Amandla Weculo: The Power of Song

Ringing out from political rallies, funerals, and activists in the street, “Amandla!” (“The power!” in isiZulu/isiXhosa) became a rallying cry for the struggle against apartheid.  And the response, “Awethu!” (“Is ours!” in isiZulu/isiXhosa) united those who struggled together in a community of strength and determination.  If any sound can embody the struggle, it is this refrain: “Amandla! Awethu!”

amandlaBut other sounds came to represent the movement, not only for those watching from afar, but also those who rallied to dismantle the system of oppression.  Music, in particular, came to offer not only a rallying cry, but also a forum for mourning, reflection, celebration, grief, angst; in short, music came to be an outlet for the cacophony of emotions that accompanied the anti-apartheid struggle.  Amandla!: A Revolution in Four Part Harmony (2002), directed by Lee Hirsch, documented the power of music in the struggle, illustrating the fluid boundaries between culture and politics, with music (not only its performance, but also its composition)coming to represent a political act.  Combining historical footage, musical performances, and never-before-seen interviews with superstars of South African song, like Miriam Makeba, Vusi Mahlasela, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Hugh Masakela, to name but a few, Amandla! weaves together the history of the struggle against apartheid with the history of song and music and its own unique role in fomenting and stimulating the fight against white supremacy.

in township tonightAmandla! illustrates the landscape of song and its role in the resistance’s “search for autonomy.”  In so doing, it contributes to our growing knowledge of the struggle, both its political and historical significance, but also the interplay of cultural forces within the broader political strife.  Historians and scholars from a variety of disciplines have grappled with this interplay for decades.  David B. Coplan, in In Township Tonight!: South Africa’s Black City Music and Theatre (1985), examined the capacity of public culture as a forum for South Africans to exert control over their lives under the repressive apartheid regime, since for artists “as for the rest of us…politics is personal”(4).  “Urban performing arts therefore represent not the disintegration but the creation of culture,” Coplan argued, “and part of a search for autonomy in an environment in which people have little control over anything except a culturally guided sense of collective humanity and individual self” (5).

Coplan, along with Bennetta Jules-Rosette, further investigated the uses of performing arts in the political arena through their analysis of the uses of what would become the South African national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.”  As an anthem of the struggle, they argue, “the hymn is a preamble that sets the stage for more dramatic events–religious ceremonies, political rallies, funerals, and celebrations” (299).  Their analysis of the multiple mutations and shifting meanings of this hymn-turned-anthem shows the power of this song to allow individuals to derive their own meaning, or meanings, from its simple rhythm to its fluid prose.  In Amandla!, we see how “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” was utilized in the struggle, often followed by that aforementioned rallying cry: “Amandla! Awethu!”

A similar analysis of the power and ibrahimtransformation of a song from a cultural contribution to a political anthem is presented in John Edwin Mason’s “‘Mannenberg’: Notes on the Making of an Icon and Anthem” (2007).  Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Mannenberg,” though there was “nothing angry about it, nothing that would inspire people to stand up to the teargas, whips, and bullets of the apartheid state”, Mason argues, it gave “voice to the dreams of the dispossessed” becoming “the sound of freedom or, as many called it, South Africa’s ‘unofficial national anthem'” (26).  Ibrahim and other South African artists in the 1980s and “the music that they made and the message that they attached to it was the soundtrack to rallies and concerts at which thousands of people reaffirmed their commitment to the struggle for freedom” (39).  Mason also powerfully illustrates that “Mannenberg” also served as a realization by “politically sophisticated musicians” that song “could be a vehicle of political mobilization and the symbol of a collective fight against apartheid” (39).  Ibrahim reflects on this realization in Amandla!, noting that during this time

The thing that saved us was the music. So the music was actually was not even what we call “liberation music” or . . . it was part of liberating ourselves.

What these powerful written analyses clearly show is the power of music and culture in the struggle; what documentaries like Amandla! adds is the intangible, evocative quality of melody and rhythm, how music can inspire action in the most repressive of systems.  Amandla! helps to make this connection real and tangible; the viewer (at least in my experience) feels this power, recognizing the veracity of Mason, Coplan, Jules-Rosette’s (along with many others’) prose. We discussed the power of audiovisual sources a few weeks ago and, in my opinion, Amandla! brings all of the points made about the power of the moving image to bear.  With gripping emotional testament and riveting performances, this film shows, as Coplan suggested, that music truly did show how politics was made personal, and continues to be made personal as viewers watch this film.

This is why it is so important that the proposed Sounds of Freedom: The Amandla! Film and Music Archive is made publicly available.  Digitizing these audiovisual sources holds great potential for allowing more users to interact with these rich historical sources, as well as providing a new vista for interpreting the apartheid struggle through song; a realm that might also encourage more people to engage, given the attraction of the figures, songs, and platforms that this film archive will include.

This post is one of the requirements for South African History in a Digital Age, a graduate course in history which I am enrolled in this semester, drawing on the assigned readings for March 27th.


  • Peter Alegi et al., Sounds of Freedom: The Amandla! Film and Music Archive, NEH Grant Proposal
  • Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony (2002), directed by Lee Hirsch
  • David Coplan, In Township Tonight!: South Africa’s Black City Music and Theatre, Second Edition.  University of Chicago Press, 2008.
  • David Coplan and Bennetta Jules-Rosette, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and the Liberation of the Spirit of South Africa,” African Studies 64, 2 (2005): 285-308 [view PDF]
  • John Edwin Mason,”‘Mannenberg’: Notes on the Making of an Icon and Anthem,” African Studies Quarterly 9, 4 (2007)

4 thoughts on “Amandla Weculo: The Power of Song

  1. “Amandla! helps to make this connection real and tangible” – Yileso iqiniso!

    I show it to my students in the South African History course and without fail students remark on the power of the film and the songs to make them FEEL how important and how moving culture could be for resistance.

  2. Liz, I love the Ibrahim quote in this post. I think it puts a nice bow on your analysis. When I was reading the Mason piece I was wondering what you would make of the cultural nationalism that Ibrahim seemed to be looking for when he returned to South Africa from New York. What do you think of his lack of success on that front?

    1. I have only just recently started to dive into the deep well that is Abdullah Ibrahim, but Mason explains the failure of Ibrahim’s cultural nationalism in this quote from p. 31 of his article:

      In the absence of any direct criticism of apartheid, his celebration of distinctive coloured and African cultures seemed to resonate with the apartheid state’s efforts to reinforce ethnic and racial divisions in order to keep blacks weak and divided.

      He was unable to articulate his coloured, South African nationalism in a way that was palpable to people; in short, his writing couldn’t speak to South Africans in the same way that his music could.

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