Sunday 12 May 2013

Whispers in the Deep - Music and Censorship in South Africa (1960 - 1994)

Given the recent Secrecy Bill passed by the South African Parliament it's worth reflecting on music that caught the attention of the censors during the previous dark period of Apartheid....this is a compilation I put together for private distribution in August 2003, almost 10 years ago. It fits the Bill!

Whispers in the Deep collects a number of anthems, agit-pop songs, and propaganda pieces. Many of the tracks were intended as direct responses to the South African social order as it was prior to 1994. The other tracks might as well have been. Nevermind the revolution, nothing was televised in South Africa prior to 1976. 

Whispers in the Deep also documents some of the ways in which access to popular music was restricted in South Africa - the obstacles that prevented persons resident in South Africa from listening to songs, hearing them broadcast, or seeing them performed. It explores the cultural boycott, censorship by the state in South Africa, and various manifestations of the “climate of censorship”. [Before proceeding, it is worth noting that “political” music was by no means the only music that was restricted in South Africa].

The cultural boycott originated in the refusal of some foreign artists to perform in South Africa - playing before segregated audiences was repugnant to them. By the early 1980s it had become a doctrine enforced by the ANC externally and the UDF internally. Supporters of the enforced cultural boycott defended it as an appropriate strategy against “apartheid”. Opponents argued that it was a form of censorship, a manifestation of totalitarian tendencies in the “liberation” movements.

Various statutes provided for censorship in South Africa prior to 1994 (notably the Internal Security Act, the Protection on Information Acts, and the Publications Act). A music fan or musician would be in the most trouble if he or she possessed a record or tape, or performed a song, that contained material that was directly associated with the ANC, the PAC, or the SACP, or furthering their aims, as defined by legislation. For example, two members of the reggae band Splash received prison sentences of several years each for shouting “Free Nelson Mandela” at an early 1980s Free People’s Concert (held under the auspices of Wits University). These prosecutions were unusual. Prosecutions for the possession of such music (e.g. records by Amandla, the ANC cultural group headed by Jonas Gwangwa) were also unusual, but they did occur.

Leaving aside the special case of music directly associated with the “liberation” movements (or, from the mid-1980s, which contravened the State of Emergency legislation), the favoured instrument of censorship was the Publications Act and it’s predecessors. With regard to censorship under this legislation, J.M.Coetzee observed in 1992: "The 1970s were a time of fairly harsh censorship in South Africa, the 1980s, broadly speaking, a time of liberalisation."

When it replaced the Publications and Entertainments Act in 1975, the Publications Act introduced the ability to ban an item for possession. It also removed the appeal to the Court, substituting a Publications Appeal Board. For a time censorship was stricter and more extensive than it had ever been in South Africa – the belief that an item had to be a “threat” in order to be banned is a misapprehension. Records restricted included Jesus Christ Superstar, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, and “Paul Simonon and Mick Jones’s” The Clash (this could be the songbook, the Government Gazette is not clear). The only reason that more music wasn’t banned is that relatively few records were submitted to the Publications Control Board (as opposed to the number of books and other publications). By 1978, however, the banning of Etienne Leroux’s Magersfontein O Magersfontein, and the response thereto by Afrikaner intellectuals, had already set in motion a process that would lead to a dramatic and comprehensive reduction in censorship. One such development was the superseding of the “average reader” test in judging items by the “likely reader” test.

For much of the 1980s, “radical” intellectuals allied to the ANC argued that there had been no “change” in censorship, and that none was possible. Here is Nadine Gordimer (1980): “I am one who has always believed and still believes we shall never be rid of censorship until we are rid of apartheid. Personally, I find it necessary to preface with this blunt statement any comment I have about the effects of censorship, the possible changes in its scope, degree, and methodology. … Censorship is the arm of mind-control and as necessary to maintain a racist regime as that other arm of internal repression, the secret police.”

