Freedom Songs: the role of music in the anti-apartheid struggle - PART A

‘Freedom songs’ played an important part in South African anti-apartheid struggle. The use of songs and collective singing into the anti-apartheid struggle built on the wider social role of song in Black South African culture. Songs are sung to mark births, weddings, and other social gatherings, but also in the workplace. Songs still play a significant role in South African political cultures. They are sung at the start and end of political meetings, as well as during demonstrations and protests. Songs communicate shared social and political problems and a commitment to change in ways that political speeches and articles do not.

Image: Anti-Apartheid Movement Netherlands is singing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, including ANC activist Barbara Masekela – Amsterdam 1982, Eduard de Kam. Siegfried, Detlef: Aporien des Kulturboykotts. Anti-Apartheid-Bewegung, ANC und der Konflikt um Paul Simons Album “Graceland” (1985-1988).

Many freedom songs have their stylistic origins in makwaya (choir), a popular style of choral music that combines southern African singing traditions with the form of Christian hymns imported from Europe. Hymns and work songs were often reworked and given new meanings for the anti-apartheid struggle.

This musical form often used short slogans, either in indigenous languages such as isiZulu and isiXhosa or English, repeated over and over in a ‘call and response’ style, over simple melodies. While some of these songs have identifiable composers, most were created and sung collectively, changing over time.

As well as adapting existing hymns and songs that had meaning for people, new songs were written that responded to events in South Africa. These anti-apartheid ‘freedom songs’ celebrated political victories, assert defiance against apartheid, and mourned those who were killed by the police and army for opposing apartheid. The songs from the liberation struggle are a historical record of the South African people’s resistance to apartheid. Collective choral singing created common bonds – not only did multiple voices combine, but the act of singing political songs together helped unite the singers. Such was the power of collective singing during the apartheid era that many of these songs were censored or banned by the South African authorities.

One of the most iconic songs from the anti-apartheid struggle was Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika (God bless Africa). This was a hymn written by Enoch Sontonga in 1897 that became an anthem of the anti-apartheid movement. Since 1994, elements of this song have been incorporated into the post-apartheid South African national anthem. But during the apartheid era, this hymn was often sung at the start and end of anti-apartheid political meetings and rallies – not just in South Africa, but throughout the international anti-apartheid movement.

Songs from different periods of the anti-apartheid struggle not only reflect the defining events and tactics of those periods, but also reveal something about the balance of forces between the apartheid government and the liberation movement at the time. In this article, we tell the story of some of those songs.

Songs of everyday life under apartheid

Several songs that became adopted by the anti-apartheid movement began as songs that described the realities of life for black South Africans under apartheid.

There are several important songs that mimic the sounds and rhythms of speeding (steam) trains, such as Hugh Masekela’s Stimela and song Shosholoza.


Trains symbolised the working lives of Black people in apartheid South Africa and the ways work disrupted family life, often separating parents from their children.

Trains took rural South Africans away to the cities to find work. Trains set the rhythm of the working day, as they transported people from the black townships, across the city to work. Trains also represented the journeys of migrant workers across the Southern African region, as men from Malawi, Namibia and Mozambique set off for periods of work in the mines and factories of South Africa.

PICTURED, right: The young Hugh Masekela (furthest right) receives the trumpet from Satchmo [Louis Armstrong], a gift organised by Father Trevor Huddleson, an avid supporter of African jazz and founder of the Huddleson Jazz Band in 1954. Image: Jurgen Schadeberg – Six Decades of Jazz (Courtesy of Claudia Schadeberg



Shosholoza started out as a song sung by migrant miners as they worked, the rhythm of the song helping sustain the exhausting and dangerous work of mining by hand.

Over time, the significance of the song changed. As the ‘Frontline States’ around South Africa gained independence from colonial rule, the train was imagined to deliver not just migrant labourers, but inspiration about liberation, and freedom fighters joining the struggle against apartheid. Since the end of apartheid, the meaning of this song has changed again, and it is now associated with celebrating national unity at major sporting events.

Image: Folkways Records/ Historical Song, Struggle & Protest, World. Catalog: FW05588, FH 5588

During the apartheid era many Black African women could only find work as domestic servants for white families. Very often they lived in servants’ quarters in their employer’s house, working long hours. The song Shona Malanga started out as a song about the conditions of these domestic workers and the relative freedom they enjoyed on their day off each week. Over time, the lyrics and meaning of the song changed and became about attending secret political meetings to organise resistance to apartheid.

