This excerpt is from a chapter in my book, Cultural Resistance on Robben Island: Songs of Struggle and Liberation in South Africa. Izingoma Zo Mzabalazo Esiqithini, that I am busy finalising for publication by Skotaville Academic Publishing early in 2023. This book is based on my doctoral research and dissertation, titled Izingoma zo Mzabalazo Esiqithini!: Role of Songs in the African Liberation Struggle of South Africa, 1960-1991. A Culture History of Robben Island, done while I studied at Howard University in Washington D.C., USA. The focus of my PhD is based on my working experience as a Researcher and Oral Historian in the Research Unit of the Heritage & Resources Department at Robben Island Museum from 2000 – 2003 when I left to study at Howard. Working on Robben Island (before state capture) was the most fulfilling working experience of my life – to date.
The question that has continued to concern me is why so little has been written in the autobiographies and memoirs of the senior ANC leadership about the Black Consciousness Movement specifically; and its definite impact and influence on Robben Island in the post-1976 period? Mandela writes just one page about this powerful group in Long Walk to Freedom; and Kathrada merely incorporates a short passage in his Memoirs. Part of the answer to this question is found in the interviews of two Black Consciousness political prisoners. Firstly, Fiks Qithi:
This seems to have been forgotten by the comrades who are leading us, that this section, to arrive here in 1976 we were a new generation of prisoners on this Island….that period represented some revolutionary change here on the Island…. Fikile “Fiks” Qithi, E Section Reference Group, August 2001, Tape No. C 6/17 RF-0292. Robben Island Museum Interviews.
And secondly, Saths Cooper:
The massive difference, I think, is with the post-1976 generation, very specifically with those of the Black Consciousness and who were innovated by the ideas of Black Consciousness or Black Power at the time; was that this was totally a generation, these were large numbers; young people who came in. And where you have a dwindling political prisoner population by the time you come to the mid-1970s, all of a sudden from 1977 onwards the prison population just burst, that it seems there is overcrowding; between when I got there in December 76 and when we left a few years later that prison population probably doubled. So, it was reminiscent of the influx in the early 1960s when large numbers of persons were convicted for so-called Poqo activities.Saths Cooper Interview, Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi, July 30, 2009. Johannesburg.
In short, what these narratives are telling us is that the volume of this Black Power – Black Consciousness Movement – was just too much and irrepressible: thus the powers-that-be — while in prison and after their release—in order to diminish this movement’s power, determined it was best not to give it political mileage whenever they write and talk about Robben Island, and by extension, about the liberation struggle history of South Africa.
Perhaps another rationale for the marginalisation of the Black Consciousness Movement is the fact that the movement was also Africanist in its thinking. For instance, the SASO-Nine, which was the first group of Black Consciousness Movement activists to be imprisoned on Robben Island in December 1976, who were tried by the apartheid government for their participation in the “Viva Frelimo Rallies” organized by the BCM on September 25, 1975.“The Trial of SASO/BPC Detainees”, Wits Historical Papers – Karis/Gerhart Collection, 1975. (14 pages.) The trial of SASO/BPC detainees | Digital Innovation South Africa.
The other cultural difference that distinguishes the BCM generation from the older generation they found on the Island was that they were much more literate and well-read on culture, including poetry, African and African Diasporan literature, art, protest songs and the music of such artists as Bob Marley. All these became part of their culture as a weapon strategy in the emancipation of the oppressed black majority.
Bafana Buthelezi writes in his article ‘The Role of Students and Youth in the Changing Azanian Situation’:
The re-Africanisation of minds is what we call Black Consciousness. Our concern has been to rid the black people of the element of fear and inferiority complex, which have been inculcated by the colonialists through their missionaries and later through their systems of education. These are weapons through which the black man was made to despise his culture, and so to despise himself. Black consciousness sought to destroy this myth and bring psychological liberation to Blacks.Ibid.
