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Exploring Transitions in Popular Music: Censorship from Apartheid to Post-Apartheid South Africa

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the censorship of popular music in South Africa during the apartheid (1948–1994) and post-apartheid years, as well as changes in musical censorship resulting from the country’s transition to democracy. It considers the different forms of censorship in South Africa, paying particular attention to central government mechanisms of music censorship through the former Directorate of Publications and the South African Broadcasting Corporation. Despite the relaxation of formal mechanisms of censorship since the early 1990s and the significant freedom of expression enjoyed by musicians, the article shows that regulation and censorship of popular music remain in effect. Finally, it assesses the current situation with regards to musical censorship in South Africa and the implications of present legislation for the future.

Keywords: censorship, popular music, South Africa, apartheid, democracy, South African Broadcasting Corporation, freedom of expression, musicians

During the apartheid era (1948–1994) South Africa became increasingly notorious for its severe censorship system, affecting all published materials, from books, magazines, pamphlets, and posters to cassettes, records, and later, compact discs. There has been much written about censorship in apartheid South Africa, both on a general level and in relation to popular music in particular.1 The purpose of this chapter is to specifically explore changes in the field of musical censorship affected by South Africa’s transition to democracy. During the apartheid era, censorship took a wider variety of forms than is possible in present-day South Africa, and all of these will be considered in this chapter. The central focus, however, will be on central government mechanisms of music censorship through the former Directorate of Publications and the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), as these state institutions are the official custodians of current regulation and censorship legislation. This chapter demonstrates that while formal mechanisms of censorship have been considerably relaxed since the early 1990s, regulation and censorship mechanisms applicable to popular music are still in place. Musicians undoubtedly experience a great deal of the freedom of expression for which they struggled during the apartheid years, but they cannot do so without constraint. The chapter concludes with a consideration of the current situation and the implications of present legislation for the future.

(p. 594) Popular Music Censorship during Apartheid

In apartheid-era South Africa the state was intricately and deeply involved with the censorship of published materials as part of a struggle to maintain its hegemony. However, formal (bureaucratic) censorship constituted only a minor strategy within its overall system of control. The state relied foremost on repressive apartheid laws and state coercion, which fostered a pervasive censorial environment within which “the distinction between artist as artist and artist as person (was) untenable” (Kunene 1986, 43). A wide range of repressive legislation in South Africa impeded performing artists’ freedom of expression, not only legislation aimed specifically at restricting publications. Apartheid laws fundamentally restricted (especially black) musicians by preventing them from freely participating in core aspects of musical creation and performance. For example, musicians of different “racial groups” were prohibited from performing together, black musicians could not live and perform wherever they wanted to, and curfews made evening performances illegal.

Notwithstanding the severity of these laws, the focus of this chapter is on specific censorship mechanisms used by the state in its attempt to prohibit the expression of undesired views expressed by popular musicians. With the exception of police harassment of artists and activists, apartheid state censorship took the form of bureaucratic censorship, centered on the state’s apartheid policies and closely related religious-based legitimacy. Importantly, the apartheid state, by forming strategic alliances in its multifaceted struggle to maintain its hegemony founded on capitalism, racism, and Calvinism, by necessity used censorship processes to silence all messages that fell outside of the dominant discourse. The moral-political framework outlined in the Publications Act (see below) integrally connected moral, religious, and political criteria so that opposition to the state’s stance on any one of these areas implied an attack on the entire hegemonic project.

It is according to this expanded notion of the apartheid project that the apartheid state’s chief censor, the Directorate of Publications, approached its mandate of maintaining “order in society” (Van Rooyen 1987, 3). The Directorate of Publications was linked to the Department of Home Affairs, but answerable to Parliament. Operating according to a supposed relative autonomy, the Directorate was not directly answerable to any government ministry. Decisions were carried out by a committee appointed by the Minister of Internal Affairs, and objections were referred to the Publications Appeal Board (PAB), which was also a government-appointed committee designed to set aside or confirm decisions of the Directorate. In terms of the Publications Act of 1974, any member of the public or police or any state official could submit items to be inspected by the Directorate. A committee convened by the Director of Publications would then scrutinize the item and decide whether or not it should be banned. According to the (p. 595) act, a publication or object, film, or public entertainment, or any part thereof would be declared undesirable if it:

  1. 1. Was indecent, obscene, or immoral;

  2. 2. Was blasphemous;

  3. 3. Ridiculed or brought into contempt any inhabitants of South Africa;

  4. 4. Was harmful to the relationship between any groups in South Africa;

  5. 5. Was threatening to the safety of the state or disturbed peace and good order;

  6. 6. Disclosed indecent, obscene, or offensive matters with reference to judicial proceedings.

