The sound of struggle: South Africa's lasting legacy of cultural resistance

By Melissa Chemam - RFI
South Africa © GULSHAN KHAN / AFP

Thirty years after the end of apartheid in South Africa, the cultural resistance artists waged against white minority rule continues to inspire new generations of creators.

"Nelson Mandela himself always said that the struggle against apartheid was a collective effort," Tshepo Moloi, history lecturer at the University of Johannesburg, told RFI. 

"People who were not in leadership had a great role too: the labourers, the workers and the cultural activists – people who sang, poets, painters, sculptors," said Moloi, a specialist on the liberation struggle.

"They played an important role for the international community to know what was happening in South Africa."

Thirty years after the long fight led South Africans to freedom, that cultural resistance has become part of the country's essence, inspiring new generations of artists.

Johannesburg, a hotbed of resistance 

"Some people would easily understand the speeches by leaders like Oliver Tambo, who went around the world informing about the brutal system of apartheid, but some people would sympathise through music or poetry with what was happening inside the country," Moloi says.

The African National Congress, the liberation movement that has since become South Africa's ruling party, even had its own performing group, he says. Named the Amandla Cultural Ensemble after a local word for "power", it toured the world promoting the anti-apartheid cause.

But back in segregated South Africa, just making music as a black artist could be an act of defiance in itself.

"Music was segregated. Apartheid affected every life in South Africa, even work," says Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse, a jazz musician who played with some of South Africa's finest.

"We were not allowed to perform at some of the best venues in town."

Born under apartheid in 1951, Mabuse grew up in Soweto, the Johannesburg township that became an epicentre of black resistance. 

A singer-songwriter who plays everything from drums to saxophone, he started out in the 1970s in the afro-soul group The Beaters – a reference to the famous British band – who later changed their name to Harari.

Mabuse also recorded with South African legends Miriam Makeba, Hugo Masekela, Ray Phiri and Sibongile Khumalo.

Harari's music was rooted in pan-African politics, inspired by the Black Panther Movement and black consciousness in general.

Despite their passion and support from black fans, Mabuse says their life was made "very difficult" by apartheid.

Beyond apartheid

The musicians got a glimpse of a different way when tours took them outside South Africa.

"When we started going into other countries, especially when we got to Botswana, we suddenly realised that people of all races mixed. There was no issue, it made no difference to those people dancing to our music," Mabuse told RFI.

In neighbouring Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland (now Eswatini), musicians like him could tour freely and play in all venues, to all audiences.

For him and his bandmates, that ignited their political consciousness and led them to question why things remained different back at home. 

"That made us self-conscious," Mabuse recalled. "And we started pursuing a different approach to music, which we felt we could use as a vehicle to express our political alliance."

Meanwhile international artists expressed solidarity by joining in a cultural boycott, as well as writing music that highlighted the fight for freedom.

Today, South Africa's musical activism isn't just the subject of history books and museum displays, but lives on in the contemporary arts scene.

At 70, Mabuse is still performing and touring – sharing the legacy of South African musicians' fight for freedom, which continues to resonate worldwide.

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