Singing Freedom: the role of song in anti-apartheid protest

One defining feature of the Non-Stop Picket outside the South African embassy in the late 1980s was its noise.  The Picket could be quiet, if the number of protestors present was low, or it was the middle of the night, but very often it was alive with sound.  During the day picketers would use one of the group’s megaphone to make speeches about apartheid, or lead others in chanting.  But picketers also sang.  They sang songs created out of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and other songs followed, improvised on the Picket to celebrate its work.  Singing was so central to the life of the Picket that the lyrics of these South African freedom songs were printed on song sheets for distribution on the Non-Stop Picket to encourage all picketers to join in.

City Group Singers perform at a Rally in Brixton Town Hall (Source: Deirdre Healy)

The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group also had a choir, City Group Singers, with a loose and constantly shifting membership.  City Group Singers met and rehearsed away from the Picket , although the frequency with which this occurred varied over the years.  Very often the Singers would try out new songs and, having rehearsed them, would teach them to other picketers.  The Singers performed at many rallies and events organised by City Group, but they were also invited to perform at other events and festivals.  They also played an important role in fundraising for the Picket and to raise money to send to the liberation movements in South Africa – the Singers would go busking in Covent Garden or on a Sunday in Camden Market.  In November 1987 they released a tape called Freedom Songs which City Group sold at events as a fundraising tool.

City Group Singers in costume at Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park (Source: Sian Newman)

In the early days of the Non-Stop Picket, the Singers would often perform in brightly coloured hand-painted tabards bearing slogans against apartheid.  Dressed in these costumes, they added colour to rallies and demonstrations.  The outfits made clear what they were singing about and added to the political impact of their performances.

City Group Singers sing Bayangena

There are at least two further ways in which singing played an important role in the political cultural of the Non-Stop Picket.  The practice of collective singing brought picketers together. In this way it helped activate the Picket when energy was flagging, providing focus and impetus to keep going with the political work of petitioning, fund-raising and engaging passing members of the public in dialogue.  If the Picket was under threat from police intervention or fascist attack, choral singing could help cohere the Picket as a collective, so that it was better able to defend itself against attack.  Finally, singing songs from the struggle against apartheid was itself a form of solidarity, a means of spreading a political message and symbolically sharing a culture of resistance with those resisting racist rule in South Africa.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Singing Freedom: the role of song in anti-apartheid protest

  1. Pingback: Remembering Denis Rosen: Jewish socialist and anti-apartheid activist | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

  2. Pingback: Creative practice, activism and place-identities seminar (Bristol, 4 September 2012) | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

  3. Pingback: Ken Bodden: anti-imperialist singer (1950 – 2013) | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

  4. Pingback: Ken Bodden – Revolutionary Artist (1950-2013) | Red

  5. Lorraine Hutcheson says:

    Please trying to contact Hannah Coller as she and Ken stayed with me in Denver Colorado! I’m in London for a week in Ealing Common. Call at Premire Inn room 512. Thanks Lorraine Nov 18 2014

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