Thousands of publications were declared “undesirable” and banned by the Directorate of Publications, yet only approximately 120 music albums or seven-inch singles were ever banned (Index of Objectionable Literature 1991). A large proportion of these recordings was banned for reasons of indecency, immorality, and blasphemy, deemed offensive to the average member of the public. There was also a concern that such recordings could cause young people (in particular) to be led away from hegemonic moral values. For example, the Directorate banned Celi Bee and the Buzzy Bunch’s “Superman” because “the words of this record have obvious sexual implications and as such they are offensive and undesirable. They are designed to stimulate lust and thus are offensive to public morals” (P77/10/57). Political music such as Peter Gabriel’s song “Biko,” however, was banned because it was regarded as being able to “contribute to a condition that will be harmful to the security of the state” (P80/9/90). An inspection of a cross section of Directorate of Publications decisions reveals that the Directorate was particularly concerned that antiestablishment lyrics, combined with emotive strains of music, could threaten state hegemony—both in making the subversive message more enticing and in inciting listeners into forms of antiestablishment behavior. For example, Roger Lucey’s song “You Only Need Say Nothing” (1979) was declared “dangerous” by the Directorate of Publications because: “A climate of grievance and protest is built up, and especially as the words are accompanied with the beat of African rhythm to enhance the impact of the words, the song can incite people toward insurgency and violence which can be dangerous to the safety of the State” (Directorate of Publications 1982). State censors literally feared the potential for music to drum up support for antiestablishment practice, whether on moral, religious, or political grounds.

This fear of musical messages was not only true of Directorate of Publications censors, but also of state censors operating according to a similar hegemonic brief at the SABC. During the apartheid era, virtually all radio stations were owned by the SABC, which gave it extensive control over what South Africans were able to listen to. The SABC made use of a rigorous system to vet all music played on any of its stations. An all-white SABC committee regularly held “record meetings” to scrutinize the lyrics of all music submitted to the SABC for airplay. This committee prohibited thousands of songs from airplay. Music was banned under categories similar to those applied by the Directorate, but in (p. 596) addition, songs that mixed languages were also prohibited from airplay because they disrupted the apartheid state’s agenda of separate development.

When the SABC record committee decided to prohibit a piece of music from airplay, “Avoid” was written alongside the song title on the sleeve of the SABC’s copy or copies of the album. On some occasions the vinyl itself was defaced: diagonal crosses were often scratched into the vinyl of condemned tracks, so that the needle would jump if a DJ were to disobey the intention behind the “Avoid” stickers on the cover. (Marre and Charlton 1985, 46; author’s interview with SABC archivist Cecile Pracher 2000). By eliminating the forbidden image, the censor hoped to regulate society through a form of sonic warfare, rigidly setting up cultural boundaries.

Over time these cultural boundaries became fairly clear to record companies and recording artists wanting to secure airplay on SABC and intent on avoiding the banning of their music by the Directorate of Publications. Falling foul of state censors was almost certain to lead to the financial failure of a musical release. Financial repercussions thus strengthened the influence of state censors, whose decision-making power had a panoptical effect on anyone dependent on radio play and record sales for a living. As a consequence, record companies and even musicians themselves routinely vetted potential songs before finalizing albums for release. Controversial ideas and phrases were often altered or completely dropped. One of the most famous examples of a musician’s decision to compromise in this way was Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who in the early 1970s declared that: “We keep the radio in mind when we compose. If something is contentious they don’t play it, and then it wouldn’t be known anyway” (Andersson 1981, 87).

