• August 4, 2021

Exclusive: A Mandela Day celebration of the music that helped topple apartheid

 Exclusive: A Mandela Day celebration of the music that helped topple apartheid

“Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd” was written in the 1950s by the iconic Vuyisile Mini, a singer and ANC member who wrote some of the most influential resistance songs in the early years of apartheid.

The song carried a fierce warning to Hendrik Verwoerd, then prime minister and the ‘architect of Apartheid’. Directly translated from isiXhosa to English, the lyrics read:

‘Naants’ indod’ emnyama Vervoerd! Pasopa nantsi’ ndodemnyama, Verwoerd!’

‘Here is the black man, Verwoerd! Watch out, here is the black man, Verwoerd!’

Here’s Miriam Makeba’s version (more on her in a moment), with photos added by the YouTube user gonzalo blanco.

In Inquiries Journal’s “The Sounds of Resistance: The Role of Music in South Africa’s Anti-Apartheid Movement,” Michela E. Vershbow wrote of the song’s composer, Vuyisile Mini, and its subject, Hendrik Verwoerd—calling the former “the father of protest songs,” and the latter “the architect of apartheid.”

Hendrik Verwoerd was prime minister of South Africa from 1958 until his assassination in 1966. Often called the “Architect of Apartheid” for his role in the implementation of Apartheid during his tenure as Minister of Native Affairs, Verwoerd was the subject of a protest song composed by legendary composer Vuyisile Mini. The song, titled “Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd” (“Watch Out, Verwoerd”) became one of the most popular songs in South Africa. Mini’s soulful compositions and booming bass voice led him to emerge as one of the most powerful organizers of the resistance.

In the words of poet Jeremy Cronin “Song had become an organizer, and he was the embodiment of this reality” (Hirsch 2002). The singing of Ndodemnyama was a statement of protest and a tribute to the strength of freedom fighters. “That song sounds like a fun song,” said musician Hugh Masekela, “but it’s really like ‘Watch out Verwoerd, here comes the black man, your days are over” (Hirsch 2002).

Known as “the organizer of the unorganized,” Mini was actively involved with the ANC and was one of the first to be recruited into its military inception in 1961. He was arrested in 1963 for “political crimes,” including sabotage and complicity in the death of an alleged police informer; when he refused to give evidence against his comrades, he was sentenced to death. Fellow prisoner Ben Turok describes him as walking defiantly to the gallows while singing Ndodemnyama.

Turok’s recollection reads:

“And then, unexpectedly, the voice of Vuyisile Mini came roaring down the hushed passages. Evidently standing on a stool, with his face reaching up to a barred vent in his cell, his unmistakable bass voice was enunciating his final message in Xhosa to the world he was leaving. In a voice charged with emotion but stubbornly defiant he spoke of the struggle waged by the African National Congress and of his absolute conviction of the victory to come… Soon after, I heard the door of their cell being opened. Murmuring voices reached my straining ears, and then the three martyrs broke into a final poignant melody which seemed to fill the whole prison with sound and then gradually faded away into the distant depths of the condemned section” (Reddy, E.S. 1974).

Mini’s life and death has been transformed to the stage in South Africa, in a play called They Died Singing. 

Mini and his ANC comrades Wilson Khayinga and Zinakile Mkaba were executed in the Pretoria Central Prison on Nov. 6, 1964. RIP to them all.

Probably the most well-known face and voice associated with the struggles in South Africa was that of Miriam Makeba, affectionately known as Mama Africa.

Miriam Makeba was born on March 4th, in 1932 Johannesburg, during a time of economic depression. Her mother, a domestic worker, was imprisoned for six months for illegally brewing beer to help make ends meet, and Miriam went to prison with her as she was just 18 days old. She grew up in Nelspruit where her father was a clerk with Shell Oil. […]

Miriam Makeba began her music career singing for her cousin’s band, the Cuban Brothers, but it was only when she began to sing for the Manhattan Brothers in 1954 that she began to build a reputation. She toured South Africa, Zimbabwe (former Rhodesia) and the Congo with the band until 1957. After this Makeba sang for all-women group, the Skylarks, which combined jazz and traditional African melodies. Makeba’s appearances in the films Come Back Africa (1957) and as the female lead in Todd Matshikiza’s King Kong (1959) cemented her reputation in the music industry both locally and abroad. She later married her King Kong co-star, Hugh Masekela, in 1964. Makeba arrived in New York in November 1959, later resigning herself to exile after South Africa refused to renew her passport…

