The Equality Court’s banning of the “Shoot the Boer” song is a reminder of South Africa’s long and prickly history. During apartheid, music played an ambiguous role. It was fundamental to the inculcation of state-sponsored hegemony, and in attempts to resist repression.
From the early 1960s, the SABC-run Radio Bantu recorded thousands of songs deemed “desirable” for airplay, performed only in vernacular languages (not mixing different languages was symbolic of not mixing different groups of people). They spoke of love, God and longing for “home” in distant rural areas. Others negotiated the myriad censorship laws imposed by a government convinced that, left unchecked, musicians would engage in subversive, revolutionary activity.
Such fears were fuelled by renditions of liberation songs at public gatherings and, from the ANC’s Radio Freedom, beamed from Zambia into the homes of the masses. The apartheid state could not control these songs and they have been welded to the fight for democracy.
Musicians worldwide struggle to make a living in the digital age of online file-sharing but songsmiths in South Africa have other options. The big money here is not through CD sales or privately organised concerts but in performing at government shows. Up and down the country, on public holidays and other government-sponsored events, local musicians receive substantial remuneration for providing entertainment after politicians have made their speeches and retreated to the catering tent.
Even if these musicians wanted to perform songs critical of policy, demanding better service delivery or seeking to speak truth to power, they would be biting the hand that feeds them. This culture of self-censorship has infiltrated the post-apartheid music industry as a whole, stifling the revolutionary spirit of many musicians, turning them into a choir of yes-men and yes-women.
It is in this wider context — and that of service delivery protests — that we must understand the current promotion of liberation songs. On the one hand, we can speak of their importance, as commemorative carriers of oral history, in maintaining an accurate record of resilience through music. But this only tells half the story.
As vessels of vindication, liberation songs have another potent characteristic — they are, almost by definition, the antithesis of any challenge to current government policy.
The apartheid state promoted “desirable” songs on Radio Bantu to push a specific ideological line. Under the current dispensation, struggle songs are notable not only for their historical legacy but also for their contemporary desirability.
Dr Fraser G McNeill is a senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Pretoria