Alongside the bureaucratic system of state censorship practiced by the Directorate of Publications and the SABC, the South African Police operated to maintain state hegemony, submitting music to the Directorate, detaining people in possession of banned music, harassing musicians, and interfering with live performances. The police thus gave censorship its teeth, in a repressive sense, not only policing censorship laws but adding the dimension of fear. The worst cases included tear-gassing venues, throwing petrol bombs into musicians’ houses, and detaining musicians (for a more detailed account of South African state and record company censorship see Drewett 2003; Gilder 1983; Kerkhof 1986; Page 1986).

The state’s incorporation of bureaucratic and repressive means in its attempt to silence what it perceived as the harmful effects of antiestablishment music places music within a context of hegemonic struggle. Although in a minority, a cross section of South African musicians wrote music and performed in opposition to apartheid hegemony. Some of these musicians simply expressed the way they felt about issues, including injustices in South African society, while others had greater ambitions, attempting to contribute toward social change in the form of a new democratic political dispensation. While some of these latter musicians, such as Mzwakhe Mbuli, were political activists, others, such as the members of Bayete, Sabenza, and Stimela, aligned themselves with progressive organizations, supporting their causes but not becoming active committee members. Whatever the lyrical aspirations of these musicians, Simon Frith’s (1996, (p. 597) 164) caution that there is “no empirical evidence that song words determine or form listeners’ beliefs and values” (see also Negus 1996, 192) needs to temper any claims about the potency of popular music as a catalyst of social change. The importance of popular music protest, however, was in musicians’ circumvention of censorship structures in order to be heard. Each instance of counterhegemony—each song, each performance—represented the refusal of musicians to relinquish a desire for a freer society. Their contributions were important in “communicating a vision of what the world could be like to others” (Eyerman and Jamison 1998, 172). This message certainly came through, not only in the lyrical and musical messages, but also in the very act of contesting the dominant apartheid discourse.

The significance of resistance music in terms of the broader political movement, regardless of the immediate effects of its lyrics on its audience, emphasizes the strategic value of apartheid censorship in attempting to silence resistant messages. In the face of severe repression and censorship, fighting censorship became a priority for many musicians. This is clearly borne out by the way in which the South African Musicians’ Alliance (SAMA) was formed around the need for musical expression. SAMA focused its efforts around the three basic freedoms central to the work of any musician: the freedom of association, the freedom of expression, and the freedom of movement. SAMA fought strongly for these freedoms by not only resisting apartheid restrictions but also trying to find ways for progressive South African musicians to play outside South Africa despite the cultural boycott. Senior members of SAMA were generally opposed to a blanket cultural boycott. The feeling was that if the apartheid government could propagate its ideas and values through popular music, so too should progressive musicians use the arena of popular music to counter those ideas with alternatives. For this reason the relaxation of political restrictions in 1990 was important to musicians, not only as South African citizens, but as musicians, in allowing them to express themselves musically.

Censorship Procedures in a Period of Transition

It certainly did not take long for the general political climate in South Africa to affect the censorship of popular music terrain. Before the end of 1992 the Directorate of Publications had officially unbanned a number of political recordings as a result of submissions from record companies—such as “Biko” (1980) by Peter Gabriel (P92/07/33), “Equal Rights” (1977) by Peter Tosh (P92/07/32), and “Jabula in Amsterdam” (1977) by Jabula (P92/07/46)—and had ceased banning political material even when it was submitted. As early as 1989 the Directorate decided not to ban the Simple Minds’ “Street Fighting Years” (1989) even though the album included the overtly political songs “Biko” and “Mandela Day” (P89/6/32). Only three music albums were banned in the period between 1990 and 1994. These were Guns n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and II (1991) on (p. 598) the grounds of obscenity and Diamanda Galas’s The Litanies of Satan (1982) on religious grounds.

However, it took the SABC longer to follow. The SABC’s record committee, who carried out censorship on behalf of the SABC, had always been overzealous in its banning of music from the airwaves. As Cecile Pracher, manager of the SABC record library stated:

Many other sections in the SABC, especially the news departments, were highly politicised and often had visits from intelligence, but we did our work so efficiently no-one had to interfere, neither intelligence nor the publications board . . . bothered us.