But Kathrada and Mandela’s older generation who came to prison in the sixties were not contemporaries of Biko and SASO-Nine’s youthful generation that joined them in prison in the seventies. For the first time in the history of the African liberation struggle in South Africa, in the era of the Young Lions (youth) – or the so-called Klipgooiers – there was a clear case of generational gap. No one before this Black Consciousness generation had refused to sing that sacred hymn-and-anthem that was at the same time the sound-track of the liberation struggle, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. They were brave to refuse to sing it.
For their attitude, the Black Consciousness political prisoners were considered to be militant; and in the words of Mandela, “their instinct was to confront rather than cooperate.”Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, p.470 In his account of the Soweto uprising on Robben Island, Kathrada was clear that the older generation of political prisoners had realized almost at once that a new chapter in the struggle had been opened, and that the younger generation was sending an unequivocal message to the country and the world. The fear that had taken hold in the post-Rivonia decade had been overcome, and freedom in our lifetime was within reach.“Changing Times”, in Ahmed Kathrada, Ahmed Kathrada: Memoirs, p. 276.
In my 2007 interview with Naledi Tsiki – who was a political prisoner on the Island in the post-1976 period and was at the time of this interview the chairperson of the Robben Island Museum Council – explained the significance of Robben Island.
Robben Island became a school that taught people and treated people to be better human beings. It taught us something very significant, Robben Island taught us that adversity can actually be a great privilege, if it was turned around, and utilized as a platform for education. We survived because creativity was imperative. As a result, you had a lot of cultural groups coming up. You had poets, people who were able to create poetry, recite poetry, and write poetry that was phenomenal. You had writers, although there were difficult conditions, people wrote short stories; I remember a person of the calibre of Harry Gwala. He was a brilliant short story writer. There were other writers. There were political stories, continuous conversations, continuous engagement. This was a very vibrant community; it was not a mourning community. Naledi Tsiki Interview: November 27, 2007, Pretoria. Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi Interviews.
The creation of music; you had musicians who actually started songs on the Island; we had composers of various genres of songs. We had choral music. I remember Justice Mgidi; Justice Mgidi was a young man who came in the nineties, and he had been in the same choir that was conducted by Oliver Tambo. When he found out that he started a music choir, where we were involved with people like Nebafake and several others. And he taught us songs that some of the guys had composed.
Then there were traditional songs, you know nogobebe for Sesotho and ndlame in isiZulu, for instance. I remember we had one specific grouping which was led by Pat Mathosa, from the Free State. Then there would be instrumental music, where you have really brilliant musicians, such as a guy we used to call Bra Shume, who was an ANC member; we had Mtshanyana, who was a PAC member, a brilliant musician. Ibid. Italics indicate emphasis by the speaker.
Tsiki told me that later they had people like Madondo, who was a trumpet player and then Bojawa Molefe, Jacob Molefe, and James Mange and his group. So, they had a variety of music genres and some songs were freshly composed and some of the songs were songs we knew.
We had these cultural activities which kept people busy. And some of the songs, that we used to sing for instance, when we were at the quarry, in the early days, whether it was the Stone quarry or the Lime Quarry, and we were digging; I remember there was a friend of mine, who came from the Black Consciousness Movement, Nkwenkwe Nkomo, and we used to sing as we were digging at the Lime Quarry.Ibid.2
While there were a variety of songs, Tsiki explains that there was a preference for which songs to sing, for example, during a political meeting, they would go for political songs.
But in most instances the songs that were sung were just normal songs from our cultural heritage. It was not necessarily revolutionary in the sense of being gun – Umshini Wam! [My Machine Gun!], they were ordinary songs that people sung: Lizzy, Lizzy sithandwa sam! [Lizzy, Lizzy, my love]. You know, love songs.Ibid. 3
Umshini Wam (My Machine Gun)
Umshini wami, umshini wami
My machine gun, my machine gun
Awuleth’ umshini wami
Please bring me my machine gun.
