| by Kenneth Chase | 35 comments

The role of South African dance music during apartheid | Resident Advisor

“Nelson Mandela emerged from his long nightmare as a simple man.. walking his way to freedom.. accompanied by his wife Winnie.” The 1980s were turbulent times for South Africa.. but also one of the most fertile periods in its musical history. Some of that music might have caught your ear on dancefloors lately: old records like V.O.’s “Mashisha”.. Don Laka’s “Stages of Love”.. and Chicco’s “I Need Some Money”.. have been rediscovered.. and played out by festival favourites like Hunee and Antal.. as well as native South Africans like DJ Okapi and Esa. So how did this vibrant music end up disappearing for decades? The bubblegum / afrosynth sounds of South Africa.. was chewed.. consumed.. and spat out for the next. Apartheid was one of the cruellest regimes of modern times. Segregating society by race.. was a method of regulating national thought.. identity and freedom of movement. Police would beat black musicians.. launch teargas into live gatherings and jail people for years simply for owning Mandela branded shirts or coffee mugs. “We have no option.. but to continue.” It wasn’t all about violence, either. The government’s South African Broadcasting Corporation.. used its “Radio Bantu” as a further way to re-enforce tribal identity. Music was one of the vehicles that the government used to divide people, really. South Africans were led to believe that.. if you’re Zulu speaking, you can only listen to Zulu music. If you’re Shangaan, you can only listen to Shangaan music. If you’re Sutu, only Sutu music So everything was compartmentalised. But music found a way to thrive in this suffocating atmosphere.. inspiring efforts to resist repression, and encouraging a newfound national pride. Yet this was no typical protest music. The most popular sound of the day was homegrown, colourful and had a multi-racial appeal.. a slap in the face to apartheid’s creed of “separate development.” Bubblegum had a different message: that better days were just around the corner. With newly available electronic instruments flooding the market.. hits were relatively simple to churn out. The new sound was an extension of the glossy.. aspirational feel of American boogie and funk. It caught on in discotheques and semi-legal drinking spots known as shebeens.. where cover bands would run riot. There were some pretty brazen knock-offs at the beginning. Take Brenda Fassie and her band the Big Dudes.. whose debut single “Weekend Special” was an enormous smash hit in 1983 Compare the bassline to that on the BB&Q Band’s “All Night Long”.. and the chorus structure to Sharon Redd’s “Never Give You Up.” You get a sense of the homage being paid to overseas imports. Yes it was influenced by American music, because I play records out now.. and DJs are pulling out.. American synth-pop records, or Chicago house records and it was almost a carbon copy.. but with a South African flavour. The carefree nature of this hybrid style.. had critics and established musicians of the day turning their noses up. Legendary jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela was especially damning: “Disco is a social tranquilizer; you don’t recognize other things.” Probably a lot of these South African serious jazz musicians.. they probably thought: “What is this cheap music?”.. that’s where the bubblegum context comes from.. it’s cheap, it’s not so serious. However the messages that they wanted to put across were serious. Music was becoming a cultural battleground. The ruling National Party poured millions into “Operation Optimism”.. trying to ride the success of Band Aid with pro-government singalongs. But audiences saw through these tactics. Instead, they turned out in their hundreds of thousands to rallying events like “Concert In The Park”.. held at Johannesburg Ellis Park Stadium. The South African people were rejecting the indoctrination.. that separate is always better. As the tide began to turn.. the government clamped down on dissent.. calling a national State of Emergency in 1986. Stars had to devise ingenious methods of promoting oppositional consciousness.. while escaping censorship. Bubblegum was used as a Trojan Horse.. to get coded statements circling round the ears of the young fans. Radio favourites in the late ’80s like Q-Tex’s “My Della”.. and Chicco’s “We Miss You Manelow”.. appear innocent enough at first glance.. but if you read between the lines.. they encourage explicit support for the struggle movement. “I’ve been waiting.. for so long. Time is moving on.. so speed up, speed up.” Mandela’s release no longer seemed like a distant dream. The soft power of music had been converted into hard resistance.. and was helping to crack the edifice of apartheid. “Power to the people!” 1990 was a line in the sand.. following the shock announcement on February 2nd.. that apartheid was to finally end. The recent past was treated as a distant memory. The divide between blacks, whites and coloureds.. did not magically close, but newfound harmony was in the air. Everything got changed. Our national anthem.. they took three different languages and put it together. Our national flag got changed.. with the Rainbow Nation you know? So there was a lot of optimism and positivity. With the trajectory of the nation now irrevocably altered.. bubblegum lacked purpose, and its popularity cratered. In its wake grew a sound that bolted a hip-hop bump into slowed-down house. This was the irresistible vibe of kwaito. People were tired of singing these political songs. We started putting on our own lyrics, you know, on those records. You know, this is where kwaito was born. We’re not writing about political things – we felt like it’s time to celebrate now. Kwaito’s groove carries on to this day in South Africa’s love of deep house When it came to bubblegum the country simply moved on.. leaving much of it undocumented. Prominent artists fell into poverty.. while stacks of second-hand records gathered dust in warehouses, garages and attics. Following such a historical schism.. bubblegum simply fell between the cracks. It wasn’t until recently that interest began to bubble up again. Over time, DJ Okapi’s Afrosynth blog and record store.. was setup to help join the dots of this undervalued golden era. Defunct distributors like Music Team.. have been connected with contemporary labels.. like Soundway and Rush Hour.. to authorise reissues and compilations. Now these tunes can light up a dancefloor anywhere.. whether you know the political intent or not. But that baggage remains a challenge for South Africans to leave at the door. I think there’s a lot of psychological scars.. that people carry around with them.. and the ‘80s was a terrible, brutal time.. but out of this major pile of bullshit.. a flower came out.. and that was the music of the time. Even as it captivates audiences abroad.. at home, interest in bubblegum and other danceable styles of the ’80s.. looks likely to stay niche. Perhaps the context is too familiar and too raw for now. But the freedom and vitality captured in South Africa’s glorious apartheid-era pop.. couldn’t stay trapped forever.


