Black Music Under Apartheid South Africa



Atiyyah Khan explains how music has been a battlefront for Apartheid South Africa and the Black liberation movement against the white supremacist settler colony. To read the text with a playlist made by her, listen to the 28th episode of our Moment of True Decolonization show on The Funambulist Podcast.

A photograph stands out from the many taken of South Africa under Apartheid. Shot by renowned photographer Omar Badsha at the Rainbow Restaurant and Jazz Club in Pinetown, Durban, in 1985, it shows musicians marching with the banner “The Struggle for Jazz. Jazz for the Struggle.” The struggle for Black music in South Africa has always been inextricably linked to the struggle for freedom. Because of colonialism and apartheid, there are gaping holes in these histories told. What is evident however, is that Black musicians have always challenged the divide-and-conquer strategies of their suppressors.

What came to be considered jazz can be traced back to the 1920s in South Africa. In the slum yards of Johannesburg, a style of music called Marabi developed. Shebeens became nurturing homes for marabi. There, women made homemade beer that flowed and music played throughout the night. This evolved into Concert and Dance nights which started around 8pm with a vaudeville group, followed by a jazz band playing till 4am. Community spirit was central to these events as people enjoyed music and danced all night. The influence of jazz from the United States (which spread via record and movies) fused with local sounds of the time. Trombonist Jonas Gwangwa explains: “Our people were listening to American records and seeing from the movies what people were doing out there — the Cab Calloways, the Duke Ellingtons […]. Some of that core of musicians were also people who’d played in the entertainment unit of the army in World War II. People like Gwigwi Mwrebi, you know, who was a sergeant in the army.”

Towards the 1940s, a new sound emerged called Mbaqanga, translated as “steamed cornbread” in isiZulu, evolving from marabi. A multi-racial area called Sophiatown developed on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Originally a farm, after the building of a sewage dump next to the area, the white population moved out allowing space for a racially-mixed population to grow. Out of its vibrant music and arts scene emerged the popular musical King Kong and writings by Can Themba, Todd Matshikiza, Nat Nakasa, and other prolific writers based there. On the other side of the country, a similar cultural community was growing in District Six in Cape Town. By 1955 however, the threat posed by Sophiatown was too great for the authorities, so it was destroyed and all 60 000 of its residents were forcibly removed. The bulldozers arrived for District Six residents later in 1968 — and in other regions around the country.

These forced removals were due to the formidable Group Areas Act passed in 1950; a law that segregated each racial group into specific geographic locations. This clever act took deeper hold over the years; although it was dismantled when Apartheid ended, its repercussions continue today. Photojournalist Rafs Mayet comments, “The Group Areas Act was truly a vile iniquitous piece of legislation that destroyed settled communities and scattered them to far flung places and many died of broken hearts.” This law affected all who were not classified as white — identified as African, Coloured and Indian. Racially-mixed marriages were banned. Entertainment was banned and when performances did happen, audiences could not mix. A potent cocktail of the Group Areas Act and Pass Laws in the early 1950s, meant that musicians could not move freely without a day or night pass. A curfew of 10pm was imposed and is referenced by the The African Jazz Pioneers in the song Ten Ten Special. All of this led to the election of Hendrik Verwoed, one of Apartheid’s chief architects, as Prime Minister in 1958. The government drew inspiration from global fascist regimes like Nazi Germany and used torture methods of the French colonial army. In 1960, the Sharpeville Massacre which saw the murder of 69 civilians protesting harsh laws, was a turning point for many.

At this shattering historical juncture, South Africa was sinking further away from freedom while in contrast, many African countries were taking their first breath of liberation from colonial powers. The early 1960s marked a total clamp-down of cultural expression in any form. The Apartheid state formulated unscrupulous plans of how to divide-and-conquer. False borders marked the creation of colonial homelands called Bantustans effectively tribalizing Black ethnicities. Since 1953, Bantu Education had enforced racially segregated education. Then in 1962, Radio Bantu was created; a powerful force of sonic control which South Africa has still not been able to break free from. Radio Bantu was the Apartheid authorities’ way of joining forces with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) to collectively dumb down the country’s Black population. Stations were established according to the geographic location of “Native tribes.”

Khan The Funambulist (2)
Musicians and jazz lovers marching outside The Rainbow Restaurant and Jazz Club in Pinetown, Durban in 1985. / Photo by Omar Badsha.

These stations intentionally programmed only traditional music particular to each ethnicity; Zulu people could only listen to Zulu music in the isiZulu language. The idea was sold to the masses as a heritage protection project.

In this battle of the airwaves, Radio Bantu was the main tool for the state to spread propaganda. Such importance was placed on this project that a huge budget was allocated for erecting FM radio towers around the country. The deliberate mass production of cheap battery-operated transistor radios ensured that migrant workers and miners travelling into the big cities would continue listening to broadcasts. At this point, jazz steps into the mainframe of the sonic resistance struggle. For lovers of Marabi, Mbaqanga, and other advanced musical styles that came before; this sudden policing of sound was unacceptable. Despite great odds, Black musicians rose to the challenge of creating music to empower the oppressed and went beyond what the state controlled. Protest poets started performing at public gatherings like funerals. Music venues closed down nationally and Black musicians were financially impacted the hardest, however some of the most powerful jazz albums in South Africa’s history were released in this time period.

