December 10, 2020 in Culture

Freedom Songs


Amandla! A revolution in four part harmony Introduction analyses the role that music played in the creation of the modern day South Africa. The documentary features a number of activists and musicians including Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. Their views on the role that music played in the fight against apartheid differs with some of them pointing out that most of the freedom songs in the movie came about as a result of the continued discomfort of black South Africans while others are of the view that the crucial position music holds in the African society gave rise to the resistance movement. One group argues that music gave rise to the freedom movement while others point out that violation of black South African rights resulted into the creation of the freedom songs. Music forms an important part of the African society, but this paper holds the position that violation of basic human rights motivated the black South Africans to compose and utilize freedom songs as a way of expressing their discomfort.

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Background on the Apartheid system

Apartheid was a system of segregation based on race in South Africa which was enforce by the national party which had won the national elections in 1948. It is important to note that South Africa was colonized by the Dutch and English with the English dominating over the Dutch. Segregation of individuals based on their skin color started earlier than the 1900s and was aimed at gaining control of the social and economic resources that had been discovered in the country. Apartheid was based on the earlier laws that promoted racial discrimination but the legislations were aggressively enforced and segregation was made more rigid. The laws institutionalized racial discrimination in South Africa. The laws had an impact on the aspects of social including marriage and jobs. The laws saw the sanctioning of jobs that were only meant for Whites and criminalized the marriage of a White and a non white.

The Apartheid policy played an important role in the government decisions and actions. Hendrik. F and D.F Malan, leaders of the National party, were the creators of the apartheid system. As early as the 1930s, Malan used to term to distance the Party from the British who he considered to be more lenient towards the blacks. The system used force and was cruel when it came to separating people from each other. Additionally, the system set in place apparatus that ensured that those who opposed it were effectively dealt with. Another interesting point to note is that the system was put in place while other African countries were on the path to gaining independence and other nations were disregarding their racist policies. The Whites in South Africa were determined to remain in control of the diamond and Gold rich country. This was despite the fact that they made only 20% of the total population.

Following the creation of the apartheid state, many more legislations support the system was passed. These laws include the suppression of Communism act, promotion of Bantu self-government act, population registration act, and the Group areas act. The population registration act required that all South Africans must be categorized as being white, black or colored. The law formed the basis of Apartheid as it encouraged different treatment for people belonging into different groups. Indians and Asians were also grouped into the colored population. Descent, appearance and social acceptance formed the basis of categorization into these groups. Those who did not comply with the race law were harshly punished. The group areas act formed the basis of physical separation between the Whites and the non-whites. The act called for transfer of some groups of people to areas specifically designated for them. Blacks were required to carry a pass to access areas that were not meant for them.

The Authorities act established homelands which were ethnic governments in the reserves where blacks resided. The act also encouraged the separation of Africans from whites as more blacks were moved away from their original homes, in the process losing their land and jobs. The idea behind this act was that by creating the homelands, the blacks would lose their citizenship and the right to be involved in political activities in the larger South Africa. The South African parliament held complete control of the homelands. The criminal law amendment law and the public safety act were passed in 1953, setting harsh punishment for those who opposed apartheid. The 1960 state of emergency in Sharpeville left 69 people dead. The apartheid regime ensured that blacks and other minorities were not free in their own land. Imprisonment and death ensured that children were separated from their parents and husbands were separated from their wives. Generally, the blacks were forced to live a low quality life during this period.

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Role of music in the resistance movement

Music played an important role in the resistance movement. The suppression of the blacks meant that they could not express themselves freely and openly. Additionally, communication between different factions fighting for repulsion of the apartheid rule was under strict supervision by the government. Music played an important role as a communication tool. In Amandla, Sufiso Ntuli points out that music was essential in bridging power divides as it enabled the people to communicate in such ways that authorities could not access them. Additionally, it enabled easy communication across racial and cultural borders. Somgs such as Nkosi Sikelel Afrika went beyond passing across messages to different groups of people. They were symbolic and showed what the people were praying for and expressed their unity and hope in their struggles. The freedom songs ensured that all the people were united in their struggles and also expressed the emotions held by the suppressed. The songs showed their discontent as well as determinism to get their freedom.

