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Rough Guide to South Africa

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By Thomas Beavis

If you seek an immersive experience, stick on the Spotify playlist. Each section also has whole albums to illustrate it.

Look out your window. What do you see? I grew up in Fish Hoek, South Africa, where the skyline is dominated by mountains. My window looked out onto the sea and my house was within walking distance of the beach - even on toddling legs. I could hear a chorus of birds singing through a thick haze of heat; see reds and greens, cooled by the colour of the sky. My days were spent losing tennis balls in our massive hibiscus bush or picking tomatoes out of my sandwiches. In the same mountain shade, a child my age would look out their pane-less window and see a tangle of telephone wires, sprawled across dirt

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paths and winding through endless shacks. Another child, only a few kilometres away, would see their family’s dusty land stretching out in front of their plaashuis, dotted with chickens.

Such is the nature of South Africa; an incongruity of people living side by side but in separate spheres. Accordingly, musical genres evolved separately and then naturally converged as people integrated. The result is a spectrum like no other. Here I will give you a glimpse into the vibrant musical and cultural journey South Africa has borne as a result of its segregated past.

Gospel & the beginning of apartheid

Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Amubatho (1973)

Christian conversion campaigns in the 18th century had a big influence on modern South African music. Traditional tribal societal ways, who believed in deities, readily adopted the religion and today almost 80% of South Africans belong to Christian sects. The current national anthem, 'Nkosi Sikel’ iAfrika', is an adaptation of a 1897 composition by the Methodist choirmaster Enoch Sontonga, whose lyrics in Xhosa: “Bless our chiefs; may they remember their Creator…” show the Christian influence that reverberates through subsequent musical periods.



synchronised dancing. Originally a form of release involving using every bit of your body as an instrument or wiggling limbs with various shakers, this ultimately became a way for the miners to protest. Gumboot dancing has become an iconic image of anti-apartheid campaigning and is still performed today.

This Ladysmith Black Mambazo album was recorded in the 1970s but epitomises Mbaqanga.


An increase in mining in the early 20th century led to further subjugation of the already disadvantaged black South Africans by white colonisers, and to horrific working conditions including prohibition of socialising. In defiance, workers learned to communicate through stomping, morse code-style, with their gumboots (or "Wellingtons", to you Brits).

In tandem with acapella, gospel-style singing (later named Mbaqanga), this evolved into

The jiving 20s & the flip side of the coin

Miriam Makeba – Nomalungelo (2019) & An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba (1965)

By the 1930s, laws confining non-white people to certain areas and disrupting their everyday lives were in full effect. Nevertheless, music prevailed. For the next few decades, the evolution of African jive mirrored the jazz movement in North America. Due to its prohibition, Marabi was centred around shebeens, the style of speakeasies, which got everybody dancing in the face of oppression. Marabi gave rise to many more notable genres, and the fact that it was politically charged piqued international interest in South African pop music.


The activist musician Miriam Makeba used the emergence of pop music as a tool for resisting the restrictions imposed by apartheid. Music was one of the few things able to undermine the laws, as global attention and the irrepressible popularity of certain acts led to wider performance and recording opportunities. I picked the collection of Makeba’s early recordings – Nomalungelo, as a link between Marabi and later genres. The 1965 album An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba was a revolutionary anti-apartheid collaboration between Miriam and the ‘King of Calypso’: Jamaican-American humanitarian activist Harry Belafonte. Miriam was essentially smuggled out of South Africa to record, after which she was exiled.