This interview with Tsiki was done in 2007 when Thabo Mbeki was the president of both ANC and country. Tsiki mentions this song, Umshini Wam, in the post-1976 period on the Island; I am certain he did not know at the time of his interview that Umshini Wam (My Machine Gun) would, a few years later, become the most infamous liberation and struggle song of the then deputy president of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, in his public fight to ascend to the throne of the presidency of the ANC and the country—against the sitting president, Thabo Mbeki.
The contrast between these two songs that Tsiki remarks about in his interview, Umshini Wam and Lizzy, Lizzy sithandwa sam, is quite powerful; and I relate their conflict to one of Bob Marley’s songs, Concrete Jungle that appears on the album Catch A Fire, released in 1973.
Where is the love to be found?
Won’t someone tell me?
‘Cause life, sweet life, must be somewhere to be found
Out there somewhere boy
Instead of concrete jungle
Where the living is hardest … Complete Lyrics of Bob Marley: Songs of Freedom, London, New York, Sydney: Omnibus Press, 2001, p.29.
In Lizzy, Lizzy, sithandwa sam and Concrete Jungle, the political prisoners on the Island, like Tsiki, sing about their prison experience of the seventies; and Marley sings about the experience of his environment in the ghetto of Trench Town, in Kingston, Jamaica during the same decade. Their “world is devoid of playful sunlight and everything that is frivolous and hopeful. In their world, in which darkness dominates, the singers are left wondering where love is. Yet they are hopeful and adamant that there is love somewhere.”Ibid, p.47. In the case of Marley, “he employs nature’s imagery in a song that is about the physical place called the ghetto or the concrete jungle”Ibid .4; and in the situation of Tsiki and his community of political prisoners on Robben Island, the love song becomes a lament for the longing and absence of their loved ones – sithandwa sam (my love) – far away from them outside the prison – another type of “concrete jungle.”
Thus, in both these songs, Lizzy, Lizzy, sithandwa sam and Concrete Jungle, what would appear to be a love song becomes a lament about the “the physical place called ghetto” on the one hand, and “the prison” on the other hand. Marley, like the political prisoners on Robben Island, “understood that the greatest love lyrics are those that are rooted in the realities of life and the greatest political songs are truly love songs.” Ibid., p. 47.
Robben Island, like Trench Town, has been the home of political prisoners and is a place of hard living, hunger, suffering, oppression, and persecution – all those things. And yet, Tsiki talking about Robben Island and Marley talking about Trench Town both affirm that there is sithandwa sam (my love) and that love [is] to be found…somewhere where the living is hardest. Tsiki makes the distinction in the interview that it was:
Not in the single cells, but in the general cells [where] there was singing; and that became more regular after 1977 because they were younger prisoners, and they will sing songs that they were accustomed to. Overwhelmingly freedom songs, some new ones and some old ones that have been there over time. So, there was singing. Somehow, into the 80s period, the early 80s, singing died.Naledi Tsiki Interview: November 27, 2007, Pretoria. Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi Interviews.
It was natural that when Tsiki’s Black Consciousness group arrived on Robben Island in 1977, they continued to commemorate Sharpeville Day as political prisoners of the Black Consciousness Movement. In October of that year, they were moved into the single cells’ Sections of the prison; and in March of the following year (1978) they held a commemoration for the Sharpeville Massacre. According to this group, the ANC declined to participate in it because they viewed Sharpeville as a PAC event. And each year there would be a Sharpeville Day commemoration, where political songs were sung.
Political meetings during the decade of seventies were held separately.
Everyone who says there were joint political meetings is romanticizing; and not being correct with the truth. There were times when people agreed to do things together, but most of the time there was agreement on disagreement. So eventually in the early 80s there was a greater agreement on cooperation around issues; it became very clear that the longer we remain divided, the more there would be ability to take advantage of us.Naledi Tsiki Interview: November 27 2007.
The freedom songs that were sung by the younger prisoners and were common in the post-1977 period reflect the militancy and radicalism of the youth. They include the following:
Wena Mathanzima [You Mathanzima]
You are a spy!
In this song, the youth challenged the Bantustan leader Kaiser Mathanzima of the Transkei, who was for them a stooge or puppet, who worked with the apartheid regime of South Africa.
