Author: Sarah Corsa
Just as “We Shall Overcome” became the anthem of the civil rights movement in America, music helped to maintain the mostly nonviolent nature of the revolution in South Africa. It brought people together and gave them a way to protest the unjust policies implemented by the government. Certain songs were banned and entire groups of people could be arrested for singing them, so musicians were conscious of the potential consequences and often chose to take the risk of singing them to enforce the importance of their message.
“Amandla!” is a documentary produced by professor Sherry Simpson Dean about the role of song in South Africa during apartheid that features the key people who sang these songs. It was shown at Occidental on Tuesday, Oct. 9 as a part of a Diplomacy and World Affairs class.
In her first visit to South Africa to begin filming, Simpson Dean had a chance meeting with Nelson Mandela that encouraged her to go forward with the film. While standing outside a hotel in Johannesburg waiting for her car from the valet, a black Mercedes with the South African flags pulled up. Out stepped Mandela. After a fifteen minute conversation in which she described her mission to make a documentary highlighting what role music had played in ending apartheid, he assured her that the story was an important one and invited her to a rally the next day. Although she had originally been unsure as to whether there was anything to explore behind the story that was pitched to her, Mandela assured her that there was.
Although Mandela perfectly articulated the main points of “Amandla!” in his subsequent speech, Simpson Dean chose not to include the clips of him describing the role of song in her movie. She wanted it to be told by the people.
Simpson Dean had no problem finding the voices to tell the story of South Africa’s revolution. ”People just kind of magically appeared,” said Simpson Dean. “Just as Nelson Mandela appeared on that corner, the right people showed up.”
“Amandla!” features many people who were deeply involved in the struggle to end apartheid. Two of the most popular singers of their time, called “Mandela’s Girls,” are shown singing and retelling their experiences. While singing a woman tells the story of having her baby in jail after being arrested for protesting. She is now in Parliament in South Africa. Other prominent musicians periodically cut in playing major songs from their generation. Additionally, they wanted to feature youth as well as older people who actually experienced the revolution.
The movie was relevant to both the DWA and African Revolutions CSP classes that watched it this week because of its focus on the change to a government by and for the people. The movie screening matched up perfectly with the classes’ studies on South African revolutionaries.
“There’s power in things that aren’t always violence. Something as simple as a song can be powerful and can threaten the whites and the Africaaners,” said Natasha Anderson (first-year) from the African Revolutions CSP.
An aspect of song that gave the black South Africans power was their ability to write lyrics in their native languages. They could sing songs about their white oppressors, specifically against the creator of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, without receiving any direct backlash from the government. Vocals were the main focus of their music because of the ability to pass the words on from person to person. Their lyrics provided an outlet for their anger other than violence.
Simpson Dean is interested in making another film about South Africa, this time on the conditions of mines. Although they are the last vestiges of apartheid, they can also show success in the new South Africa. Her new project continues her goal of capturing history and informing the world of the actions that drive social change.
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