 She was the first black musician to leave South Africa on account of apartheid, and over the years many others would follow her. Makeba took up refuge in London after the Venice film festival and met Harry Belafonte, who helped her to immigrate to the USA. In the early 1960s, she shot to fame in the USA overnight, and performed for former US President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962. Among her other admirers were Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, Nina Simone and Miles Davis.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault interviewed Makeba for the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour in 1988.

Here Makeba sings “Soweto Blues” live. The song was written by her former husband, Hugh Masekela.

The children got a letter from the master
It said: no more Xhosa, Sotho, no more Zulu
Refusing to comply they sent an answer
That’s when the policemen came to the rescue
Children were flying bullets dying
The mothers screaming and crying
The fathers were working in the cities
The evening news brought out all the publicity:

Chorus: “Just a little atrocity, deep in the city”

Soweto blues
Soweto blues
Soweto blues
Soweto blues

Black folks across the United States engaged early on in the anti-apartheid movement, a history which is well-documented in Nicolas Grant’s Winning Our Freedoms Together: African Americans and Apartheid, 1945–1960:

This study shows how African Americans and black South Africans navigated transnationally organized state repression in ways that challenged white supremacy on both sides of the Atlantic. The political and cultural ties that they forged during the 1940s and 1950s are testament to the insistence of black activists in both countries that the struggle against apartheid and Jim Crow were intimately interconnected.

While Black elected officials here were actively engaged in fighting for Black Americans’ civil rights, they also had their eyes on South Africa’s brutal and racist system, as well-documented by The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation:

…the history of black congressional involvement in the anti-apartheid movement predates the formation of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in 1971. However, the movement holds great significance in both the CBC and American history because it firmly established the voice of the black community in United States  foreign policy.

In 1959, Representative Charles C. Diggs, Jr. of Michigan became the first black chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa. In this role, Diggs used the subcommittee as a place to raise the interest and levels of awareness concerning the political and social situation in southern Africa. The subcommittee was also a driving force in the mobilization of anti-apartheid activists in the United States. Its hearings on South Africa provided an important forum for discussing alternatives to existing United States policy, and it gave a platform to Africanists (African activists) and black Americans to raise their concerns.

When the Congressional Black Caucus was established in 1971, apartheid was a major policy concern. The CBC’s first bill concerning apartheid was introduced by Representative Ronald V. Dellums (D-CA) in 1972. The purpose of the bill was to establish the CBC’s position on apartheid and to end apartheid and other racist practices in South Africa. Although it would be at least another decade before the Comprehensive  Anti-Apartheid Act finally passed in Congress, CBC members proposed at least 15 bills that sought to pressure South Africa into abandoning apartheid.

It should come as no surprise that Black people in the States embraced musicians who represented that long and hard-fought struggle on the African continent. Those of you who have seen Questlove’s Summer of Soul documentary, which I both appear in and wrote about in last week’s installment of #BlackMusicSunday, know that Hugh Masekela was one of the musicians featured at the Harlem Cultural Festival.

Hugh Masekela was a world-renowned flugelhornist, trumpeter, bandleader, composer, singer and defiant political voice who remained deeply connected at home, while his international career sparkled. He was born in the town of Witbank, South Africa in 1939. At the age of 14, the deeply respected advocator of equal rights in South Africa, Father Trevor Huddleston, provided Masekela with a trumpet and, soon after, the Huddleston Jazz Band was formed. Masekela began to hone his, now signature, Afro-Jazz sound in the late 1950s during a period of intense creative collaboration, most notably performing in the 1959 musical King Kong, written by Todd Matshikiza, and, soon thereafter, as a member of the now legendary South African group, the Jazz Epistles (featuring the classic line up of Kippie Moeketsi, Abdullah Ibrahim and Jonas Gwangwa).

