top of page

The way we lived. 26.(Part 2) Liberation music of Sixto Rodrigues, Abdullah Ebrahim; & Vuyusile Mini

Updated: Jun 1, 2023


2021 has just begun, and COVID continues to dominate our news and our lives. As we celebrate the vaccinations currently underway, what hope is there for those in poorer countries less able to afford the vaccines? And will the vaccine provide cover for the variants in UK, South Africa, South America … These mutations are much more contagious than the original. Pandemics are supposed to continue until around 65% of the population has been infected. In former pandemics, this would take about two years. With all our lockdowns and attempts at control, will it now take longer? Those are the thoughts that come to you from a semi-retired radiologist who is still reeling somewhat from the loss of four people known to me in Cape Town in the past three weeks. These are the first of our wide-spread friends to die from COVID-19. I would hope we do not have more. Zonjia and I wish all of you well in the period ahead while hoping that 2021 proves to be better and safer than 2020. Stay safe please, wherever you are in the world!

Part two of my blog now continues.

THE WAY WE LIVED. 26. The liberation music of Sixto Jesu Rodrigues aka Sugar Man; Abdullah Ebrahim; and Vuyusile Mini. [Part 2 of 3] [7 minute read]

The apartheid barrier was also soundproof to the music of the African townships with their linguistic differences providing another obstacle to greater universalisation of their music which was highlighted as the toyi-toyi took off and became more popular from the late 1970s. (Until recently the indigenous languages were not offered as school subjects which added to even greater social distancing. How I would have preferred to learn Xhosa at school rather than the German I did or Afrikaans which was compulsory, as was English.(See one of my earlier blogs: Afrikaans, language of the oppressors? Language of the fallen?)

I regret that I did not know of South Africa’s ultimate liberation music composer, 44-year old Vuyisile Mini. Despite his popularity among the oppressed majority, I knew nought of the trade unionist or his music until recently while researching toyi-toyis for Book 2 of my trilogy. Most of the songs have simple, repetitive melodies and, as short as many were, they provided a political, narrative and mobilising function which, through song and dance, provided a cultural mirror of opposition to apartheid in our township enclaves.

This is well illustrated in one of Mini’s early songs, Thina sizwe esimnyama (We the black nation).

Thina sizwe We the nation

Thina sizwe esimnyama. The black nation,

Sikhalela, We weep,

Sikhalela izwe lethu. For our land.

Elarojwa, Which was robbed,

Elarojwa ngamabhulu. Robbed by the Boers.

Mabawuyeke, They should leave,

Mabawuyek’umhlaba wethu. They should leave our land alone.

The songs were historical and inspirational. Umkhonto we sizwe (MK) freedom fighters apparently often sang Mini’s wistful song Sobashiy’abazali bethu (We will leave our parents behind)

Sobashiy’abazal’ekhaya Our parents we will leave behind

Siphuma sangena kwamany’amazwe We will tread in foreign lands

Lapho kungazi khon’ubaba nomama Where our fathers and mothers never stepped

Silwel’inkululeko Chasing the dream of freedom.

The toyi-toyi was always sung in groups. Imagine protests, funerals and rallies with several thousand voices in balanced harmony while their high one-step dance beat out a rhythm as a lone voice called out the pain, the anguish, the anger and the call to arms. The powerful chorus sang and foot-stomped their resistance to the apartheid forces. Many South African police and troops, armed to the teeth, have admitted how fearful they were in the presence of unarmed masses who slung out their insults and challenges at them from mere metres away. Here was music that not only united the masses but empowered them too.

Such was the power of music that a gifted composer like Mini had to die for daring to write and sing against the authoritarian government. Other inmates describe how, on his way to the gallows for what are regarded as trumped-up treason charges in 1964, Mini sang one of his most popular liberation songs of the 1950s and beyond, Pasopa nantsi ‘ndondemnyama we Verwoerd, (Look out, Verwoerd, here are the Black people).

Izakunyathel’iAfrika Africa will crush you

Verwoerd shuu! Verwoerd be careful!

Uzakwenzakala! You will be injured!

(Prime Minister Verwoerd was the chief architect of apartheid.) At a furtive police burial, Vuyisile Mini’s body was placed in a pauper’s grave in Pretoria by an oft-proclaimed Christian government. His body was exhumed in 1998 for a heroes funeral in New Brighton township in Port Elizabeth.

Was the toyi-toyi a war dance? It was unlike Joan Baez’s almost peaceful We Shall Overcome. It was much more than the banned music by the Pink Floyd – Another Brick in the Wall (no doubt a reference to people as the bricks and the segregationist wall that needed breaking down).

Our ignorance of the different anthemic revolutionary music preferences is a clear sign of how effective was the ultimate divide and rule in the country – White against Black and vice versa; of Black against Black; and also White against White, like those few with a conscience vs the 70+% of Whites who voted for the ruling National Party come election day. Essentially this was haves vs have-nots stuff, of the privileged few vs the oppressed majority; of the conquerers vs the conquered, the dispossessed, the deprived, of those without a vote for the government which determined their fate, not the quasi-, pseudo-political bodies in the Homelands, Coloured Councils or even a tricameral government with its restrictions for a gerrymandered system of vote-rigging and limited political power.

So what’s all this got to do with Sixto Rodrigues? Besides the digression, here again, was that environment that so distorted cultures, languages, relationships, and, of course, music which was Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night’s “food of love”, maybe also the “food of life” itself. It’s there in our DNA!

Rodriguez is regarded by his South African fans, as way ahead of Bob Dylan for his lyricism; his voice is better, gentler, more intelligible in a calm, soothing style that questions and probes the inequities in his world. So, was he discriminated against in the USA because he was a Latino-American of Mexican heritage? As recently as June 2020, Rolling Stone referred to the ongoing issue of decades of discrimination against Latino and African American musicians in the industry. There would have been much more in the 70s. There’s an irony here with a person of colour shunned in his own country while being adopted by White South Africans in a country globally condemned for its bigotry and White supremacist rule. A form of inverted/reverse racism, maybe? My head spins with these convolutions.

We all had preconceptions andmisconceptions of those on the other side of the colour barrier – a bit like the Berlin Wall or the Israeli-Palestininian Wall or the Mexican-American Trump wall? State thought-control dominated except for those who broke from the mould. Draft dodgers emigrated or were imprisoned. A colleague like Dr Ivan Toms spent nine months in detention for refusing his

military call-up. As an organiser of the End conscription campaign and an advocate of gay rights, he was an obvious target; how the National government must have hated him and those who died while in police detention, including BCM (Black Consciousness Movement) leader Steve Biko, Imam Haron and Dr Neil Aggett, a unionist fighter. The police claimed Biko died from a hunger strike. I still shudder when I recall the Minister of Justice, Jimmy Kruger’s response to Biko’s death: “Dit laat my koud.” (“It leaves me cold.”)

[PART 3 of this blog will follow soon. Stay safe!]


bottom of page