(Reitov 1998, 84)

Certainly, as indicated earlier, the SABC banned thousands more songs than did the Directorate of Publications. Regularly songs passed by the Directorate of Publications were banned by the SABC. This included songs from the Simple Minds’ Street Fighting Years (1989), which the SABC banned from airplay but, as noted above, the Directorate decided not to ban. Even in November 1990 the SABC sent out a memorandum reinforcing the ban of various songs from Mzwakhe Mbuli’s Change Is Pain (1986) album, despite the Directorate of Publications’ decision to unban the album in June of that year (P90/06/16).

It seems that the conservative SABC Record Committee, through its mere existence, carried on censoring well into the 1990s for the sake of having a job to do. In the post-1994 election period, it became clear that it was no longer permissible for the committee to ban songs for political reasons, yet the committee only unbanned Jennifer Ferguson’s political songs in May 1995. The committee continued to meet into 1996, banning songs on the basis of offensive language, sexually explicit content, and other controversial issues. Only when the workings of the committee hit news headlines in 1996 did the SABC decide to review its approach to censorship and dissolve the committee. In May 1996, national media reported on the banning of tracks by South African musicians David Kramer, Valiant Swart, and Nataniël. The songs were banned because “they ‘were in bad taste’ and could ‘cause offence’” (Underhill 1996). One of the songs banned was David Kramer’s “Bloemfontein Blues” (1996), which simply stated that Bloemfontein was the “kakkest [Afrikaans for ‘shittiest’] place” he’d ever been. SABC’s Govin Reddy stated that he was personally opposed to these songs being banned, but that the SABC was still caught up in old policies, which were being reformulated at the time. The result of the reformulation was a more relaxed internal censorship policy. Cecile Pracher, Manager of the SABC Record Library in 2000 stated: “There is virtually no formal censorship practiced by the SABC regarding lyrics of songs on CD. Record Librarians indicate on CDs when unacceptable words or content appear as part of the lyrics, and it is up to the announcer or DJ, to decide whether the song is to be played, or not” (personal correspondence with author 2000).

(p. 599) Accordingly, radio stations and individual DJs (SABC and independent) had to answer solely to the newly formed Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) rather than to the Censorship Committee (see below). Furthermore, during the same period the new democratic government oversaw a deregulation of the airwaves. As a result the SABC operated far fewer radio stations, and there was a concomitant growth of independent commercial and community stations. These stations are equally answerable to the BCCSA.

Censorship Processes in the Post-1994 Era

In an attempt to make a clear break from the censorship practices of the apartheid government, the new African National Congress (ANC) government sought to introduce a more democratic approach to dealing with published material including recorded popular music. The deregulation of the airwaves was an important move in that direction, as was the decision to establish the BCCSA and the introduction of the Film and Publication Board (FPB) to replace the Directorate of Publications. The underlying philosophy of all these new approaches to broadcasting and publishing was to shift control from government to the South African population more generally. The BCCSA and FPB attempted to distance themselves from the “censorship” and rather embrace “regulation” as a guiding philosophy.

The BCCSA was established as an independent body in 1993 “to promote freedom of speech, the free flow of information, and the maintenance of high standards of broadcasting in South Africa” (BCCSA 2004). Accordingly all complaints to do with broadcast material were to be directed to the Commission, rather than the individual radio stations. This procedure was an attempt at ensuring the “speedy and cost effective settlement of complaints” (BCCSA 2004) against members of the National Association of Broadcasters of South and Southern Africa (NAB). The onus was placed on individual DJs and radio stations to avoid breaking the Commission’s code of conduct, according to which the electronic media shall not:

present material which is indecent or obscene or harmful or offensive to public morals, which is offensive to religious convictions or feelings of a section of the population, which is likely to harm relations between sections of the population or is likely to prejudice the safety of the state or the public order.

(BCCSA 2004)

Nor should the electronic media “without due care and sensitivity, present material which contains brutality, violence or atrocities” (BCCSA 2004). In addition, the electronic media is warned to “exercise due care and responsibility in the presentation of (p. 600) programmes where a large number of children are likely to be part of the audience” (BCCSA 2004). Where controversial issues are aired these need to be of “public importance,” and “reasonable efforts” need to be made “to fairly present significant points of view” in the same program or similar program soon afterwards.

