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Role of Music on the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement (Fall 2012)

        The period of apartheid in South Africa was troubling for many. It introduced confusion of racial identities, tore families apart and created tensions internally within the country and within the international network. Throughout this period there were many global history forces present that impacted the events that occurred and the outcome of the apartheid period.

        History forces such as politics and government, personal identities and arts and ideas had a tremendous impact on how the events of this time period played out. Through examining these historical influences the events of the apartheid period can be better understood. Although music may not be the first critical component of this era that one may think of, it played a key role in driving change and creating unity for the people of South Africa. The presence of music during the apartheid era allowed for mixing of cultures, creation of unity and provided a voice for otherwise powerless individuals- the presence of music served as a key player in driving the anti-apartheid movement to great success.

        The presence of apartheid in South Africa occurred from 1948 to the early 1990’s, this era was defined by separation of races, tension and unhappiness for many of the citizens of South Africa. In its most simple state, apartheid can be defined as “racial segregation,” but it is most famously known for its presence in South Africa (Apartheid). The introduction of apartheid was brought to the country in the 1948 general elections when National Party representative, Francois Malan, was elected. 

        After the election of Malan, several legislation changes and acts were put into place- that greatly restricted the rights of some racial groups within South Africa. Under the beliefs of the National Party, it was believed that the country was made up of four racial groups; blacks, whites, coloured and Indians. Under the new political rule, they wanted the nation to be split, with little interaction between these groups and providing some groups with greater rights than others (Apartheid in South Africa). 

        With the change in political power, the influence of politics and government was a strong history force present. During this time period there were countless new laws put into place, limiting individuals’ rights, creating inequalities and justifying the actions taken by political leaders. The presence of politics and government history force is one of the sole reasons for the existence of the apartheid, creating the need for the anti-apartheid movement.

        With the National Party in control several key legislation changes took place. The first change was the introduction of the “Population Registration Act” in 1950. Under this legislation it was required for all citizens to declare their race, but only in one of three categories: white, black or coloured (which included Indians). This created significant tensions for many mixed families and many felt as if there was a loss of cultural identity. Additionally under this act there were strict definitions of each race, raising tensions between racial groups (Apartheid Legislation). 

        To further these tensions there was the legislation of the “Group Areas Act” and “Reservation of Separate Amenities Act” in the 1950’s. Under these acts the government was able to physically separate racial groups. Under the “Groups Areas Act” they were able to relocate families’ and individuals’ homes and businesses based on their race. Under the “Separate Amenities Act” they enforced the use of separate public facilities depending on race. This included public bathrooms, parks, and transportation. Although these were only a few of the legislation changes, the right of coloureds and blacks were changed on infinite fronts. This included the denied right to vote, separate educational institutions, limited participation in sports, lower pay, limited employment opportunities and many other degrading distinctions (Apartheid Legislation).

        The presence of apartheid served as the identity of South Africa throughout the following decades, creating significant turmoil and tension between the various racial groups. As time passed, many citizens began to recognize the lack of civility of these rulings, and underground resistance began. Resistance began with local communities banding together, underground meetings and a notable presence of resistance within the arts, specifically music, rose to the surface (Apartheid Legislation).

        During difficult times, many individuals turn to the arts to seek shelter from the dangerous world around them, others use the arts as a form of rebellion or to send a message. The anti apartheid movement brings significant light to the presence of the arts and ideas history force. Music allowed many to fight back and it can be argued is one of the key reasons that apartheid has ended. 

        Obviously, the time of the apartheid was difficult for many. The apartheid questioned the rights of individuals, degraded them for their race and ethnicity, took away people’s voice. Luckily, the presence of the arts, specifically music, gave individuals their voice back and provided them with hope for the future. The presence of music served three key roles within the apartheid; allowed cultures to mix, created unity and most importantly provided individuals with a voice. 

        Music served as an art form where races could mix, if that meant performing music, mixing genres or simply all enjoying the same type of music. One apartheid artist, Sipho Mabuse, reflected back on his music stating, “It crossed racial lines. The melody was addictive, the beat hard to resist. For the first time, white South Africans heard the music of the township, making this single song a surprisingly uniting force” (Music & Apartheid). Although the government could attempt to restrict the bleeding of music between ethnic groups it was difficult to control, which provided an opportunity for the cultures to cross. 

        Under the mixing of cultures, this also brought light to the needs of individuals. Music allowed the force of personal identities and needs to be brought to the surface. Music was something that almost any individual could take part in- despite their age, race, gender or political beliefs. Music put each individual on an equal playing field, balancing the inequality. One review of the anti apartheid era states, “When you have no power, how do you express yourself? If you don’t have a way to fight, how do you express the fight that you have inside you?... I think that music is very often the first thing that happens in cultures or groups” (Makky). This quote highlights the unique power that music provided individuals, allowing individuals to come together and overcome the cultural barriers that may separate them. 