But apartheid overlaid the word jazz with other more sinister connotations […].Then under apartheid, the white authorities found it unacceptable that Black musicians should be acknowledged as capable of playing such ‘sophisticated’ music. And so symbolic annihilation became part of the hegemonic staging and broadcasting of jazz. Playing behind a screen at Cape Town City Hall while a white musician mimed his notes, reedman Winston Mankunku Ngozi was billed as Winston Mann.

In radio broadcasts, pianist Tony Schilder heard himself rechristened Peter Evans and trumpeter Johnny Mekoa became Johnny Keen.” (Gwen Ansell, Soweto Blues, 2004)

The government’s cruellest intention with Radio Bantu was to convince Black people into believing they were inferior — leading to an irreparable state of being which struggles to heal today. Many artists who saw clearly the absolute terror unravelling around them, were fortunate enough to head for exile – relocating either to the U.K., Europe or the U.S.. They did so at the expense of leaving their whole lives and loved ones behind — some never to return. Running parallel to this narrative is the story of Radio Freedom — a guerilla station which ran from 1963-1991 during the anti-Apartheid struggle — serving the African National Congress (ANC) and its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe. The station took cues from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Cairo Radio and other anti-colonial stations run by newly independent nations across Africa. Its first broadcast was for 15 minutes from Liliesleaf farm in Rivonia, the raiding of which led to the famous Rivonia Trial, which resulted in Nelson Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment. The station was thereafter broadcast from different countries like Zambia, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Angola and Tanzania. Zambia eventually became home to Radio Freedom and the ANC headquarters.

Radio Freedom was one of the only places one could hear jazz, especially those artists whose music was banned in South Africa — such as Abdullah Ibrahim, Dudu Pukwana, or Miriam Makeba. Getting caught listening to Radio Freedom carried a penalty of eight years in prison. The government would do everything in their power to jam the airwaves and block listeners’ access. Such was the sonic warfare.

38 The First Mass Democratic Movement March In September 1989
The first march of the Mass Democratic Movement in Durban,in September 1989. / Photo by Rafs Mayet.

Some white musicians felt threatened, not wanting to relinquish gig space and opportunities to Black artists. Record labels exploited Black artists, paying them much less than their white counterparts. Black musicians, however, were not deterred. Secret music venues popped up in townships under the guise of shebeens. A venue in Johannesburg called The Pelican is one popular treasure trove which hosted jazz musicians from around the country. University and community halls were also used for performance. So were Black-owned cinemas: The Shah Jehan in Durban, The Luxurama in Cape Town, and The Majestic in Johannesburg. Song titles and lyrics were coded to avoid being banned. Some of South Africa’s finest jazz albums were created during this time of complete state control and censorship — amongst them Yakhal’Inkomo (1968) by Winston Mankunku Ngozi and Mannenberg ~ ‘Is Where It’s Happening’ (1974) by Abdullah Ibrahim — the title track which became an anthem at political rallies. Significant to mention here, is the jazz-affiliated label As-Shams (The Sun) records. Created by music lover Rashid Vally in 1974, it became one of the first (if not the only) independent labels for Black jazz musicians. With striking album covers designed by Black artists, the label’s legacy includes releases from legends such as Tete Mbambisa, Sathima Bea Benjamin, Basil Coetzee and more — these records are impossible to find at an affordable price today.

After the 1976 Soweto Uprising, a combination of increased local resistance and backlash from the global community led to a unified struggle. Pressure on the government led to severe repression in the form of 90 Day Detention Act, torture, deaths, and secret assassinations. The situation was spiralling out of control and music was there to witness it. With the state of emergency in 1985 came mass political rallies and economic sanctions, eventually leading to a loosening of the stronghold held by the State. By 1990, following Nelson Mandela’s release, it was evident that freedom was on the horizon, with Apartheid official ending in 1994. However, the roots Apartheid spread over half a century were so embedded that in the 26 years of democracy, Black musicians are still without reparations despite the legacy they left behind. Louis Moholo-Moholo (the last surviving member of the ground-breaking Blue Notes) sits in the township of Langa without recognition for his contribution to South African music. The mammoth Schilder legacy of the Cape remains undocumented. Important narratives that could make up whole books from the East Rand, KwaZulu Natal, Bloemfontein, and the Eastern Cape communities have not yet been written. Countless important jazz heroes all over the country have passed on in absolute poverty, their stories untold. There are only a handful of performance spaces for jazz musicians to perform and very little radio airtime is given to their music. As capitalism and commercialism spread further, documentation of the artists that helped build this struggle for freedom are at risk of remaining forgotten.

Who can imagine what motivated musicians of that time — without money, venues or freedom — to still create music that shakes the soul today? It is something we can never understand, but it is something we are forever indebted to.