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Songs that tell South Africa’s history part 2: after 1980

Songs that tell South Africa’s history part 2: after 1980

Corporal Punishment was an anti-establishment band formed by Springs friends James Phillips, Carl Raubenheimer and Mark Bennet, along with band mates Herby Parkin and Henry Jansen.

In the first part of this series, we took a tour through several songs released before 1980 which captured some aspect of South African history. In the second and final part of this series, we are going to take a look at songs released after 1980 that describe either specific events in South Africa’s history or which capture the feeling of a time and place, and in the process remind us of who we are and where we’ve come from. As I said in my previous post, I’m a white, English-speaking South African which will undoubtedly have biased the song selection. If you have any other suggestions to add, please do share them below the article or on Facebook.

Lean back, stick on your headphones and enjoy this dizzying array of homegrown art. You can listen to all the songs featured below in this YouTube playlist or work through them one by one below. If you like what you hear, look up the rest of those artists’ music, give them some money, and share far and wide. Much of this music is not widely enough known which is a damn shame.

You can listen to all the songs featured below in this YouTube playlist

International News (1981) by National Wake

National Wake were a mixed race punk band. This song decries the fact that our country was perpetually in international news headlines for all the wrong reasons during the Apartheid era. For more on the band, see their entry in my previous post, Eighteen Times White South Africans Fought the System. The below music video was recently created for the song as part of the fantastic Punk in Africa documentary (Facebook | Amazon). If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s an incomparable treasure trove of South African music history.

WHERE TO GET IT: Official | Deezer | Amazon | CD Universe

31st May (1982) by Michael Green

Michael Cawood Green is another under-recognised South African folk singer whose music is needlessly difficult to find. He is now a Professor of English at Northumbria University and the author of multiple books. He recorded many socially-conscious songs on his 1982 album, White Eyes, from which I’ve decided to highlight 31st May here. The song refers to the date of Republic Day in South Africa which was a national holiday recognised during Apartheid. South Africa became a republic in 1960 due to some seriously convoluted political engineering on the part of the National Party. Green’s song frames the public holiday as a day of shame. These lines stick in my head:

“Silence surrounds the 31st of May. Doesn’t that say something about our republic day?”

Green tells me that the original line was, Violence surrounds the 31st of May”, but publishers balked at this wording. His White Eyes album has many other hard-hitting songs that capture the 1970s and 1980s zeigeist (many of Green’s songs were honed in front of audiences in the 1970s). For example, White Boys talks about the complex structure of white privilege in place in the early 1980s Apartheid period, while Marching talks about the dangers of militaristic rhetoric and pack mentality within the context of the ruling white Afrikaner ethos of 1980s Apartheid.

WHERE TO GET IT: 3rd Ear Music | Alternatively, you better get your crate diving gear on or start staking out your favourite auction website

Darky (1982) by Corporal Punishment

Darky by Corporal Punishment viciously lampoons white South Africans’ anxiety over the swart gevaar during the Apartheid era. As such, it captures a time and place rather than specific events. The term, ‘swart gevaar’ (Afrikaans for “black danger”), referred to the belief that, if given the chance, black South Africans would rise up and violently overwhelm white South Africans in retribution for their poor treatment historically. The Apartheid government effectively nurtured this fear in order to divide and conquer. Corporal Punishment was one of James Phillips’ early bands. Phillips would go on to be more well-known as the lead singer in The Cherry-faced Lurchers and for his central role in the Voëlvry Movement, alongside Koos Kombuis, Johannes Kerkorrel and others.

WHERE TO GET IT: Shifty Records on Bandcamp

On the Border (1983) by David Kramer

There are so many Kramer songs that could be listed here for their ability to capture an aspect of South Africa in the 1980s (especially off of Kramer’s 1986 Baboondogs album, which marked a stark departure from his more lighthearted fare). However, even though I have highlighted it previouslyOn the Border, off of his 1983 Jis Jis Jis live album still stands out for me as one of his most poignant. The singer tells the tragic story of a young friend who is conscripted to fight in the Border War (at a time when conscription was compulsory for all young, white males) and the psychological effects this experience has on his friend. It was all too common for young conscripts to return with mental problems. Colloquially, conscripts who came back with PTSD-related psychological problems were referred as being bosbefok” (Afrikaans for “bush fucked”) or concatenated to “bossies”.