In 1960, at the age of 21 he left South Africa to begin what would be 30 years in exile from the land of his birth. On arrival in New York he enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music. This coincided with a golden era of jazz music and the young Masekela immersed himself in the New York jazz scene where nightly he watched greats like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach. Under the tutelage of Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, Hugh was encouraged to develop his own unique style, feeding off African rather than American influences – his debut album, released in 1963, was entitled Trumpet Africaine…

In 1990 Hugh returned home, following the unbanning of the ANC and the release of Nelson Mandela – an event anticipated in Hugh’s anti-apartheid anthem ‘Bring Home Nelson Mandela’ (1986) which had been a rallying cry around the world.

Here is that seminal anthem. 

Giovanni Russonello wrote Masekela’s obituary for The New York Times in January 2018.

Hugh Masekela, a South African trumpeter, singer and activist whose music became symbolic of the country’s anti-apartheid movement, even as he spent three decades in exile, died on Tuesday in Johannesburg. He was 78. […]

Mr. Masekela came to the forefront of his country’s music scene in the 1950s, when he became a pioneer of South African jazz as a member of the Jazz Epistles, a bebop sextet that included the pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and other future stars. After a move to the United States in 1960, he won international acclaim and carried the mantle of his country’s freedom struggle.

His biggest hit was “Grazing in the Grass,” a peppy instrumental from 1968 with a twirling trumpet hook and a jangly cowbell rhythm. In the 1980s, as the struggle against apartheid hit a fever pitch, he worked often with fellow expatriate musicians, and with others from different African nations. On songs like “Stimela (Coal Train),” “Mace and Grenades” and the anthem “Mandela (Bring Him Back Home),” he played spiraling, plump-toned trumpet lines and sang of fortitude and resisting oppression in a gravelly tenor, landing somewhere between a storyteller’s incantation and a folk singer’s croon.

Here’s “Stimela (Coal Train).”

As mentioned above, Masekela gained continental fame with the Jazz Epistles, whose membership also included jazz legend Dollar Brand, who later was known as Abdullah Ibrahim. John Edward Mason, an African history professor at the University of Virginia, wrote about Ibrahim’s “Mannenberg” in 2007 for African Studies Quarterly.

On a winter’s day in 1974, a group of musicians led by Abdullah Ibrahim (or Dollar Brand, as most still knew him) entered a recording studio on Bloem Street, in the heart of Cape Town, and emerged, hours later, having changed South African music, forever. Together, they had created “Mannenberg,” a song which quickly became a national and international hit. The album on which it appeared, Mannenberg is Where It’s Happening, sold more copies in 1974 and 1975 than any jazz LP recorded in South Africa and reestablished Ibrahim as South Africa’s leading jazz musician. But the song was much more than a mere best seller. In the years after its release, “Mannenberg” gained almost universal recognition as “the most iconic of all South African jazz tunes.” The release of “Mannenberg” was also the moment when it became clear that a new musical genre had emerged. Known internationally as South African jazz and locally as Cape jazz or the Cape Town sound, it was something towards which Ibrahim had been working for over a decade. “Mannenberg” was not the first and, perhaps, not even the best example of this new style. But the song was the first to bring it to a wide public. Just as significant, however, was “Mannenberg’s” second act, which began several years after its release. During the climax of the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s, many South Africans embraced it as “a popular metaphor for all the townships where trouble brewed.” Giving voice to the dreams of the dispossessed, it was the sound of freedom or, as many called it, South Africa’s “unofficial national anthem.”

The idea that “Mannenberg” the best-seller would someday metamorphose into “Mannenberg” the struggle anthem would have surprised anyone who heard it in 1974. Its struggle credentials are by no means obvious. It is a song with few words, a lilting melody, and a gentle, hypnotic groove. There is, seemingly, nothing angry about it, nothing that would inspire people to stand up to the teargas, whips, and bullets of the apartheid state. And, yet, it did just that. The “Friday night song” became an anthem. This transfiguration was, in part, a function of the song’s inherent beauty and Ibrahim’s association with it. But more importantly, it was the work of Basil Coetzee and Robbie Jansen, two of the musicians who recorded the tune with Ibrahim on that day in 1974. They made the hit an anthem by placing it at the musical center of countless anti-apartheid rallies, demonstrations, and benefit concerts throughout the 1980s. When Coetzee or Jansen played “Mannenberg,” musicians flooded the stage to jam, and evoked a collective response, a kind of politically charged ecstasy, from everyone present. The song’s popularity and the political context within which it was being played allowed the musicians to create moments of intense emotion and solidarity, making the song, in the words of an anti-apartheid newspaper, “a symbol of our hardship.”

