12 Essential Anti-Apartheid Struggle Songs from South Africa & Around the World
It wasn't just South African musicians—artists from around the continent and the world all stood up in solidarity and released anti-Apartheid songs.
Apartheid was a despicable and unthinkable crime against black people. More than 25 years since its abolishment, its repercussions still affect black people deeply in South Africa.
During the height of the oppressive regime, alongside ordinary citizens and prominent freedom fighters, musicians played a huge role in being whistleblowers and opponents of the oppressive white government.
Some musicians, such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, among others, were exiled for years for criticizing the government. Almost any song that dared criticize the government was banned in South Africa. But that didn't stop musicians from speaking their minds. It wasn't just South African musicians—artists from around the continent and the world all stood up in solidarity and release anti-Apartheid songs.
Below, in no particular order, we list such songs which criticized the government, told the stories of black people's struggles under apartheid, from artists such as Stevie Wonder, Miriam Makeba, Brenda Fassie, Johnny Clegg, among others.
1. Stevie Wonder "It's Wrong (Apartheid)"
Over a funky percussion-blazing instrumental, Stevie Wonder called out the Apartheid government in his 1985 song, "It's Wrong (Apartheid)." The artist was straight to the point: Apartheid was wrong, and the people who were responsible knew it deep down. Of course, the Apartheid government banned his song.
"The wretchedness of Satan's wrath,
Will come to seize you at last
Because even he frowns upon the deeds you are doing
And you know deep in your heart
You've no covenant with God
Because he would never countenance people abusing"
2. Brenda Fassie "Black President"
On one of the most popular struggle songs, Brenda Fassie sang with an effective vulnerability that portrayed how a lot of South Africans were feeling at the time. The song spoke of Nelson Mandela's arrest, and somehow predicted his eventual release, which would take place about a year later after the song's release.
The year 1963
The people's president
Was taken away by security men
All dressed in a uniform
The brutality, brutality
Oh no, my, my black president
3. Johnny Clegg and Savuka "Asim'bonanga"
Johnny Clegg used his privilege as a white man favored by the system to help dismantle it. He was one of the regime's most popular opponents. "Asim'bonanga," which is sung in IsiZulu like most of his songs, was about the shady ways of the oppressive regime and how Mandela was hidden away from the people. The song also makes reference of fallen struggle heroes Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge and Neil Aggett.
4. Prophets of da City "Never Again"
One of the first South African hip-hop acts, POC used their music to fight for justice under Apartheid. As a result, most of their songs were banned on national radio and TV. But their impact was never perturbed. They got to perform their song "Never Again" at Nelson Mandela's inauguration as the first black and democratically elected president of South Africa. Who can forget the song's iconic opening lines, "Excellent/ Finally a black president!" Monumental.
5. Hugh Masekela "Bring Him Back Home"
Hugh Masekela was one of the most prominent voices in the struggle. On "Bring Him Back Home," the artist made a demand to the Apartheid government to set Nelson Mandela free and bring him back to Soweto. He also called for Africa to get back to the hands of her rightful owners.
"Bring Back Nelson Mandela
Bring him Back all to
I wont to see him walking down the street
with Winnie Mandela."
6. Miriam Makeba "Ndod'emnyama (Beware Verwoerd)"
Mama Africa didn't mince her words when it came to colonization and Apartheid. "Ndod'emnyama (Beware Verwoed)" was a warning to the architect of Apartheid Hedrick Verwoerd that a black man was on his way to rule the country that white people had colonized. It was sung with the legend's effective trademark soul and verve.
7. Youssou N'Dour "Nelson Mandela"
Senegalese Francophone artist Youssou N'Dour, while still a rising star, released an album called Nelson Mandela in 1986. The album's name and its title-track were dedicated to the South African struggle hero.
8. Sipho 'Hot Stix' Mabuse "Nelson Mandela"
Sipho "Hot Stix" Mabuse's "Nelson Mandela" featured a clip of Mandela reading his speech from one of his 1964 trials. The song was commissioned by the ANC for the party's 1994 election campaigns. Mandela had been out of prison for four years. "Nelson Mandela" was about looking forward, leaving apartheid behind, with lines like: "Now is the time to make a stand on all the things we've been fighting for/ Freedom and justice for everyone in this land."
9. Eddy Grant "Gimme Hope Jo'Anna"
In 1988, Guyanese-British musician Eddy Grant released "Gimme Hope Jo'Anna," a reference to Johannesburg, the country's economic powerhouse. Grant personified the city, which, just like the whole country, was under white minority rule, and called her out her ills. The song, just like many anti-apartheid songs, was banned in South Africa, but made waves across the globe, reaching #7 in the UK Singles Chart.
"Well, Jo'anna she runs a country
She runs in Durban and the Transvaal
She makes a few of her people happy
She don't care about the rest at all
She's got a system they call apartheid
It keeps a brother in a subjection"
10. Hugh Masekela "Stimela"
Hugh Masekela's "Stimela" is a vivid picture of what it was like to be a black man during apartheid. The song is about the black men who were used as cheap labor in the mines of Johannesburg, where they worked long hours for peanuts to mine gold, and other valuable minerals. Masekela told this story of the train that all these men took from different parts of southern Africa. "Stimela" almost teleports you into that steam train–you can feel the pain in Bra Hugh's voice, through his poetry you can see the hoards of unhappy men who miss their families, anxious for the drudgery that awaits them.
"There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi
There is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe,
There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique,
From Lesotho, from Botswana, from Swaziland,
From all the hinterland of Southern and Central Africa.
This train carries young and old African men
who are conscripted to come and work on contract
In the golden mineral mines of Johannesburg
And its surrounding metropolis, sixteen hours or more a day
For almost no pay"
11. Artists United Against Apartheid "Sun City"
"Sun City" by the American protest music group Artists United Against Apartheid was orchestrated by the artist Steven Van Zandt and the producer Arthur Baker. The song featured a long and diverse array of musicians including DJ Kool Herc, Melle Mel, Bobby Womack, Hall & Oates, among lots of others. "Sun City" drew parallels between the struggles people of color were facing in America to how black people were oppressed in South Africa under the apartheid regime. The song was big and explosive in nature, with touches of disco, rock and roll, hip-hop and pop, and boasted a catchy chorus, making it anthemic.
"We're rockers and rappers united and strong
We're here to talk about South Africa we don't like what's going on (tell it)
It's time for some justice it's time for the truth (speak it)
We've realized there's only one thing we can do"
12. Peter Gabriel "Biko"
British rock musician Peter Gabriel released "Biko" in 1980, three years after anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. Gabriel sings poignantly about Biko's death over fitting ominous horns. Gabriel doesn't just mourn the death of Biko, he goes on to note that the man's ideologies would live forever. And he was damn right.
"You can blow out a candle
But you can't blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher"