Power to the People. This was the rallying cry of black
South Africans who resisted the apartheid regime. The cry of human voices
raised in song characterized this liberation movement. As Abdullah Ibrahim
aptly proclaims, the revolution in South Africa is the only revolution
anywhere in the world that was done in four-part harmony. This
statement serves as the inspiration for the title of the documentary.
- There is no doubt that the music was harmonious, but this was far
from a peaceful revolution. The film, directed by Lee Hirsch and produced
by Sherry Simpson, features important freedom songs from the decades
of apartheid rule. The material is presented in chronological order,
and enhanced by rare archival footage of historic events. Throughout
the film we are treated to eye-witness accounts and the personal reflections
of famous South African musicians, some of whom (such as Abdullah Ibrahim,
Hugh Masekela, and Miriam Makeba) were forced to live in exile from
the early 1960s. They speak of their homesickness and the stark reality
of being unable to return to South Africa. Dolly Rathebe sings older
songs with great emotional force (e.g. Madam Please), while
Vusi Mahlasela and Sibongile Khumalo perform their latest compositions.
The voices of these and other musicians, as well as activists and freedom
fighters, speak and sing of the pain, anger, and grief of apartheid.
- My response to Amandla! is unavoidably located in my position
as a white South African woman. Government censorship of the media ensured
that many white South Africans remained in a state of partial or complete
ignorance about apartheid brutalities and the terrible scenes that were
flashed around the rest of the world. I grew up in a time when history
textbooks began with the falsehood of the white mans arrival to
a South Africa empty of people. When censorship gradually eased in the
1990s, South Africans like me had to discover the omissions and lies
in our concept of history and face the awful truths it contained. In
addition to telling the story of black resistance and the importance
of music in the anti-apartheid struggle, Amandla! reveals this
silenced history. The use of song to tell this story is particularly
important, as the intense eyes of activist Sifiso Ntuli say to us, before
we even hear his words: Song is something that we communicate
to the people who otherwise would not have understood where we were
coming from. You could give them a long political speech and they would
still not understand, but I tell you, when you finish that song people
be like I know where you guys are coming from. Death unto apartheid.
The struggle becomes the song and the song becomes the struggle.
- The film is framed at the beginning and end with the 1998 exhumation
of Vuyisile Minis remains at a paupers cemetery. Mini, an
activist and well-known composer of freedom songs, was hanged in 1964.
His best known song, Nantsi
Indoda Emnyama (Here Is the Black Man), contains
a message for Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd, the father of apartheid. Beware
Verwoerd, here is the black man is the text, the first of many
catchy tunes that concealed their threatening messages through the use
of cheerful melodies and vernacular languages that are mostly incomprehensible
to white people.
of Vuyisile Mini
- In between, we follow apartheid history from 1948 when the Afrikaner
Nationalists came into power. The 1950s encapsulated a period of optimism,
despite the governments gradual implementation of repressive apartheid
policies. At this time, Sophiatown, one of the last places in South
Africa where people of different races lived together, was demolished
and turned into a white residential
area. The efforts of young gang members (tsotsis) who wrote we
wont move on the walls of the houses were completely in
vainbrick by brick, Sophiatown was pulled down. The film shows
us families placing their precious bundles of possessions onto government
trucks and waving at the camera as they are driven away. The new abode
for the black Sophiatown residents, known somewhat ironically as Meadowlands,
is the title of a song the film features from this period, performed
by the young Miriam Makeba.
- When the Sharpeville shootings took place on 21 March 1960, the optimism
of the 1950s turned into numb fear. Police opened fire at a peaceful
demonstration against the hated pass laws, which required every black
South African in an urban area to present the correct certification.
Sixty-nine people were killed and many more were injured. In addition
to this display of utter disregard for black lives, the government banned
liberation organizations such as the African National Congress (ANC),
and Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. The song
that encapsulates the anguish of this period is the slow, heartrending
melody of Senzeni
Na? (What Have We Done?). The
constantly repeating cycle of the words What have we done? Our
only sin is being black linked thousands of people in mourning.
Activist Duma Ndlovu explains the songs expressive power: Senzeni
Na? like We Shall Overcome, will take her rightful
place in society, because at one time a mass body of people related
to that song and touched each others hearts using that song.
- The Soweto uprising of 1976 ended all hope of obtaining liberation
through passive resistance. Over 15,000 school children rioted in response
to a government decree that Afrikaans (seen as the language of the oppressors)
would be used as a medium of instruction in black schools. The riots
spread throughout the country, and continued periods of unrest led to
the declaration of several States of Emergency in the 1980s. Umkhonto
We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the ANC military wing, gained an influx
of new members as many young black South Africans left the country to
join its ranks. In the film, one of these guerilla fighters, Lindiwe
Zulu, tells of her training and experiences, and cannot contain her
tears as she sings a poignant song of mourning for dead comrades. An
important new combination of dance and song,
known as the toyi-toyi, came from the interaction between these
young people and Zimbabwean militants. Candid, and rather eerily comical
statements by retired riot policemen tell of their fear when facing
thousands of weapon-waving, singing, and dancing black South Africans
in this menacing toyi-toyi march for freedom.
- By the time that Amandla! turns to the release of Mandela in
February 1990, the audience shares the sense of palpable relief. Choirs
sing joyful praises of Madiba (as he is affectionately known in the
country) and we are treated to visuals of his famous Madiba Jive.
The accounts of the previous decades, as well as those about chilling
events in the Pretoria Central Prison by warden Johan Steinberg and
political activist/novelist Jeremy Cronin, fade away in scenes of jubilance
and victory. We see Vuyisile Minis reburial
with the respect due to a beloved and famous freedom fighter. Gone but
obviously not forgotten.
- Global audiences are most often exposed to South Africa and its music
through the medium of film. Releases such as Cry Freedom, The Power
of One, Mandela: Son of Africa, Father of a Nation, and
now, Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony shape the ideas
that many people have about the country. Film directors, therefore,
have a great responsibility to their audiences in presenting these finished
products for public consumption. While Lee Hirsch has done a sterling
job of coordinating this sensitive and perceptive account there are
some instances of his control that are rather disturbing. The most visible
of these is that Ibrahims statement (mentioned at the start of
this review) which became part of the films title is shown only
after the final credits have begun. Only the viewers who remain to see
this clip discover that, in fact, it was a South African who provided
the core idea of the film. Perhaps unintentional, these kinds of movies
nevertheless continue a long history of appropriation of sounds and
ideas of South African musicians and creative artists.
- In addition, film viewers are never treated to a more subtle view
of South African resistance music. We are never told of musical collaborations
across racial divides, for example, Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu, and
how they faced persecution because white and black people were not allowed
to appear together on stage. The story of the Afrikaner, Koos Kombuis,
a leader of the alternative rock movement that influenced thousands
of young white Afrikaans South Africans to reject the racist ideas of
their elders, is also omitted. All white people are mistakenly referred
to as boers, which is the Afrikaans word for farmers,
and a disparaging term referring to Afrikaners. These essentialized
categories of white and black ignore both the linguistic and cultural
diversity within these groups and the heterogeneous nature of the entire
South African population. This prevents the possibility of showing a
more nuanced view of the apartheid struggle.
- South Africa has moved on since the heady days of Mandelas release.
Its people now fight against poverty, crime, corruption, and AIDS. Amandla!
is an excellent and necessary testament to the past and the fledgling
hope for the future democracy. It frames significant moments in history,
and yet, the daily struggle for survival continues, as does the slow
process of reconciliation. Viewers of this documentary should keep in
mind that the film is but a snapshot of a far broader and more complicated
South African history, in which music played and will continue to play
an essential role.
University of Pennsylvania
Davenport, T.R.H. and Christopher Saunders. South Africa: A Modern
History. 5th ed. Hampshire, England: Macmillan; New York: St. Martins,
Readers Digest Association. Illustrated History of South Africa:
The Real Story. Revised 3rd ed. New York and Cape Town: Readers
Digest Association, 1994.
Hirsch, Lee, Chris Tetzeli, and Sherry Simpson. Amandla! A Revolution
in Four-Part Harmony: The Soundtrack. ATO Records 2003.