In 2003, the underlying assumptions of this discourse still dominate thinking about censorship in South Africa prior to 1994. This is despite the inability of the “radical” position to account for the changes that occurred in censorship after the banning of Magersfontein. Two enduring obstacles to understanding censorship are
1. A tendency to compress the various statutes that provided for censorship in South Africa into an amorphous "censorship", thereby obscuring the specific and different historical contents of each of these statutes.
2. The acceptance of references to “apartheid” as sufficient explanation for social policy in South Africa prior to 1994, which reduces research to a search for illustrative instances of ones prior existing conception of “apartheid”.

As regards the climate of censorship, five points.
1. There was no pre-publications censorship in South Africa (excluding the special case of items that contravened internal security legislation). Under the Publications Act, items were only considered after being submitted by the police, customs, or members of the public.
2. The state-controlled SABC had very restrictive broadcast policies (including segregation – very little Black music on “White” channels, some popular songs not for “Black” channels etc) – even if it was not banned, a record could be kept “off air”.
3. The South African record companies are not immune to criticism when it comes to restricting access to music in South Africa. Nonetheless the practise of omitting certain tracks from albums in the late 1970s and early 1980s [or sections of tracks, as on Roger Lucy’s debut album], was often a direct consequence of state censorship, not necessarily a form of unofficial censorship by record companies.
4. Other features of South African society which contributed to a lack of open access to music before 1994 include: segregated venues prior to the mid-1980s, widespread poverty, compulsory military service for young White men, citizens (including noteworthy musicians) being in exile, and police using municipal by-laws, laws relating to the Sabbath, liquor laws, and the like as pretexts to hamper or prevent live music events.
5. If one habitually scanned the shelves of the (few) better music stores when in Jo’burg, Cape Town, or Durban, prior to 1994, it was possible to get much of the material on this compilation. [The Abdullah Ibrahim is from a live recording of a German concert and received a limited release – it was hard to get anywhere].

One more thing. There never was a revolution in South Africa. What occurred in the early 1990s was a negotiated extension of the franchise, with a consequent redrafting of the constitution. Significant and welcome as these advances were, the state in South Africa at no time approached a situation where its collapse was either imminent or likely.
- Essay by Peter M Stewart, August 2003

1. 1960s Hendrik Verwoerd speech (excerpt)
Vuyisile Mini, who wrote the popular Treason Trial song "Beware Verwoerd (the black man is coming!)", was executed in 1964 for political crimes and went to the gallows singing his songs of defiance. His daughter, Nomkhosi Mary, a founding member of Amandla, the Cultural Ensemble of the ANC, was among those killed in the South African commando raid on Maseru, Lesotho on December 20th, 1985.

2. 1964 BBC Report on Dusty Springfield’s refusal to play segregated venues in South Africa
As early as 1946, before its own independence from Britain, the Indian government called for the breaking of all links with South Africa; in 1955 Bishop Trevor Huddleston called for a cultural boycott; in 1959 the African National Congress called for a general boycott; in 1961, after the Sharpeville massacre, South Africa was forced to leave the Commonwealth. Dusty could well have been influenced by the British Musicians Union that made a 1961 call for its members not to play South Africa until Apartheid was abolished.

3. Hugh Masekela on exile (exerpt)
4. Get Up, Stand Up – WAILERS [Burnin’, 1973] 

Hugh Masekela and his contemporaries took inspiration from America's more politically outspoken black artists, particularly Miles Davis and Paul Robeson. " American jazz was looked upon as a very high African art. We were living an urban life, and our only role models were African Americans, and their experiences as we understood them from films and records." Masekela, who exiled himself in the sixties to pursue a musical career, travelled to Jamaica in 1968 and recorded six tracks with the Wailers at Randys and Dynamics studios. This particular song later issued on the popular South African seller Bob Marley and the Wailers Live became a well worn soundtrack for hippies, students, proto punks and dagga smoking (white) youth. But until reggae LPs became widely available on South African pressings in the late seventies the genre had limited appeal. Ironically Bob Marley was as popular in the South African Defence Force as he was in the ANC’s army Umkhonto We Sizwe.