Resident Advisor

Apr 4, 2019, 11:00 am Reply

Jivaro – Saturday Fever [Super Beat]

Umoja – Money Money [Celluloid / Awesome Tapes From Africa]

Harari – Good Vibes [Gallo]

Brenda & The Big Dudes – Weekend Special [Family]

Hugh Masekela – Stimela (The Coal Train) [Blue Thumb Records]

Jivaro – What Next [Super Beat / Rush Hour]

Yvonne Chaka Chaka – Stimela [Roy B. Records]

“Om” Alec Khaoli – Apartheid Must Go [Gallo]

Alaska – Accuse [Kalawa Jazmee / Soundway]

Splash – Potilo [CCP Recording Company]

“Om" Alec Khaoli – Equal Rights [Gallo]

Ross Palumbo

Apr 4, 2019, 11:12 am Reply

Amazing Feature! Thanks RA

Emlyn Boyle

Apr 4, 2019, 11:31 am Reply

Excellent. Thank you RA.

Alex ZA

Apr 4, 2019, 11:44 am Reply

THE QUEEN????????????????????????????????????????????????????? WHY???????????


Apr 4, 2019, 11:49 am Reply

Big up Esa!
Absolute don

Jack M

Apr 4, 2019, 11:56 am Reply

This was a good watch 🙂

Eyal Ronen

Apr 4, 2019, 1:47 pm Reply

thank you, RA

Siyethemba Msomi

Apr 4, 2019, 4:24 pm Reply

Great watch!

Jonathan B

Apr 4, 2019, 4:35 pm Reply

Harari – Party (1980) SA disco jam.

Jonathan B

Apr 4, 2019, 4:37 pm Reply

6:33 – five languages in the anthem my cuzzie.

Archive Digital

Apr 4, 2019, 5:14 pm Reply

Important! Thank you for this RA

Roberto Corsi

Apr 4, 2019, 5:15 pm Reply

what's the music at 1:38?

Nicole Pearson

Apr 4, 2019, 5:50 pm Reply

Fantastic! Thanks for sharing this amazing story.

TimothyVdp / DJ Tracksuit

Apr 4, 2019, 6:21 pm Reply

Amazing & Super interesting. Please make more of these historical video's! <3


Apr 4, 2019, 8:51 pm Reply

Thank you for sharing this 😉


Apr 4, 2019, 9:40 pm Reply

Guets video!

Eugene Baek

Apr 4, 2019, 10:08 pm Reply


Juan Adrian Garcia Cid

Apr 4, 2019, 11:10 pm Reply

I'm learning more about world history from Resident Advisor than from high school

Léonard Royer de la Bastie

Apr 4, 2019, 11:17 am Reply

Great movie! Thanks

Flavius Popan

Apr 4, 2019, 10:57 pm Reply

Wish this were longer! I'd love to see one done on the history of techno in Colombia. Almost every shop was playing amazing techno in Bogotá and it shaped the way I see the city.

Lasha Margiani

Apr 4, 2019, 7:49 pm Reply

0:50 cutest moment ever haha, I'm not gay though.

Matic Herzog

Apr 4, 2019, 8:16 pm Reply

jugo funk next !


Apr 4, 2019, 7:02 am Reply

honestly, what sort of asshole dislikes this content?

Matt Ladner

May 5, 2019, 3:26 pm Reply

You guys are killing this content. Great work!

Mono 80s

May 5, 2019, 3:41 am Reply

I’m from Cartagena Colombia 🌴☀️
And African music was very popular among poor and black communities back to the 80s and 90s. Nowadays it has a huge influence in our music and become one of the most popular.


May 5, 2019, 5:29 pm Reply

Ah yes, that great humanitarian terrorist, Winnie Mandela, inventor of the famous torture / execution method "necklacing".

Phoebe Watson

May 5, 2019, 11:52 pm Reply

Looking for the song at 5:20 (chorus 5:44), can't seem to find it on tracklist

Fred VoomVoom

May 5, 2019, 2:01 am Reply

Fantastic to see you guys, Esa and Dave, great job! South African music has this magic vibe….and lot of resources.
Fred Spider/Voom Voom Rec


May 5, 2019, 4:10 pm Reply

Repressing that Alaska – Accuse track would be absolutely legendary..

aotero u

Jun 6, 2019, 1:00 am Reply

this is nice but you are misogyracist for not censoring the comments… fail RA, you have a lot to learn, what if I was one of the 109842038401279508 genders and I read something mean??

hsoj hsquh

Jun 6, 2019, 7:53 pm Reply

Thanks 4-

raditya marzuki

Jul 7, 2019, 9:58 am Reply

It Began in Afrika..ka..ka..ka..ka….


Jul 7, 2019, 2:13 pm Reply

The sound of Mzansi is undeniable

mark lewis

Nov 11, 2019, 6:15 pm Reply

a documentary about apartheid years with a positive texture is a rare n precious thing,..thanks,.. to S.A musicians,dj's,..and the ghosts who smuggled "illegal" music n art into the country.

Ram Goatliver

Feb 2, 2020, 5:57 pm Reply

In the 1980's a BBC documentary highlighted the great music coming out of SA that decade, including a female group that sang O Busaka – "Take Back Your ring" For the last 30 years I have been looking for the music and the video, so if any fan knows the music and who sang it, or the documentary, please let me know. I'm beginning to think I dreamed it.

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