The next song:
Bayagqhekezela [They are afraid]
They are afraid
They are afraid of whites
Bathi ngqcolo sibuyile emova
They are saying it is better to go back
Be patient/ be strong
Koseduze kwa siyakhonaIt
is close where we are going
This song was sung for those comrades who were becoming impatient with the struggle and who were demoralized by the challenges of prison life and conditions because these were the realities of their struggles in prison.
The youth used the social songs of the day that were traditional songs and they took the words of the struggle and turned them into radical and militant songs. For example, Shanayela Mabala [Sweep the ground/Prepare the ground], was a traditional wedding song. Mothers, girls, and daughters would be required to sweep the floor/grounds in preparation for the bride who was coming during a wedding. But the wedding song was turned into an armed struggle song:
Mkhonto Oyeza [Mkhonto is Coming]
Shanayela mabala zingane
Sweep the grounds children
Mkhonto is coming
Will shoot them!
Uphethe ama-scorpions ngesandla
Mkhonto is holding scorpions with hands!
With this militancy came the toyi-toyi dance that in the prison environment was difficult to execute because of the presence of warders at all times. But the youth improvised by singing these words without the dance, but still called the song Toyi Toyi:
Toyi Toyi Song
Tambo belongs to us.
He is a leader
Tambo belongs to us.
He is a leader
Sesiya lethatha! iLizwe!
Now we are taking it! Our land!
We are taking it, it is ours.
Kwa phela abantu kwelagithi!
People are dying in our land!
In Soweto! In Sharpeville!
Wathi ngihlanye! Ngihlanya!
Makes me angry! Be angry!
The shouting of the word Nyamazane! (Wild animal!) in this song emanates from the context of the time when activists were operating underground and as such were called “izinyamazane” – wild animals. Another relevant meaning of the word is that the people were so wild they would do anything that was required of them, including taking their land back, regardless of the circumstances in which they found themselves.
Taking Up Arms [Armed Struggle]
Amajoni! Amajoni! Amajoni!
Soldiers! Soldiers! Soldiers!
Struggle work is hard
The struggle needs soldiers
Struggle work is hard
Struggle requires soldiers.
Izakunyatheli Afrika! [Africa Will Trample You!
Africa is going to crush/trample you!
Beware! That is going to happen!
The liberation of African countries in the mid-1970s, such as Mozambique in June 1975, gave the Black Consciousness youths hope; a song like Izakunyatheli Afrika! (Africa will trample You!) communicates their optimism for the coming of their freedom in South Africa.
According to Moodley,
We, who came out of the universities and were involved, the youth in the mid-to-late ’60s, always held Robert Sobukwe and Nelson Mandela and people like that in awe. We thought these were the leaders of the revolution. We had tremendous respect for them.Strini Moodley Interview by John Carlin, Accessed 2012-07-24.
Zithulele Cindi, another SASO-Nine member, supports Moodley on this point:
Remember we were charged partly for eulogizing them, calling them our leaders …saying our leaders were on Robben Island. But you meet them and they don’t match expectations.…We came with our vibrant militancy and our outright defiance….We got there and we found these people who we look up to as our leader…sheepishly….When we went through the corridor….They literally turned their back on us and faced the wall. Now that’s a practice that is being enforced in these prisons….There’s a prison command that you face the wall. So they would always turn and face. But this was not what we had expected – the black man we had always eulogized now turning his back on us….So we then had to embark on a defiance now of the warders. We would say hey, black style [clenched fist up] and they’d say “keep quiet.” And we’d say there’s nothing wrong in greeting….this is our form of greeting….So they accepted that. We scored a victory. [The point of it was] to restore their dignity.Fran Buntman, Robben Island and Prisoner Resistance to Apartheid, p.116.
It was this “tremendous respect for them” and “to restore their dignity” that made the BC prisoners sing songs, not only about their leader, Biko, but also about Mandela and Sobukwe as leaders of their struggle:
Steve Biko, ke wa rona,
Steve Biko is ours.
Mandela, ke wa rona
Mandela is ours.