Given that most daytime and early evening radio and television programs could feasibly have any number of children as an audience, these regulations mean that content deemed “intended for adult audiences” must be aired during a “watershed period” between 9:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. (BCCSA 2004). Alternatively the broadcaster can play so-called clean versions of controversial material, as the commercial music station 5FM has chosen to do, by playing versions in which the record company has bleeped out controversial words, as is the case with Eminem songs.2 In an overt form of censorship, record companies regularly supply broadcasters with two versions of songs with controversial lyrics: one “clean” version and one as originally released. This form of self-censorship on behalf of record companies seems to leave the censorship decision up to the broadcaster, although the record companies who do this are clearly complicit.3

The watershed requirements outlined in the BCCSA constitution, however, reveal how terminology used in the constitution is open to subjective interpretation and consequently relies heavily on the whims of BCCSA panel members. Take for example the statement that “with the advancement of the watershed period progressively less suitable material may be shown and it may be that a programme will be acceptable for example at 23h00 that would not be suitable at 21h00” (BCCSA 2004). What, exactly, is permissible at 9:00 p.m. but not at 11:00 p.m. and who decides this, is open to wide interpretation, a situation very reminiscent of apartheid-era censorship. Indeed, the chairperson of the BCCSA, Jacobus Van Rooyen, is the former chairman (sic) of the (apartheid-era) Publications Appeal Board, and he was instrumental in drawing up the constitution of the BCCSA. Van Rooyen’s legal expertise and experience in the area of censorship led to an invitation, in 1993, from the National Association of Broadcasters to set up the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. In 1994, the newly elected ANC government asked Van Rooyen to draft a new Publications Act, based on the notion of harm (see below). Although he relinquished the chairpersonship of the Press Council, Van Rooyen went on to chair the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, a position he still holds (author’s interview with Van Rooyen 1998).

An insightful exposition of the BCCSA ties to apartheid censorship thinking is found in the BCCSA code as cited above. Many of the items listed as material to be avoided by broadcasters are remarkably similar to definitions of “undesirable” publications as stipulated in the Publications Act Number 42 of 1974 (listed above). This fact is rather disturbing, given that this act did not meet the requirements of the new constitution, in part because it employed vague terminology and was overly regulatory (Film and Publication Board 2004). While the BCCSA inspects popular musical messages on the electronic media, music in general is evaluated (if necessary) by the FPB, which replaced the apartheid-era Directorate of Publications as a result of the Films and Publications Act, Number 65 of 1996. This act paved the way for the new board, which came into full effect in June 1998 (FPB 2004).

(p. 601) Both the BCCSA and FPB make decisions on publications only on receipt of complaints, and both base their decisions on Section 16 of the Constitution of South Africa, according to which the right to the freedom of speech is upheld but does not extend to propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence, or the advocacy of hate speech based on race, ethnicity, gender, or religion, “and that constitutes incitement to cause harm” (Constitution of South Africa).

The FPB insists that it simply classifies material and does not act as a censor. In other words, if any material (other than child pornography, which is covered by Section 27 of the Films and Publications Act) is seen to intrude on other freedoms, it will not be banned but will be age restricted. According to the FPB (2004):

the difference between classification and censorship is not simply a matter of semantics. Censorship, in essence, involves the control of what others may see or read. Classification, on the other hand, involves the regulation of films and publications by means of the imposition of age restrictions and the provision of information on the basis of which choices about what to see or read may be made.

This would suggest that in all instances other than child pornography adults should be able to listen to popular music and view the sleeve in which it is packaged. The FPB tried to capture this new approach to publications through the adoption of the slogan “We inform, you choose” (FPB 2004). However, this slogan ignores the fact that the FPB does have the ability to impose an XX rating on certain publications (hate speech based on religion) and thus, even according to its own definition, practices censorship. Furthermore, while adults are allowed freedom of choice, the same does not apply to those younger than eighteen, in particular teenagers under the age of eighteen who can be denied the ability to purchase age-restricted music.

