/ 9 September 2023

A celebration of unsung struggle musicians

23rd Joy Of Jazz Festival: Day 2
Blown away: Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse is on the line-up at ‘Mayibuye iAfrika: The Freedom Songs’ in Joburg. Photo: Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images

Music has always been a part of South Africa’s history. From the ramkie, a three- to four-string guitar that was developed in the 1600s by the Khoi-Khoi, to the gold miners in late 1800s who would beat against their boots creating melodies that are still sung today. And then onward to the liberation struggle where song was a way in which black people could expose the atrocities of the apartheid regime locally and to the world. 

But no one asks who wrote those songs and why. Billy Monama, a renowned South African guitarist has decided it is time to celebrate and credit those who composed songs of hope in an undying spirit of youth who stood up against the white rulers of the time. 

In a one-night-only and limited-ticket concert called Mayibuye iAfrika: The Freedom Songs, Monama will transport the audience to a time when music was the main language of communication and expression. 

After so many years of their names slowly fading out of history books, Monama tells the M&G why this is the right time to remember them. 

“Everything is about timing. The question of why now is because through my research, as I was writing Introduction to South African Guitar Styles Volume 1, I discovered so many composers,” he says. 

Monama says the research webbed out and he came across the story of Vuyisile Mini. 

Mini was a unionist, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) activist and a singer. 

In 1963 Mini was charged with 17 counts of sabotage and the murder of a police informer. Mini was killed at the Pretoria Central Prison (now Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional Service) by the apartheid government on 6 November 1964. He was killed alongside Zinakile Mkaba and Wilson Khanyingo, among the first combatants of MK to be executed in South Africa. Mini went to the gallows singing songs of freedom. 

“I need people to know these composers, to know how they died, that even in the final hour, they sang songs of freedom,” says Monama. 

Legendary South African drummer, saxophonist, composer and activist Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse will be in the line-up on the weekend. 

The fact that a young person has conceptualised this commemoration concert brings life to him, Mabuse tells the M&G. “For Billy to conceptualise this and remember experienced people such as myself is humbling, it is another milestone,” he said. 

Mabuse paints a picture of what it was like to be a black musician during the struggle. 

“We did not have the privileges white musicians had. They finished school, could afford instruments and they also had cars to get around. 

“Then you look at a black musician, who had to work somewhere to be able to buy an instrument and walk to shows, which to some degree is still the case today,” he says. 

Mabuse says even finding a venue to play was a challenge and when they’d get one they would be harassed by the police because making music was not recognised as work.

“We were considered vagrants.” 

Mabuse hopes young people come and be a part of the concert to relearn their history through the music. Monama says that for things to be better, we have to go back and look at the sacrifices that were made.

“It seems people have forgotten,” says Monama. “I went to Bra Hotstix and told him that people are killing each other. We have lost our consciousness. We have to fetch Africa — Mayibuye iAfrica.” 

Monama wants South Africans to look back to look forward. He says the country can only be healed through music and channelling the undying spirit of artists like Mini.

The concert is on 9 September at the Market Theatre.