South Africa’s struggle songs against apartheid come from a long tradition of resistance


Struggle songs, also known as protest music or liberation songs, are defined as “expressions of discontent or dissent” used by politically disenfranchised protesters to influence political conversations and express emotions.

Some scholars claim that these songs date back to ancient biblical times when the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt and “the Hebrew people sang their laments.”

In the American context, scholars argue that protest music dates back to transatlantic slaves. But others note that the use of these songs goes back even further.

In modern Africa and other colonized contexts, such as Latin America, protest music was an important tool used by oppressed peoples in their quest to overthrow oppressive regimes.

In South Africa, struggle songs were central to the strategies used to overthrow the oppressive race-based apartheid state. They became effective instruments of confrontation used by the black majority against white oppressors.

They were also used as a means of keeping alive the memory of political icons who had been killed, such as Steve Biko, Chris Hani and Solomon Mahlangu.

At the same time, they have helped to ensure that imprisoned resistance leaders, like Nelson Mandela, or exiles, like Oliver Tambo, are not forgotten. These people, the dead and the living, represented the political struggle of the country.

The songs were also a way of marking the times of sorrow, of which there were many, and the occasional moments of hope, as black South Africans looked forward to the end of the apartheid regime.

As a scholar whose work examines the intersection of rhetoric, language, and media, I have examined the appeal of struggle music as a persuasive means of engaging in political communication in the South American context. African.

These texts are relevant even in the post-apartheid context because they continue to be an important means by which people deliberate on issues.

Even though the lyrics are relatively simple and the music can be seen as simple and repetitive, the depth of ideas they capture justify reading texts as wrestling songs on a much deeper level than they literally mean. .

A short story

Different styles of music characterized different periods of South Africa’s liberation struggle. Changing political and social conditions not only caused a change in song lyrics; he called for a change in form to capture the tone of the times.

From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, the strong influence of missionaries on black South African literary culture influenced the tone and lyrics of protest music. This resulted in wrestling songs that were characterized by an anthem-like sound. This was in the context of a shared Christian belief system.

For example, Biblical and Ancient Studies scholar J. Gertrud Tönsing (2017) explains how the emphasis on prayer as a tool against the apartheid regime was rooted in missionary influence. This, in turn, influenced the lyrics and melodies of the wrestling songs that emerged such that they featured rhythmically static music and words written as prayers.

From the 1940s and 1950s, violence against black South Africans was enshrined in law through the passage of the Group Areas Act and ‘laws of passage’. These restricted the movement of blacks in certain areas.

The music began to incorporate musical elements inspired by American jazz and kwela penny whistles. Kwela is pennywhistle-based street music with jazzy underpinnings and a distinctive skiffle-like rhythm.

This fusion of musical elements was indicative of the cultural diversity that characterized the cantons. Music historian Lara Allen argues that the music found resonance and gained popularity because the sound expressed a “locally rooted identity”.

Another characteristic of wrestling songs of this era was topical subject matter. The lyrics were about current events as they affected black people – a kind of “singing about current events”. As Allen says:

In this regard, the vocal jive enjoyed an advantage…in that the lyrics, by referencing current events and issues of common concern, allowed listeners to more concretely recognize their own interests and experiences.

The 1960s marked an intensification of the apartheid government’s brutality on all forms of protest and resistance. On March 21, 1960, the Sharpeville massacre took place, where 69 people were killed during a demonstration against the pass laws. In response, the approach to the struggle shifted from non-violent to armed struggle with the creation of the militant wing of the African National Congress, uMkhonto we Sizwe.

The upbeat vocal jive style was increasingly replaced by militaristic beats and chants accompanied by marching action.

Some of the songs from this period were simply chants. Nonetheless, they were still musical in the way they used rhythm and other vocal sound effects to evoke emotions. They were often accompanied by the toyi-toyi, a giant-step ‘dance’ that Allen describes as a march that mimicked the movement of soldiers in training.

As musicologist and wrestling music expert Michela Vershbow describes them:

The power of this chant grows in intensity as it progresses, and the enormity of the sounds that erupt from hundreds, sometimes thousands of participants, has often been used to intimidate government troops.

In a post-apartheid world

In the late 1980s, scholar and expert on Latin American revolutionary songs, Robert Pring-Mill, wrote about how songs that figured prominently in many oppressive cultures retained their power and currency in the over time.

This is also true in South Africa where struggle songs continue to hold an established place in South Africa’s political communication heritage. Examples include songs of lamentation, such as Senzeni na? who deplores the unfair treatment of marginalized South Africans. Another is the more aggressive Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd!, written by Vuyisile Mini and sung by him and his compatriots as they marched to death in the gallows of apartheid.

Pring-Mill argues that struggle songs endure because they reflect history

events recorded with passion rather than unbiased objectivity, but the passion is not so much that of an individual singer’s personal response, but rather that of a collective interpretation of events from an “engaged” point of view particular.

It should be noted that in recent years, some of these songs have now been labeled as hate speech. There have even been calls to ban them from being sung.


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