Importantly, “bona fide literature, drama, documentaries, scientific materials, and except in the case of child pornography, art, are exempted from the application of the Act” (FPB 2004). Only in the cases where children are concerned is the board able to apply age restrictions to “disturbing or harmful materials” relating to “issues of sexuality, violence and religion” (FPB 2004). How exactly “harm” is defined and how it is caused are not clearly stipulated in the act, allowing for a strong element of subjectivity to enter the classification process of films and publications.

Despite the scope for the FPB to restrict the sale of materials on the basis of harmful content, the board did not restrict the sale of any music in the initial euphoric atmosphere of South Africa’s new democracy. During these early years of democracy most political music tended to be celebratory with a few musicians raising questions about lack of government delivery, corruption, and broader social issues such as sexual inequality, HIV/AIDS, and imperialism. While not having any significant bearing on public opinion, such musical endeavors reaffirmed the new democracy’s commitment to freedom of expression. However, the release of Mbongeni Ngema’s song “Ama-Ndiya” in March 2002 led to the first instance in which the FPB restricted a music item.

(p. 602) “Ama-Ndiya”—Mbongeni Ngema

Ngema’s “Ama-Ndiya” (2002), co-written with Hugh Masakela, confronts the issue of relations between Africans and Indians in Durban. The song features Ngema singing (in Zulu) to the backing of the Committed Artists female singers. He calls on leading public figures to tackle the issue of the ill treatment and exploitation of Africans by Indians in the Durban region. It includes lines such as “We struggle so much here in Durban, because Indians have dispossessed us” and “Black people buy from Indians yet Indians do not like to build schools for black children, they don’t even like the children of black people.” The song opens with Ngema providing an introductory voice-over stating, “This song represents the way many African people feel about the behavior of the Indian people in this country. It is intended to begin a constructive discussion that will lead to a true reconciliation between Indians and Africans” (Ngema 2002). From the outset Ngema has claimed that the song in part reflects his views about unacceptable behavior practiced by Indians, but not all the lyrics represent his own views. Some of the sentiments are those of ordinary Africans “at taxi ranks, soccer matches, shebeens and many other places” (Ngema, quoted in “Ngema song” 2002).

In responding to a complaint from the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), the BCCSA banned the song from South African airwaves. The BCCSA argued that the song promoted hate speech against Indians and constituted incitement to harm (BCCSA 2002). In reaching this decision, Chairperson Van Rooyen claimed that the commission took cognizance of the fact that the song was a form of art and as such “should be afforded the protection which section 16 (1) grants to the right to artistic creativity.” He argued, however, that the BSSCA needed to “determine where art ends and hate speech commences” (BCCSA Case Number 2002/31, 7). For the BCCSA, the striking nature of the melody and singing simply heightened the effect of the hate speech in the song, and certainly did not give cause for the song to be provided the sanctity an art form merits according to the Constitution.

The FPB took a similar view, deciding that the song advocated hate speech. As with the BCCSA, the FPB interpreted Ngema’s call for Africans to confront Indians about their economic practices as a call to confront and thereby harm Indians. Given that the FPB “unfortunately” (as they worded it, FPB 2002) did not have the right to completely ban a song based on racial hate speech, they imposed the strongest measure possible, prohibiting the sale of the album to persons under the age of eighteen years. However, had the option been available, the board would have opted for an XX rating whereby the song would have been banned from distribution in South Africa. The FPB justified their decision to restrict the sale of the album on the basis that “the song, judged as a whole, advocated hate speech based on race and constitutes incitement to cause harm” (FPB 2002).

After “Ama-Ndiya” was banned from airplay and sales of the album were restricted to those who were eighteen and older, Ngema (author’s interview 2004) commented,

(p. 603)

It was an eye-opener to a lot of people that that song was banned. Because people thought censorship was gone. It has made people very wary of the fact that it now means that they cannot criticize this government. The very government that was fighting for the liberation of the press—free press, free expression, free everything. Can this be the government, can it really be the government that will condone censorship? I don’t know why the censorship is still there. And I think it should be dismantled.