5. Johannesburg – GIL SCOTT-HERON [“South Africa to South Carolina”, 1975]
"When the moment hatches in time's womb there will be no art talk," wrote South African exile Willie Kgostitile in New York in 1968. "The only poem you will hear will be the spearpoint pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain....Therefore we are the last poets of the world." Original proto-rap group The Last Poets took their name from this poem. Also closely associated with the Black Power movement were Gil Scott-Heron, the Watts Prophets and a number of other South African exiles, including Miriam Makeba who married former Black Panther president Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) in 1968. Before Peter Gabriel’s Biko or Jerry Dammers’ Free Nelson Mandela, Gil focussed attention on South Africa with this US Top 30 hit in 1975.

6. Apartheid – PETER TOSH [Equal Rights, 1977]
Peter Tosh’s perceived militancy was one reason for his popularity in South Africa. But in order to sell the Equal Rights album the record company omitted this song. Like Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley before him Peter Tosh toured Southern Africa in the early eighties. Whilst Jimmy Cliff played two concerts in South Africa dressed in the military fatigues of the Peoples Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) and Bob Marley played a chaotic Zimbabwe Independence Concert (the crowd was teargassed by the new Police Force), Peter Tosh played two concerts in Swaziland in 1984.

7. Biko – PETER GABRIEL [PG3, 1980]
Steven Biko was hailed as a martyr in the anti-apartheid struggle, and his death became an international rallying point against South Africa's repressive government. In November 1977 – three months after Biko’s death, and amidst a South African military campaign to annex part of Angola for Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA movement - the United Nations voted a partial arms embargo against South Africa. U.N. resolutions calling for sweeping economic and military sanctions against South Africa were vetoed by the United States, Britain, and France. Peter Grabriels’ lament reached 38 on the UK singles chart in 1980. Copies of the LP were removed from record stores by the security police although import copies did leak through.

8. Burden of Shame – UB40 [Signing Off, 1980]
Burden of Shame was omitted from the South African issue of Singing Off, an album that sold well at a time when the grip of the state-run radio was being challenged with the launch of Capital 604, South Africa’s first “independent” radio station broadcasting from the homeland of Transkei.
Juluka’s first LP – restricted from SABC – and the song Africa became a big hit stimulating record sales. If you couldn’t hear this UB40 track on Capital all you needed to do was to buy the an import copy at stores such as Ragtime in Cape Town, Hillbrow Records or Street Sounds in Jo’Burg or Manhattan Records in Durban. Pink Floyd’s song the Wall was also available on the LP but banned from radio play on all “non-white” stations due to it becoming a rallying call of protesting school students in the Cape in the early 1980s.

9. The Call Up – CLASH [Sandinista, 1980]
Between 1967 and 1991 military service was compulsory for all white men in South Africa. Harsh penalties were implemented to ensure avoidance was kept at a minimum. Leaving school in the early 1980s you could expect to spend 4 years or more in the military to support the military occupation of Namibia (so-called South West Africa), military excursions into Angola and military occupation of black residential areas in South Africa. This song struck a chord with those trying to find ways of resisting. However it was Bernoldus Niemand’s Hou My Vas Korporaal (Hold me Tight Corporal) that touched more conscripts and soldiers in its satirical take on Army life.

10. Radio Freedom Sign-on [Radio Freedom, 1987] 
The ANC attempted, with varying success, to broadcast radio programs into South Africa on short wave. Since the mid-sixties radio manufacture in South Africa had been geared towards the reception of government controlled local services on the FM and AM wavebands.

11. Embers of Soweto – AMANDLA CULTURAL GROUP [Amandla, 1982]
Led by veteran musical exile Jonas Gwangwa, the official cultural group of the ANC delivers a cry for revenge, for the sins committed by the “Boers”. Derek Tsietse Makomoreng was sentenced to five years imprisonment for possession of this music in 1986.

12. House on Fire – SANKOMOTA [Sankomota, 1983]
After a successful South African tour Sankomoto were listed as undesireable aliens in 1982 and barred from entering or transiting South African soil. Their debut album was recorded in Lesotho by Shify Records and contains this track which commemorates those that died in the South African Defence Force raid into Lesotho in 1982. 12 Lesotho nationals and 30 ANC members were killed. Living on the Frontline took on a new meaning if you were in any way associated with the ANC. Excluding armed combat in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Angola, the lives of more than 100 people were lost through years cross-border military raids and assassinations on key ANC personnel. Emerging initially from Black Consciousness circles Sankomoto, along with bands like Sakhile, Malopoets, Afrika, Malombo, Amampondo, Spirits Rejoice and others led a wave of highly politicised music that rescued many forms from the segregated confines of SABC radio play.