Another freedom song that focused on the experiences of women under apartheid was Malibongwe. Like Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika this also began as a Christian hymn. Malibongwe was sung to celebrate the role of women in the struggle against apartheid[i], a key line from the lyrics ‘Igama lamakhosikazi Malibongwe’ translates as ‘Praise the word of the women’. The song is used to commemorate the Women’s March on Pretoria, organised by the Federation of South African Women, on 9 August 1956, when 20,000 women protested against the extension of pass books to African women. Malibongwe is a good example of a song sung to celebrate a key moment in the anti-apartheid struggle. In the way it is most often sung, the song sounds both celebratory and defiant. In this sense, it captures the mood of the growing resistance to apartheid in the mid-1950s. However, government repression of the anti-apartheid movement intensified, and as the movement was forced to change strategy, the lyrics, sounds and meaning of the movement’s songs changed too.

City Group Singers anti-apartheid choir sings outside the South African Embassy in London (image: Jonathan Kempster NUJ)

On 21 March 1960, 69 unarmed anti-apartheid protesters were shot by the police in Sharpeville. In the days after the Sharpeville Massacre, the South African government arrested thousands of anti-apartheid activists and banned the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). This meant that the two leading anti-apartheid organisations in South Africa could no longer organise legal, public protests. They were forced to work in secret. Without the ability to organise openly, both organisations changed their strategy and adopted armed struggle against the apartheid regime. Over the next few years, many of the movement’s leaders, like Nelson Mandela, were arrested and given to long prison sentences. In the early 1960s, reflecting these political changes, the nature of anti-apartheid songs also changed. Some of the songs from this period are sadder reflections on the violence and repression of the apartheid regime. But other songs were intended to mobilize support for the armed struggle.

A key song from this period is Thina Siswe. Like many popular anti-apartheid songs, Thina Siswe has no identifiable author and was probably the result of collective improvisation, with the lyrics changing over time. This song is a sombre lament. It doesn’t mourn the deaths of individual anti-apartheid protesters but mourns the dispossession of the African people from their land by European colonists and the apartheid regime. Key lyrics from the song translate as “we are crying for our land, our land which has been taken by the whites; we as the black nation, we are crying for our land. We say, ‘can they leave our land alone?’

Miriam Makeba, 1955, This iconic photograph of Miriam by Jurgen Schadeberg was famously used as a cover for Drum Magazine in 1957. (Photographer: Jürgen Schadeberg – Six Decades of Jazz Image courtesy of Claudia Schadeberg,

As well as songs that developed on the streets, songs by popular South African musicians also reflected this change in the political climate. Some songs by these performers were taken up by the anti-apartheid movement and continued to be sung in protests and demonstrations. One example of this is the song Bahleli Bonke Etilongweni by Miriam Makeba. Makeba had become a popular performer in South Africa, and internationally, in the 1950s. At the time of the Sharpeville massacre, in which two members of her family were killed, she was living in New York. When her mother died later that year, she tried to return to South Africa for the funeral but found that the apartheid authorities had cancelled her passport. She was effectively forced into exile by the South African government. In response, she became a more vocal opponent of apartheid, and her songs became more clearly political. Bahleli Bonke Etilongweni (which means ‘our leaders are in jail’) is a slow, solemn and haunting song that was written in the mid-1960s and names Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu from the ANC and Robert Sobukwe of the PAC as leaders of the anti-apartheid movement who had been jailed. Over the next three decades, Miriam Makeba used her international fame to publicise the violence of apartheid and raise support for the anti-apartheid movement.

In addition to professional musicians like Miriam Makeba who became high profile anti-apartheid campaigners, there were also activists who used their musical talents to write songs for the movement. Vuyisili Mini was one of the most significant song writers to emerge from the anti-apartheid struggle. He had been a trade union organiser and local ANC leader since the early 1950s. In the 1960s, he was amongst the first people to join Umkhonto we Siswe, the armed wing of the ANC and South African Communist Party and joined the organisation’s regional High Command in the Eastern Cape province. He was arrested in May 1963, charged with 17 acts of sabotage, and involvement in the killing of a police informer. He was condemned to death and hanged by the apartheid regime in November 1964. Those who were in prison with him recall that he went to the gallows singing liberation songs, some of which he had written himself.