The censorship of Ngema’s song indeed raised a few eyebrows. It was the first song to suffer official censorship in post-1994 South Africa, in a country proud of its liberal constitution and concomitant freedom of expression. Indeed, various critics thought that the BCCSA and FPB based their decisions on simplistic understanding of cause and effect, where it is simply taken for granted that listening to Ngema’s song could lead Africans to physically confront and harm Indians. Ngema (author’s interview 2004) rightly ridiculed this view, saying,

It’s a stupid argument because what that means is that Zulu people are very stupid people. They can just listen to a song and pick up arms and go and kill. And I think it’s an insult to the Zulu race [sic]. And in fact if that was the case—since the song was banned from the airwaves people have been buying it to this day—why haven’t they picked up arms?

Neither the BCCSA nor the FPB supported their claims linking music lyrics to harm with argument or evidence. They seem to be satisfied that hate speech in itself is harmful, and on that basis censored or regulated the song, depending on how one defines censorship.

Censorship and Hate Speech

The problem confronting official regulators (and potential censors) such as the BCCSA and FPB is that absolute freedoms cannot exist for the simple reason that we cannot all have the right to do whatever we want to do without impinging on others’ corresponding freedoms to do what they want to do and their rights to be protected from harm. Jim McGuigan (1992, 202) notes that many forms of restriction on freedom of expression exist in order to protect certain rights of individuals, organizations, and states (the same can be said, to varying degrees, of freedom of association and movement). He argues that “absolute freedom of expression is a principle of intolerance,” given that the notion of free speech “is used to justify all manner of oppressive discourse, most notably sexist and racist discourses” (1996, 157).

Free expression, however, does not necessarily entail the acceptance of all discourses that emerge within the context of that freedom. Such a position rejects McGuigan’s argument that supporting absolute freedom of speech justifies oppressive discourse. (p. 604) On the contrary, freedom of speech allows oppressive discourses to be heard but also allows for counterstatements and arguments to be made, in an ongoing contest in which critical discourse is encouraged. This position is supported by Gary Baines (2006, 67) who, in discussing the “Ama-Ndiya” case, argues,

hate speech is not the real problem. The conditions that create a receptive audience for hate speech—ignorance, inequity, and fear—constitute the problem. To address these is much more difficult than attempting to silence the voices that remind us, by example, that problems exist . . . Banning inhibits the exchange of ideas and information which is the lifeblood of democracy. Thus hate speech must be recognized as a legitimate and valuable form of symbolic expression in society—not because it is true or sound, but because it identifies discontent, injustice, inequities. To deny voices, even those voices that are vile, disgusting, and hateful, is itself an act of contempt.

The dangers of banning the message should not be underestimated. Censorship, Christopher Merrett (1994, 213) argues, “can be a form of protection, allowing fascist ideas to fester in the gloom of the banned book cupboard rather than being destroyed in the fresh air of intellectual debate.” Clearly, this is not an easy stance to assume. Unlike censorship, which involves an absence of critical thinking on the part of society, intellectual debate requires the public to actively participate in governance, considering a wide variety of ideas and deciding how best to justify their own reactions to these. Given South Africa’s dark totalitarian past, this would appear to be preferable to a state-supported form of “defensible” censorship whereby the state censors get to defend censorship according to their own agenda.

More recently, censorship battles in South Africa have shifted from censorship boards to courts of law. In March 2010, a Johannesburg court declared it illegal to sing the anti-apartheid song “Ayesaba amagwala [The cowards are afraid]” on the grounds that it incited hatred toward white South Africans (Schmidt et al. 2010, 181). The song includes the controversial line “Dubula Ibhunu” which means “Kill the Farmer” but more widely understood as “kill the white Afrikaaner.” However, these instances of silencing music have related to singing songs in public, and not to recordings of the songs. As such, the court rulings relate to singing as an act of speech. In this case, the songs are regarded as hate speech and have been silenced as speech acts. It is not clear what would happen were these songs to be recorded and released in the marketplace. Given the ruling on Ngema’s “Ama-Ndiya” though, it would seem that the BCCSA and FPB would act similarly, banning these songs from airplay and restricting the sale of the music in retail outlets. While censorship is no longer a common occurrence in South Africa, the mechanisms do exist to prevent people from freely singing and listening to whatever they want to.