13. Thula Dubula/Hit’n Run – ABDULLAH IBRAHIM [South African Sunshine, 1980]
The South African jazz legend in a literal call to attack the “baas”. Recorded live in Europe and issued on the German Plane label this record never achieved high circulation.

14. Nelson Mandela – YOUSSOU N’DOUR [Nelson Mandela, 1985]
In 1985, Youssou organized a concert for the liberation of Nelson Mandela in Dakar's Amitié Stadium. He joined Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and others on the Amnesty International concerts. This track is taken from his transition album, recorded for the Earthworks label. Run by former South African Jumbo VanRenen this label created a high profile for Southern African music by the likes of Thomas Mapfumo, Mahlathini, the Mahotella Queens and others. Earthworks ran into problems with distribution of Phezule Equdeni, a compilation of mbaqanga tunes, when Rough Trade refused to touch a product that had revenue going back to the South African state.

15. Winds of Change – ROBERT WYATT WITH THE SWAPO SINGERS [12” Single, 1985]
Jerry Dammers wrote the song Free Nelson Mandela which became a rally cry of the International Anti-Apartheid movement. The LP was available in limited quantities in South Africa and often smuggled back into the country. On this later song from more or less the same team that did Free Nelson Mandela, Robert Wyatt and others sing in support of the struggle for liberation in Nambia. Political change in Namibia is eventually hastened after the South African Defence Force is forced to retreat from Southern Angola by a combination of Cuban, Angolan and MK forces in 1987.

16. Hugh Masekela on why a banning can work in your favour
17. Whispers in the Deep – STIMELA [Look Listen and Decide, 1986]

Ray Phiri, leader of Stimela, is no stranger to airplay restrictions. In the early seventies Phiri was a member of the group The Cannibals whose song Highland Drifter didn’t fit the venacular programming of the SABC (which for “black” listeners included Radio Zulu, Radio Xhosa, Radio Sesotho, Radio Lebowa, Radio Setswana, Radio Tsonga and Radio Venda at that time). Phiri's bandmate in the Cannibals was Sipho Mabuse whose 1992 LP Chant of the marching was also restricted by the SABC. This particular song was banned from airplay by the SABC but as a result of the ban and other factors the LP shot to Gold status having shifted 40 000 units.

18. Transcending Conviction – KALAHARI SURFERS [Bigger Than Jesus, 1990]
The Kalahari Surfers (Warrick Swinney) were the first South African band (after the Amandla Cultural Group) to play Moscow and Leningrad in the USSR. Their music, songs and pieces were often satirical and highly critical of the government. A number of their LPs were issued by Recommended Records in London and imported into South Africa in order to get around restrictions. Based on sales Surfers were always more popular outside South Africa. This LP was banned by the Publications Board but passed on appeal.

19. Bazobuya – SOUL BROTHERS [12”, 1989]
“They will return” is dedicated to the exiles and those imprisoned on Robben Island. Issued in London on the Kaz label and on a number of UK and German compilations but it was never issued in South Africa.

20. Bring Him Back Home – HUGH MASEKELA [Live in Harare, 1987] 
Live from the Rufaro Stadium where he had joined Paul Simon’s Graceland tour Hugh recites the popular plea for the release of Nelson Mandela. His body of work since exile in the early sixties includes the signature tune Stimela, Sister Fania, Ashiko, Johannesburg and District Six. For a short while in the early eighties Hugh produced a number of LPs in Botwana with a mobile studio employing the dream of South African musicians.

21. 1990 BBC Report on release of Nelson Mandela

Cover image sampled from a Thami Mnyele poster for Medu Arts Ensemble. Thami was killed on the morning of 14 June 1985 in Botwana during an illegal cross border raid by South African soldiers.



  1. Many thanks! In the '70s and '80s, there were a lot of anti-apratheid activities in Somalia, including poems and songs. I can't find much but here are 2 links:



  2. Thank you very much for this collection!


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