Sobukwe, ke wa rona
Sobukwe is ours.
Steve Biko, ke wa rona,
Steve Biko is ours.
Biko Ke wa rona,
Biko, is ours
Ke wa rona
He is ours, he is ours.
When I asked Cooper whether the post-1976 prisoners came with particular freedom songs that were different from what BC found on the Island, he responded:
Yes, because these were the songs that we were singing when we were outside prison. In our political activities and so on, we would sing those songs. And some of those songs lionized the Mandelas of this world; Sobukwes and so on. And particularly the younger prisoners in the General Section cells sang them. So ’77 you heard the singing; ’78 you heard the singing; ’79; and somewhere around ’81, ’82, that died, I did not hear the singing. Maybe I was going deaf, I don’t know. But it would seem to me that we got back to a place where there was the quiet that we found when we got to prison at the end of 1976. That quietness had returned [in his voice there was sadness when he said this; painful voice].Saths Cooper Interview: Tape 2, Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi, July 30, 2009, Johannesburg.
The land belongs to us!
Thina abantwana be Afrika
We, the children of Africa
Sikhalela ilizwe, ilizwe Lethu
We are crying for the land, our own land
That was taken by the boers/whites
Umkhokheli wethu, Sobukwe!
Our leader, Sobukwe!
Sobukwe! Bua le APLA
Sobukwe! talk to APLA
Sifuna iAPLA engene eSouth Afrika
We want APLA to enter South Africa
To fight the boers!
iAPLA ezo khulula South Africa
APLA is going to liberate South Africa
iAPLA ezo khulula umhlaba
APLA is going to liberate the land
Of the African People!
Another example of the inter-generational gap relates to reggae music and songs. In his interview, Cooper makes the assertion that the songs of Bob Marley and especially Peter Tosh, were probably a little more expressive of the black experience. But the critique that Mbeki would give to the younger members of the ANC, like Sandesi Jake, who were closer to them in age, was that “these were reactionaries! There is nothing like a black experience, and what nonsense to say No Woman, No Cry and so on. Some of Peter Tosh’s black in your face lyrics were roundly rejected!”Ibid. 5
Cooper said “It was amazing the warders could not hear the messages in the reggae songs as we played them. And for us, it was, ‘can’t you hear what this is about!? I mean it is clear, it is speaking about the black condition, exploitation, oppression, slavery, it went as far back as slavery.”Saths Cooper Interview: Tape 2, Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi, July 30, 2009, Johannesburg.
|1.||Fikile “Fiks” Qithi, E Section Reference Group, August 2001, Tape No. C 6/17 RF-0292. Robben Island Museum Interviews.|
|2.||Saths Cooper Interview, Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi, July 30, 2009. Johannesburg.|
|3.||“The Trial of SASO/BPC Detainees”, Wits Historical Papers – Karis/Gerhart Collection, 1975. (14 pages.) The trial of SASO/BPC detainees | Digital Innovation South Africa.|
|5.||Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, p.470|
|6.||“Changing Times”, in Ahmed Kathrada, Ahmed Kathrada: Memoirs, p. 276.|
|7.||Naledi Tsiki Interview: November 27, 2007, Pretoria. Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi Interviews.|
|8.||Ibid. Italics indicate emphasis by the speaker.|
|11.||Complete Lyrics of Bob Marley: Songs of Freedom, London, New York, Sydney: Omnibus Press, 2001, p.29.|
|14.||Ibid., p. 47.|
|15.||Naledi Tsiki Interview: November 27, 2007, Pretoria. Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi Interviews.|
|16.||Naledi Tsiki Interview: November 27 2007.|
|17.||Strini Moodley Interview by John Carlin, Accessed 2012-07-24.|
|18.||Fran Buntman, Robben Island and Prisoner Resistance to Apartheid, p.116.|
|19.||Saths Cooper Interview: Tape 2, Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi, July 30, 2009, Johannesburg.|
|21.||Saths Cooper Interview: Tape 2, Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi, July 30, 2009, Johannesburg.|