Here is that “struggle anthem.”

Diaa Bekheet, wrote about Ibrahim for Voice of America’s Music Beat.

Ibrahim, also known as “Dollar Brand”, was a strong opponent of the apartheid regime. He was arrested several times, but before leaving South Africa for exile, he wrote and recorded his masterpiece: “Mannenberg”. The song became a stirring vamp and the anthem of the anti-apartheid movement following the Soweto uprising in June 1976.

His music inspired then-imprisoned African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela. All types of music were banned in jails, but a lawyer for Mandela managed to smuggle some of Ibrahim’s music inside the prison prison and played it in the control room.

“Judy smuggled in Mannenberg,” recalls Ibrahim in an interview with VOA’s Jazz Beat. “When President Mandela heard this song, he said liberation is near.”

In 1984, a ska tune from The Specials/The Specials AKA and written by Jerry Dammers took off as a global hit. Dammers spoke of crafting the song, simply called “Nelson Mandela,” in a 2013 interview with Dave Simpson for The Guardian.

I wrote a song about Mandela because of what he stood for. He became a figurehead for the struggle against apartheid, but when he came out of jail he wasn’t a Martin Luther King type orator: he just said, and continued to say, important things about equality and justice. “Like slavery and apartheid,” he once told an audience in Trafalgar Square, “poverty is not natural. It is man-made and can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.” He saw that the ending of apartheid is only the beginning – and that’s as true now as it ever has been.

Here’s The Specials’ call for Mandela’s freedom.

Probably the most earthshaking event to occur in the annals of music concerts was the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute, held at Wembley Stadium in 1988.

On 11 June 1988, some 75,000 people packed into Wembley Stadium for the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert. Broadcast to 67 countries and a worldwide audience of 600 million, the event was staged to mark the forth coming milestone birthday of the imprisoned anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela.

Both the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the African National Congress credited the event for raising global consciousness of Mandela’s incarceration, while others believed it hastened the demise of apartheid in South Africa.

This short video from Clarity Films details how the massive event came about.

Here is the audio from the nearly five-and-a-half hour BBC broadcast. You can also enjoy a video playlist of artists in order of appearance on YouTube. 

Last but not least, if you have never seen the documentary Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony, I strongly suggest you do so.


A.O. Scott reviewed the film for The New York Times in 2003.

From ”The Marseillaise” to ”We Shall Overcome,” there has probably never been a revolution that did not use songs to give voice to its aspirations or rally the morale of its adherents. As the South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim remarks in ”Amandla!,” a documentary directed by Lee Hirsch that opens in Manhattan today, the toppling of apartheid may be a special case, the first revolution ever to be conducted ”in four-part harmony.” Mr. Ibrahim’s observation, which supplies this restless, moving film with its subtitle, points to the central role that music — in the streets, on records, in prison and in exile — played in black South Africa’s long struggle for liberation from white domination.

Threading together interviews and archival clips with a percolating soundtrack, Mr. Hirsch makes the case that musical expression was central to the project of self-determination. Every chapter in the often brutal, ultimately triumphant saga that stretches from 1948 (the year the right-wing National Party came to power and began to institute its infamous policy of racial separation) to 1994 (the year of Nelson Mandela’s victory in the first election open to all of the country’s citizens) is accompanied by songs of defiance, mourning, pride and despair. ”Amandla” is the Xhosa word for power, and the film certainly lives up to its name…

”Amandla!” begins with the exhumation, in post-apartheid South Africa, of the remains of Vuyisile Mini, a composer and activist who was hanged in 1964 and buried in a pauper’s grave. At the end he is reinterred as a national hero at a state funeral, and the film, fittingly, is partly dedicated to his memory.

Here’s the trailer.

Join a continuation of the celebration of Mandela Day with me in the comments section below.

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