We want to highlight two of Vuyisili Mini’s songs that had a lasting legacy in the anti-apartheid movement. The first is a song of commitment to the ANC and its leaders, while the second is a song of defiance and challenge to the apartheid regime. Somlandela (We will follow), is a gospel song that was adapted for the anti-apartheid struggle. The name ‘Jesu’ in the original song was replaced by the name of the late ANC President Albert Luthuli. In contrast, Nants’ indod’ emnyama was originally sung as a threat to Prime Minister Verwoerd in the 1960s, but by the mid-1980s had been updated to threaten PW Botha, the current holder of that office. The title of the song translates as “Watch out Verwoerd, here come the Black people”. This song was sung almost as a taunt, it upset white supporters of apartheid, as it was a direct challenge to their authority (dressed up in what, at first, sounded like a cheerful, even fun, melody). Both songs use a call and response form, in which a soloist sings a line, which is then repeated by the other singers. The tone and syncopated rhythm of Nants emphasizes the threat and challenge contained in its lyrics. While, true to its gospel origins, Somlandela has a lighter sound and faster pace that encapsulates its more celebratory lyrics and intent.



Like Nants’ indod’ emnyama, Amajoni (meaning ‘soldiers’) is another song that responded to the changing political climate in the 1960s and the turn to armed struggle. This was originally a song popularized by the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in the early 1960s, effectively as an appeal in the name of the PAC leader and then former University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) lecturer Robert Sobukwe for soldiers. He is pictured (right), along with his brother Ernest, a bishop of the Anglican Church (Image courtesy of the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust). Over time, the song appears to have been taken up by ANC supporters, with the names of ANC leaders substituted for Sobukwe. Lyrically, this is one of the easiest songs to learn and join in, as the main refrain is simply the word ‘amajoni’ repeated multiple times. Over this simple refrain, the lead soloist sings a lyrically and musically more complex part, calling on the other singers and their audience to become soldiers for the anti-apartheid struggle.

The freedom songs from the 1960s played a key role in sustaining the anti-apartheid opposition at a particularly bleak period in the movement’s history. By the mid-1960s, many of the ANC and PAC’s organisational structures inside South Africa had been smashed by the security police, and most of the movement’s leaders were either in jail or living in exile outside South Africa. The freedom songs helped keep the idea of the anti-apartheid struggle alive in people’s minds.

The rise of Black Consciousness

By the early 1970s, a new generation of anti-apartheid fighters were organising in South African schools, workplaces, and communities. Many of them were influenced by the Black Consciousness ideas of Steve Biko and others. For them, music was not just about documenting apartheid or organising the liberation struggle, it was also a means by which black South Africans could liberate themselves from the psychological impacts of white supremacy and racial capitalism. As Biko wrote,

Any suffering we experienced was made more real by song and rhythm which leads to a culture of defiance, self-assertion and group pride and solidarity. This is a culture that emanates from a situation of a common experience of oppression …  and is responsible for the restoration of our faith in ourselves and offers a hope in the direction we are taking from here.

Black Consciousness ideas inspired the school children of the Soweto township near Johannesburg to protest against compulsory teaching in Afrikaans (which they identified as ‘the language of the oppressor’) rather than their own languages. After the initial school students’ protests in Soweto on 16 June 1976, protests and rioting spread throughout South Africa, led by the youth. Their protests were violently repressed by the government – hundreds of young people were killed, thousands more detained, and in the months that followed, many young people left South Africa to join the liberation movement in exile, in the hopes of being trained to use weapons to continue the anti-apartheid struggle.

Senzenina is a song that became popularised after the school students’ uprising of June 1976. It was typically sung at political funerals in South Africa and its title translates as ‘What have we done?’ with that refrain sung repeatedly, as a lament, but also a call to action and redress. Other lyrics, also repeated multiple times, include ‘amabhunu ayi zinja (the Boers are dogs)’ and ‘sono sethu ubumnyama (our sin is being black)’. The song has been compared to the role ‘We Shall Overcome’ played in the US Civil Rights movement. Like many of the other songs discussed here, it takes a call and response form, and while the response, by the mass of voices, might sound sombre and reflective, the lead vocal soars, seemingly adding a sense of hope over the more mournful lyrics and voices.

‘Biko’ by Peter Gabriel

This video is embedded from Youtube under the rights to embedd unrestricted channel content.