mandela) alike have recognised the central role that music played in the liberation struggle. Since the fall of apartheidand the ascent of the ANC, South Africa has restored the presence of its own traditional musics, upholding the right of traditional communities to maintain their oral customs and cultural rituals, integrating the study of traditional culture into the national curriculum, displaying its diversity at local and national festive celebrations and encouraging the continued development of syncretic musical forms. Eminent exiles have returned home to triumphant receptions, recent regulations guarantee a strong presence for South African musicians on state radio stations and mbaqanga,isicathamiya and a whole host of new hybrid forms have become popular, and have received acclaim, on national and international levels. Through this, South Africa became a musical powerhouse in the World Music industry, perhaps because (as evident above) its musics have long organically merged the traditional and modern, the ‘African’ and the ‘Western’, and its musics carry a beguiling and compelling legacy of determined socio-political resistance and rebellion. In all this, it is clear South Africa’s vibrant diversity shines as brightly as ever today.

James Nissen (The University of Manchester), April 2017


Sources & Reading Suggestions

Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony [Documentary Film] (Kwela Productions, 2002).

Rhythm of Resistance: The Black Music of South Africa [Documentary Film] (Harcourt Films, 1988).

South Africa 1995: Andy Kershaw in South Africa[Radio Broadcast], BBC Radio 3 Online, 17 September 1995, <>.

South Africa’s Golden Age of Music [Radio Broadcast],BBC World Service Online, 26 August 2001, <>.

‘South Africa’s History’, South African Government Website, <>.

‘The South African Music Industry’ [Research Report], Cultural Industries Growth Strategy(1998), <>.

Stopping the Music: Music Censorship in South Africa [Documentary Film] (Freemuse, 2002).

Allingham, Rob and Gregory Mthembu-Salte, ‘South Africa – Popular Music’, in Simon Broughton, Mark Ellington and John Lusk (eds.), The Rough Guide to World Music: Africa & the Middle East (London: Penguin, 2006).

Andersson, Muff, Music in the Mix: The Story of South African Popular Music (Johannesburg: Raven, 1981).

Ballantine, Christopher, Marabi Nights: Early South African Jazz & Vaudeville (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1994).

Beaumont-Thomas, Ben, ‘Black Coffee: “Song played a big role in liberating South Africa”’, The Guardian Online, 24 August 2016, <>.

Blacking, John, How Musical is Man?, 6thed. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006).

Byerly, Ingrid, ‘Mirror, Mediator and Prophet: The Music Indaba of Late-id South Africa’, Ethnomusicology, 42 (1998).

Collin, Matthew, ‘Township tech: South Africans raving at apartheid’s afterparty’, The Guardian Online, 27 February 2015, <>.

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Sources of Images

Header Image: Flickr

Map of South Africa: Britannica

San Cave Painting of ‘Shaman Healing Dance’:Rock Art Research Institute

Zulu Amabutho: Ian Knight

The barbed-wire boundaries of the ‘Homelands’: Britannica

Mandela in prison under apartheid: Britannica

Host of 2010 World Cup: Egypt Independent

Modern-dayizibongo: Chronicle, 2017

President Zuma in traditional Zulu wedding celebration: UKZAMBIANS

Incwala ceremony: Sandile Nkambule, Swazi Observer

Umkhosi reed dance: Wanafrica, 2014

Mohobelo dance: Lesotho Evangelical Church in Southern Africa

Mokhibo dance: Ludo Kuipers, 1970

Gumboot dancing: John Scharges, Cape Town Magazine

Tsonga-Shangaan traditional dance: Laura SA at the English language Wikipedia

Venda Tshikona dance: Vendaland

Cape Malay traditional performance: Africa Media Online

Zuluukweshwama: KwaZulu-Natal Heritage Preservation Institute

The electric maskanda: Maskandi

Solomon Linda’s Evening Birds: Afropop

Isicathamiya choirs competing in a city hostel: Isicathamiya Documentary

Jazz Maniacs c1940: Ned Newitt

Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens: K.M. Whitehouse 2008

ANC activists singing makwaya hymns at an underground meeting during apartheid: Amandla! Documentary

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: LBM

Vuhisile Mini:

Toyi-toyi:Boersma, P., 1990