Marais & Miranda – South African Folk Songs (1957)

The explosion of politically driven, anti-apartheid music contrasted with the relatively stale progression of Afrikaans music. Although they had tyrannical and undemocratic control of the country, the Afrikaner community was a minority, and they therefore felt their cultural heritage was under attack. The music on this side of the coin was mainly melancholic ballads about life in South Africa. Ironically, Afrikaners today use elements of this blues-inspired genre to express melancholy in the face of racism…

Breaking down barriers and the fall of apartheid

Lizzy Mercier Descloux - Zulu Rock (1984)

Paul Simon - Graceland (1986)

International sanctions imposed on South Africa lasted from the 1960s until the repeal of apartheid policies in 1991. The isolation of South African culture during this time increased the internal pressures on the government from politically active artists. The international boycott began to have a negative impact on lives of white South Africans, convincing them of the need for change. During this period, Lizzy Mercier Descloux – a French musician – recognised an opportunity to further the fight for justice, as well as the appeal South Africa’s unique gospel-jazz fusion, and produced a collaborative album to great effect, despite the cultural embargo. There was no ambiguity in her lyrics; in 'Sun Jive' she sings “the worst side of Africa; stuck in the white side of Africa”. Her stance is clear. Two years later Paul Simon recorded Graceland with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. These two albums revealed the richness of South African music, which was waiting to be unleashed on the world.

Jonny Clegg - Shadow Man (1988)

Brenda Fassie - Amadlozi (2000)

During the boycott anti-apartheid artists were becoming more outspoken and gaining wider support. Johnny Clegg, a white South African became well-known for working with both white and black musicians, setting an example and promoting integration. He combined elements of rock and blues with gospel-style choruses to tell the story of apartheid South Africa from an objective standpoint. This period coincided with the rise of disco, which you can hear in Brenda Fassie’s music. She stood against racism, sexism and cultural limitations. Her song ‘Shoot Them Before They Grow’ speaks of the apartheid government’s attempts to disadvantage future generations of non-whites. She also played a big part in raising awareness of a new hip-hop style (Kwaito) emerging from impoverished communities.

Post-apartheid freedom of expression

Mandoza - Godoba (2001)

Freshlyground - Nomvula (2004)

GoldFish - Perceptions of Pacha (2008)

Nowadays there are no laws of segregation restricting life in South Africa. Kwaito is listened to throughout the country, regardless of its non-white origins. Mandoza was to young South Africans what 50 Cent is to the rest of the world. His contribution to Kwaito meant kids like me all over the country were walking to school with swagger, feeling like total badasses. The South African mixture of influences culminates in the music of groups like Freshlyground and GoldFish, providing the masses with popular, upbeat

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festival vibes. Without restraints on race mixing, creative energy is channelled into using old African instruments such as the mbira in tracks like FreshlyGround’s ‘Rain’ and ‘Mbira beat’ by GoldFish, which give the music a distinctive feel. Although the country has begun to move in the direction of electronic production, there are lasting elements of the soulful-bluesy beginnings the old Afrikaaner communities were lapping up in tracks such as ‘Human Angels’ by Freshlyground. ‘Perceptions of Pacha’ really embodies the laid-back lifestyle I grew up with and I would recommend it for any pre-drinks, road trip or study session. GoldFish have even played at Motion, so they must be cool, right?

I can’t include every influential South African artist of the last 200 years – I apologise for any omissions – but I want to highlight the range that exists now. There are Afrikaans rappers (Jack Parrow) and punk bands like Fokofpolisiekar, rebelling against their strict conservative childhoods under the watchful gaze of God. But there is also a minority who prefer the “good old days” of racism, shown by the popularity of Bok Van Blerk’s ‘De La Rey’ as a call to arms. Although there are inevitably lasting troubles in South Africa, the role of music in promoting co-existence through the celebration of diversity is undeniable. Along with classic rock songs about getting wasted, there is a South African house movement currently gaining momentum. At the same time, a rich R&B scene is repurposing the music of soulful pioneers like Miriam Makeba and Brenda Fassie, giving them a modern sound akin to trap music, as exemplified by Moonchild Sanelly.

So, the next time you look out your window and wonder who else might be doing the same, remember the journey South Africa has taken. What is important is not the window we look through, but the shared land we live in. Music in South Africa was a vehicle for change and showed people what they had in common rather than where they differed. From a black and white history, South African music now covers the entire colour spectrum. Apt then, that we call ourselves The Rainbow Nation.


If you're a music fan and would like to put together your own rough guide to a genre, city, country or artist, please get in touch to contribute to this series: The collection will be put together and published in a print zine by the end of the academic year.

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