Amandla! – singing down apartheid

23 June 2003

The stirring account of the struggle against racial oppression in South Africa cannot be told without the role of music in that struggle, and that’s the context and subject matter of Lee Hirsch’s documentary film, Amandla!.

For every song, there was pain, for every tune there was joy and heartbreak as South Africans at home and abroad sought solace and encouragement. Amandla! is an impassioned chronicle of the role of music as a means of protest and survival through more than 40 years of struggle against apartheid.

Directed by Lee Hirsch, co-produced by Hirsch, Sherry Simpson and Desiree Markgraaff, the documentary took 10 years to make and features well-known political figures, former exiled musicians Hugh Masekela, Vuyisile Mini, Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, Sophie Mgcina, Duma ka Ndlovu and Vusi Mahlasela, and former Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) guerrillas Thandi Modise and Lindiwe Zulu – as well as numerous unsung heroes.

Subtitled “A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony”, Amandla! It is a poignant portrayal of the triumph of spirit, through song, against one of the world’s most repressive state apparatuses. “The apartheid government took everything away from people, but it couldn’t stop them from singing”, says Hirsch.

In song lay the resilient spirit of an oppressed people. Also in song could be found that rare ability of South Africa’s people to find humour and creativity in impossible conditions, in abject poverty – and in battle.

When the first victims of apartheid brutality died protesting against the pass laws in the 1960s, they were singing. When innocent students were fired on by police with live ammunition during their protest against the use of Afrikaans in black schools in 1976, they were in song.

As Masekela amiably puts it: “We will go down in history as an army that spent a lot of time singing, rather than fighting”.

Legend has it, according to Masekela, that before the first shot was fired in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, the British commanders ordered their regiments to let the approaching Zulu impis finish the song they were singing – before war broke out in earnest.

Amandla! is a typically South African story that begins with the exhumation of Vuyisile Mini’s skull and bones, to be reburied in his home in the Cape. Credited with writing the ominous song “Bhasobha iNdoda eMnyama Verwoerd” (Beware the black man, Verwoerd), which became a rallying cry for many liberation army soldiers, political activist and songwriter Mini was hanged and given a pauper’s burial by the apartheid government.

The documentary also captures the archetypal South African war dance, the toyi-toyi. While a marvel to watch, as throngs of “comrades” charge forward chanting slogans, the toyi-toyi could strike fear even in the most menacingly armed forces of the land.

Former riot police commanders, interviewed in the film, admit as much: “I can tell you that most of the riot police and soldiers who had to contain those illegal marches were shit-scared of the chanting blacks confronting them. But they had to stand their guard. Here was an unarmed mob instilling fear just by their toyi-toyi!”

Over and above the toyi-toyi, there are heart-rending moments in the documentary, accompanied by intensely moving songs such as Vusi Mahlasela’s ballads, Masekela’s “Stimela” and the works of “People’s Poet” Mzwakhe Mbuli.

Amandla! also features the music of Vuyisile Mini, Mbongeni Ngema, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, Abdullah Ibrahim, Sibongile Khumalo and Sophie Mgcina. Mahlasela, Masekela, Makeba, Rathebe, Ibrahim, Khumalo and Mgcina are all interviewed in the documentary.

“The film has been an emotional journey for us as filmmakers, and we hope it will be for the audience that come to watch. It is the history of a voice that gave courage, hope and comfort, and will be an important historical reference for future generations”, says Markgraaff.

Winner of the 2002 Sundance Festival Documentary Audience and Freedom of Expression Awards, the film’s only weakness is by omission. Time and the constraints of making a film could not possibly do justice to half a century of song in South Africa. Equally, the film could have interviewed a more varied range of musicians, activists and ordinary people.

However, the power and the urgency of freedom music lives on in the documentary. An inspirational call to arms, “Amandla!” (power) – followed by the retort “Awethu!” (ours) – means power to the people, and the documentary is testimony to that powerful triumph of spirit.

Amandla! runs for 102 minutes and is currently showing at selected cinemas across the country.

  • Click here to watch the Dave Matthews interview on Amandla!
  • The soundtrack to Amandla! which includes pre-recorded masterpieces from legendary South African musicians, new voices from South Africa, as well as amazing never-before-heard field recordings and performances recorded exclusively for the movie. One dollar from every record sold will be donated to the Vusi Mahlasela Foundation, a music resource centre for young people in Pretoria. More info, orders