Amandla shows how through music, the blacks were able to fuel resistance. The songs expressed the peoples anger and despair. One of such songs as heard in the documentary is “Meadowlands” which was sang by people in the 1940s when they were forcefully being removed from the inner city of Johannesburg to Soweto. The song was sung in African languages and had a swing melody a fact which saw the authorities confuse it for a cheerful song. “Madam Please” as performed by Mgcina in the documentary expresses the struggles that domestic workers had to go through when working for the whites. The freedom songs also expressed the changing times of the apartheid rule. Earlier songs expressed the general anguish of the people but as the resistance gained momentum, the songs became more playful. Songs such as “Black President” showed that the people were becoming more confident that the resistance movement will bear fruits.

The music also communicated the widening gap between different groups of people. It expressed how the apartheid system had resulted to unfair allocation of resources and other important social needs such as jobs. The songs also targeted the architect of apartheid. One such song is Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd which was composed by Vuyisile Mini and warned Verwoerd to watch out. Songs were also utilized as tributes to those who were fighting for freedom. Through songs, people could encourage each other to keep up with the fight for their freedom. They were utilized as a source of inspiration and courage. Music also came in handy when it came to intimidating riot police officers during protests. The police in the documentary points out that the dance, stomping and chants that were loosely choreographed felt overwhelming most of the time. As seen in Amandla, music was very important in stirring the oppressed communities and calling them to action against the oppression.

Music in the resistance movement inspired members of the black community into personal and collective action. The survival of the resistance movement greatly depended on music. Through music, the people could attack the state and undermine the premises set by the apartheid system. Musicians composed lyrics that directly attacked the state, pointing out the cruelty of the different branches of the government. Songs became more militant as the political and social situation in South Africa became radical. Political momentum as well as the political mood was expressed through songs. Music started to be utilized as means of showing the growing urgency for freedom. Music was utilized as a way of communicating to the people the alternative ways through which they could reclaim their freedom.

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Similarities to other types of protest music

Just like in other resistance movement such as the African-American struggle for civil rights, protest songs have been a great source of inspiration and motivation. The songs used in the resistance movement against apartheid share many common characteristics. Social movements have always utilized songs that protest against certain things. All these songs point to some problem being experienced in the society. The songs utilized in both the apartheid movement and the American civil rights movement pointed to the increased discrimination in the society. Additionally, just like other protest songs the songs used in the apartheid movement reinforce the value and the unity of those involved in the movement. The songs provide motivation to those involved and calls for recognition of whatever course they are fighting for.

Another great similarity between the songs used in the apartheid movement and other protest song is that they have a dramatic appeal. They describe the situation dramatically, utilizing certain key words to give emphasis and make the situation more vivid. Apart from that, protest songs have an emotional appeal. They arouse the emotions of those participating in the movement. The emotional arousal protest music brings about makes people feel that they are unified in their quest and that they are not alone in the struggle.

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Music played a significant role in the resistance against apartheid in South Africa. It is without any doubt that the increased discounted among black Africans gave rise to the protest songs that were utilized by blacks during the apartheid period. Apartheid was a system of segregation based on race in South Africa which was enforce by the national party which had won the national elections in 1948. Racial segregation in South Africa started as early as the 17th with the arrival of the Dutch and it can therefore be argued that songs protesting against segregation were utilized before the apartheid was institutionalized. Music was utilized as a channel through which members of the movement against apartheid could communicate. Additionally, people utilize music to discredit the government and its actions as well as express their grievances. Apart from that, it was a source of motivation for the freedom fighters and communicated the changing political and social mood. The songs utilized in South Africa are similar to other protest songs in that they are inspirational, elicit emotion and are based on the social injustices prevalent in the society at the moment.

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