As a result of the demise of the apartheid government and the acceptance of a democratic constitution, South Africa has clearly progressed from an extremely censorial (p. 605) and controlled musical terrain to one that allows far greater freedom. Certainly, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process of the mid-to-late 1990s reflects the need for openness and honesty as South Africans attempt to move toward social equality. Growth cannot happen in a context of repression. Even songs such as Ngema’s allow negative views to be aired, and subsequently to be debated and discussed. Out of such critical reflection South Africans can work toward better relations, if they are to avoid moving toward a totalitarian system where certain views are simply not permitted. As much as South Africa has embraced a democratic system, the mere existence of censorship boards and mechanisms of censorship means that when certain people hear music that offends them, rather than dealing with the issues raised by the musicians, they simply appeal to the censors to repress the music, almost as if wishing it away, without confronting the underlying issues dealt with by the lyrics. The Ngema incident and more recent ones suggest that there is still a way to go before censorship processes lose their legitimacy (based on false arguments about cause and effect as they are) so that South Africans can constructively deal with problems raised in the lyrics of popular music.


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                                                                                            Government Acts

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                                                                                            Film and Publication, Act 65 of 1996.

                                                                                            Publications Act, 42 of 1974. (p. 608)

                                                                                            Directorate of Publication Files

                                                                                            P77/10/57 File on “Superman”—Celi Bee and the Buzzy Bunch.

                                                                                            P80/9/90 File on “Biko”—Peter Gabriel.

                                                                                            P89/6/32 File on “Street Fighting Years”—Simple Minds.

                                                                                            P90/06/16 File on “Change is Pain”—Mzwakhe Mbuli.

                                                                                            P92/07/32 File on “Equal Rights”—Peter Tosh.

                                                                                            P92/07/33 File on “Biko”—Peter Gabriel.

                                                                                            P92/07/46 File on “Jabula in Amsterdam”—Jabula.

                                                                                            Author’s interviews

                                                                                            Mudie, Benjy. Sandown, Johannesburg, September 10, 1998.Find this resource:

                                                                                              Ngema, Mbongeni. Pretoria, May 14, 2004.Find this resource:

                                                                                                Pracher, Cecile. Personal correspondence, March 17, 2000.Find this resource:

                                                                                                  Pracher, Cecile. Johannesburg, September 19, 2000.Find this resource:

                                                                                                    Van Rooyen, Jacobus. Pretoria, September 11, 1998.Find this resource:


                                                                                                      Bee, Celi & the Buzzy Bunch. 1977. “Superman.” RCA.Find this resource:

                                                                                                        Egyptian Nursery. 1998. New Anthem. Fresh Music.Find this resource:

                                                                                                          Eminem. 2002. The Eminem Show. Aftermath Records.Find this resource:

                                                                                                            Gabriel, Peter. 1980. “Biko.” Charisma Records.Find this resource:

                                                                                                              Galas, Diamanda. 1982. The Litanies of Satan. Mute-Restless.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                Guns n’ Roses. 1991. Use Your Illusion 1. Geffen Records.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                  Guns n’ Roses. 1991. Use Your Illusion 2. Geffen Records.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                    Jabula. 1977. Jabula in Amsterdam. De Anti-apartheids Beweging.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                      Kramer, David. 1996. Klassic Kramer. Blik Music.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                        Mbuli, Mzwakhe. 1986. Change is Pain. Shifty Records.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                          Ngema, Mbongeni. 2002. Jive Madlokovu!!! Universal Music.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                            Simple Minds. 1989. The Street Fighting Years. Virgin Records.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                              Tosh, Peter. 1977. Equal Rights. CBS.Find this resource:


                                                                                                                                (2.) See for example Eminem’s “Business” (2002). See BCCSA Case No: 2003/49 for discussion of this song’s airplay status.

                                                                                                                                (3.) On occasion the pressure to edit material to meet broadcasters’ format and lyrical requirements comes in the form of direct requests from the broadcasters. For example in the late 1990s Radio Highveld refused to play the Egyptian Nursery’s “God’s Window” (1998) because it included a section of French rap in the middle. The station had a policy of not playing rap. They approached Benjy Mudie (author’s interview 1998) of the band’s record company and asked him to supply an alternate version of the song without the rap. The band refused to comply.