/ 3 March 2024

Mannenberg: An anthem of the uprising against apartheid


I occasionally DJ. One record that I never take out of my record bag is Mannenberg — Is Where It’s Happening by Dollar Brand (he changed his name to Abdullah Ibrahim when he converted to Islam in 1968). The title track Mannenberg is often described as an anthem, but not in the traditional sense of the word. 

It is long — its 13 minutes and 35 seconds fill the LP’s whole one side — and has only two lines shouted out towards the end. “Oh Mannenberg! Jy kan na New York gaan, maar ons bly hier in Mannenberg!” (You can go to New York, but we’re staying here in Mannenberg!)

But if it was ever considered one, it certainly has several pros — you’ll never forget its words. You can dance to it and its humanity incites the purest joy. It has deep political roots, evoking South Africa’s dark past but also celebrating its people and their courageous resistance to oppression.

There’s great communication between the song’s instruments — they sound and look different but they’re having an engaging, loving, respectful, but lively, conversation. A good example for the people of our country.

Mannenberg — Is Where It’s Happening was recorded in Cape Town and released in 1974, at a time of forced removals. 

It is named after the Cape Flats township of Manenberg, 20km from the city centre.

Ibrahim’s family was forcibly moved there after they were ejected from District Six.

Mannenberg — Is Where It’s Happening was the best-selling jazz record in South Africa in 1974 and 1975. It got its proper political colours in the 1980s, when the work  of Cape Town musicians such as Ibrahim, and the song’s saxophonists Robbie Jansen and Basil Coetzee, lifted spirits and nurtured the community in the struggle.

As Gwen Ansell wrote in her jazz history Soweto Blues: “During the apartheid years of defiance politics, Mannenberg became an anthem of the struggle … During the struggle years, Coetzee was at the forefront of support for anti-apartheid organisations, always prepared to provide music for rallies.”

This special work, without words, lyrics or slogans, became a protest song of note, even an anthem of the popular uprising of the 1980s, as waged by organisations such as the United Democratic Front.

It was proof that protest music can come in any genre — as long as it voices the anger, resistance and aspirations of the people.

And although it is an uplifting song, one can hear melancholy in it — the longing for home of a person in exile. The apartheid era drove its music and its musicians away from home, underground and from fellow musicians.

Ibrahim went into exile for the first time in 1962 but returned to Cape Town in 1970. Soon after the Soweto uprising in 1976, he fled South Africa again.

He aligned himself with the liberation movement, creating a bridge between the country and exile. The apartheid state prohibited broadcasting of musicians who went into exile or who sang in opposition to apartheid.

Fortunately, Ibrahim found commercial success abroad. Musicians such as him, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela became internationally acclaimed South African voices. They were able to broadcast anti-apartheid messages to an international audience. They also internationalised the struggle, finding similarities with struggles in other parts of the world.

Will Ibrahim play the ever-popular Mannenberg during his concerts in South Africa next month?

I asked Ansell. “He hasn’t played it for years as far as I know. He tends to play his newer material, because that’s what the US sidemen he works with know. It might just crop up if he does a medley … But probably not.”