WHERE TO GET IT: Takealot | Amazon | iTunes

Snor City (1985) by Bernoldus Niemand

James Phillips a.k.a. Bernoldus Niemand, was the master of social satire and Snor City (“Moustache City”) is a time capsule of the Afrikaner capital city during the 1980s from an outsider’s perspective. The track makes fun of the staunchly conservative denizens of the capital during a period when Pretoria (a.k.a. Tshwane) was the centre of the Apartheid-era nationalist Afrikaner self-image. The song is full of incisive, barbed observations of the social conformity symptomatic of the time (which echoes the military conformity described in Michael Green’s Marching above). For example, these lines make fun of the uniform styles in the city at the time when Magnum PI-style moustaches were all the rage:

Ek is opsoek na net een skoon bo lip [I am in search of just one shaved top lip]

Want dit is the stad met geen bo lip glad [Because this is the city without any smooth top lips]

Phillips similarly deconstructed army culture in his most famous hit, Hou My Vas Korporaal.


The Struggle (1987) by The Genuines

The Genuines were unique for their reworking of the Cape Coloured Goema musical style into something more punky and ska-infused. While the lyrics of The Struggle clearly refer to the struggle against Apartheid, it’s the music video that really drives home how they felt about the state of the country at the time. You can just imagine the apoplectic rage that Apartheid-era censors must have flown into upon viewing it. It surely never aired on any state-controlled television channel. You can read a bit more info on The Genuines here.

WHERE TO GET IT: Bandcamp | Deezer

Hillbrow (1989) by Johannes Kerkorrel 

Hillbrow is another example of a song as a time capsule, capturing a bygone era and place. In this case it was the melting pot neighbourhood of Hillbrow in Johannesburg which was the stomping ground of Johannes Kerkorrel and his musical collaborators in the 1980s. Few languages are able to capture the pathos and nostalgia of Afrikaans, with lines like these (which are also frustratingly difficult to convey in other languages):

En gee, gee, gee. Gee, gee, gee [And give, give give. Give, give, give]
Jou sente, jou drome, jou toekoms vol gate, [Your cents, your dreams, your future full of holes]
Gee jou hart vir Hillbrow, [Give your heart to Hillbrow]

This song makes you yearn for an idealised Hillbrow of the late 1980s, warts and all. One used to be able to find the music video for this song on YouTube until someone issued a take-down for copyright reasons and in the process robbed us of this cultural gem. Still, the song alone is impactful enough.

WHERE TO GET IT: Bandcamp | Takealot | Amazon | iTunes | Spotify

Good Black Woman (1989) by Brenda Fassie

This song from Brenda Fassie’s Too Late for Mama album captures the legendary singer in one of her more reflective moods thinking about the experiences of black South Africans living under Apartheid. It powerfully captures the supreme unfairness and frustration of the situation where policemen held absolute power over black South Africans and were able to victimize them with complete impunity… and how this was an unavoidable part of even the most mundane aspects of life. I vacillated between including this song, which captures a mood, and Fassie’s Boipatong which more directly references the infamous Boipatong Massacre. Fassie’s life is covered in these two documentaries: Documentary 1 (Showmax) | Documentary 2 (YouTube)

WHERE TO GET IT: Takealot | Amazon | Deezer

Coenraad Buys (2005) by Rian Malan

Coenraad Buys is a particularly fascinating character in South African history and a movie or three deserves to be made about his life. This track off of journalist and author, Rian Malan’s, 2005 album, Alien Inboorling, tells Buys’ story.

Buys rankled under the yoke of other men’s laws and found himself drifting further and further from the influence of anyone who might impose their will upon him. As a result, he spent much of his life in the relatively unexplored (by white men’s standards) hinterlands beyond the border of the Cape Colony. He took numerous black and coloured wives, and served as the main advisor to legendary Xhosa chief, Ngqika a.k.a. Gaika (whose mother he also married) during that tribe’s diplomatic interactions with the Cape Colony. However, even this was eventually too much for Buys who yearned for virgin land of his own. After briefly returning to live in the Cape Colony near the town of George, he finally settled in modern day Limpopo where he fathered an entire people known as Buysvolk or Buys Bastaards, who formed a distinct community in that part of the world.

WHERE TO GET IT: Bandcamp | | Takealot

De La Rey (2007) by Bok van Blerk

At 1.5 million views on YouTube, this is probably the most popular song on this list. This is not surprising as it represents a call to Afrikaner national pride by harkening back to one of the heroes of the Anglo-Boer War (or the Second War of Independence if you are speaking to an Afrikaans South African). Koos de la Rey was a Boer general during the Anglo-Boer War who is widely regarded for his bravery and military astuteness. He was also a bittereinder (“bitter enders” or “irreconcilables”) – one of those that fought to the bitter end of the war against the British, long after the Boers had abandoned pitched warfare in favour of guerilla tactics (in response to which, the British adopted a scorched earth policy and ‘invented’ modern-day concentration camps). This song has raised a lump in many a throat I’m sure.