        Music provided a place for unity both internally and externally of South Africa. One notable movement was the unification of global music artists that took a stand against the apartheid in South Africa. Headed by Steven Van Zandt was the recording of a song titled “Sun City,” supported by the activist group Artists United Against Apartheid. The recording of the song included many global superstars such as Miles Davis, Ringo Starr, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Bob Dylan and dozens of other artists (Artists United Against Apartheid). This group of artists teamed up to write, record and distribute the song with electrified lyrics such as “Relocation to phony homelands
/ Separation of families I can't understand
/ 23 million can't vote because they're black
/ We're stabbing our brothers and sisters in the back” (Sun City – Little Steven). These lyrics make it clear that these global artists did not approve of the actions of the South African government, and they were not going to let this injustice continue any longer. This passion for change once again highlights the forces of personal identities and arts and ideas being a powerful driver of change. 

        Although music served as a unifying component globally, it also unified the local people of South Africa. Music served as a peaceful, natural and easy way for unique individuals to conquer their differences and come together for one very important cause. With music, individuals could put aside their race, age, gender and any other differences. Music served as a peacekeeping tool, an art that unified everyone. The most iconic example of this is that at the end of the apartheid the national anthems of Britain and Africa were combined, showing unity and community of the people. A Student Pulse article explains, “The reflection that music was played not only to strengthen existing communities, but to unite members of communities that were in supposed opposition to one and other is exemplified in the combining of British and African national anthems after the end of Apartheid” (Vershbow). 

        Lastly, music was critical to the anti-apartheid movement as it provided an opportunity for individuals to have a voice in a relatively “safe” manner. Music allowed individuals to tell their own story, discuss challenges, share emotions and put pressure on political leaders. One anti-apartheid artist, Molefe Pheto, explained that music was “non confrontational,” providing individuals a voice without threatening others or risking the safety of their friends and family.
  
        Additionally artist Mary Thobei explained her music, “Our songs all had meaning. They reflected what was happening now. We used to listen to the news, you see. Then we would come there and say, ‘Did you hear about in the news they said this and that and that?’ It ended up we are going to record that” (Schuman). Thobei and Pheto’s explanation showcase how music was their way of not only communicating feelings and opinions but also facts to spread the word about what was happening within the country. 

        The presence of music gave power to the common people. It allowed people the opportunity to grieve, to share information, to drive change and unify the people towards a common goal. Although music may not be thought of as a traditional method to create change it was a key driving force to end apartheid in South Africa. Music allowed many individuals the power to share ideas, the ability to conquer their fears and most significantly stand up for what they believed in. Music served as a platform to rally support and share in a common goal. Many would argue that music provided courage for the people of South Africa, and without this hope and courage that the apartheid legislation and rulings could still be present today. Music, an expression of art and ideas, gave power to individual personal identities to create change within politics and government. 


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  2. "Apartheid in South Africa." Wikipedia. N.p., 8 Dec. 2012. Web. 6 Dec. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apartheid>.
  3. "Apartheid Legislation 1850s-1970s." South African History Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2012. <http://www.sahistory.org.za/politics-and-society/apartheid-legislation-1850s-1970s>.
  4. "Artists United Against Apartheid." Wikipedia, 20 July 2012. Web. 7 Dec. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artists_United_Against_Apartheid>.
  5. Makky, Nora. "Song in the Anti-Apartheid and Reconciliation Movements in South Africa." Thesis. Ohio State University, 2007. Print.
  6. "Music & Apartheid." Project Explorer, n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2012. <http://projectexplorer.org/hs/za/hotstix.php>.
  7. Schuman, Anne. "The Beat that Beat Apartheid: The Role of Music in the Resistance Against Apartheid in South Africa." Stichproben (2008): 17-39. Web. 7 Dec. 2012. <http://test.whtdoesittake.com/wpcontent/uploads/2011/08/ThebeathatbeatNr14_Schumann.pdf>.
  8. "Sun City - Little Steven." Lyrics Time, n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. <http://www.lyricstime.com/little-steven-sun-city-lyrics.html>.
  9. Vershbow, Michaela. "The Sounds of Resistance: The Role of Music in South Africa's Anti- Apartheid Movement." Student Pulse 2.6 (2010): 3-4. Student Pulse, 2010. Web. 7 Dec. 2012. <http://www.studentpulse.com/articles/265/3/the-sounds-of-resistance-the-role-of-music-in-south-africas-anti-apartheid-movement>.

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