WHERE TO GET IT: Artist’s website | Takealot

Byleveld (2009) by Radio Kalahari Orkes

Piet Byleveld was one of South Africa’s most successful police investigators. He made a name for himself catching serial killers. Byleveld was so successful that he is internationally renowned in law enforcement circles. You can read about some of his cases in this Daily Maverick article or in Hanlie Retief’s fascinating biography, Byleveld: Dossier of a Serial SleuthByleveld sadly passed away earlier this year. Watch Radio Kalahari Orkes lead singer, Ian Roberts, talking about the song and singing it at Byleveld’s funeral.

WHERE TO GET IT: Google Music | Amazon | iTunes

A Tale of Three Cities (2010) by Bittereinder

This song captures a snapshot in time of three cities: Pretoria (a.k.a. Tshwane), Johannesburg and Cape Town. Three artists each take a turn singing an ode to their city, including the clubs and bars that they came of age in. Bittereinder sing about Pretoria, Tumi Molekane sings about Jozi and Jack Parow sings about Cape Town. If you were around during the times that they sing about, the song will evoke strong memories. It’s a more recent entry in the vein of Johannes Kerkorrel’s Hillbrow, capturing a place and time that no longer exists in each city.

WHERE TO GET IT: Takealot | SpotifyMicrosoft Music

Down Under, Mining (2013) by Dear Reader

Dear Reader’s Rivonia album is a concept album based around South African history. Down Under, Mining talks about migrant labour during the Apartheid era and the role it played in breaking up families and disintegrating black South African social structures. I could have chosen many songs off the album to highlight here but this track has a wonderful video that goes along with it, and which is worth watching below.

Other songs worth highlighting include Took Them Away which talks about an inter-racial couple that was taken away by the police under the Immorality Act which made such unions illegal, while Teller of Truths describes Zulu King Shaka’s grief-stricken, senseless massacre of his own people in response his mother’s death.

WHERE TO GET IT: Bandcamp | Amazon |

Banana Republic (2017) by Freshly Ground

Freshly Ground’s recent single is a frenetic critique of our current society and politics, and it pulls no punches. It is a visual assault on the senses that captures the anger and frustration of our times. In years to come, it will gives listeners an insight into the turbulent Zuma years.

No Opportunity
It’s just another day in the Banana Republic

 WHERE TO GET IT: Band’s website

The Same Story (2017) by Superlinear

This is the song that inspired this series of blog posts. It’s the first song that I ever wrote, and while I would never put my own home-recorded, rough track in the same league as the seminal songs featured in these two articles, I did think that some readers might find it an interesting curiosity. It seems especially timely given the recent Zimbabwean coup-not-coup.

The song tells the layered story of Zimbabwe (née Southern Rhodesia née Matabeleland née The Rozwi Empire née The Kingdom of Mutapa née The Kingdom of Zimbabwe). It starts with the rise of Shaka which displaced many other tribes in modern-day KwaZulu-Natal on South Africa’s east coast, including Mzilikazi‘s Ndabele tribe (who are now spread throughout Southern Africa). Over many years, and after altercations with many other South African groups (including Moshoeshoe‘s Sotho and the Afrikaans Voortrekkers), Mzilikazi’s people made their way up to the kingdom of the Shona in modern day Zimbabwe where they settled. Mzilikazi’s Ndabele brutally subjugated the Shona, turning them into a vassal state. Several decades later, Cecil John Rhodes’ private army in turn subjugated both the Shona and Ndabele. Several decades after that, Robert Mugabe’s Shona-majority government came into power and subjugated both Zimbabwean Ndabeles (with the Gukurahundi massacres committed by the Fifth Brigade and captured in this documentary at the time), and the ancestors of Rhodes’ settlers (in the form of white farmers). Like a nested Russian doll, history repeats itself. It’s turtles all the way down. Enjoy.


  1. Thanks for this excellent list. A number of hidden gems that I hadn’t heard of before. Other songs that tell our history – Juluka’s ‘Impi’ (Isandlwana), Koos Kombuis’ ‘Swart September’ (the turbulent times of the 80s), Kalahari Surfer’s ‘Don’t Dance’ (anti-conscription) and I know you said that you could have included a number of songs under the David Kramer entry, but I think his ‘Prisoners Of War’ is a great track. Similarly Hugh Masakela’s ‘Stimela’ which tells the tale of migrant labourers coming to SA. There are so many other (‘Meadowlands’ for example), but as you said in your intro this is a necessarily incomplete list.

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