donderdag 4 juli 2013

Mandela's other only friends : reggae songs on apartheid

When Ruud Gullit, the Dutch, mixed-raced football (soccer) player (then for big Italian club AC Milan) of part Surinamese descent, won the football price for European footballer of the year, the Ballon D’Or/Golden Ball, in 1987, he dedicated his award to the then still incarcerated freedom fighter against apartheid Nelson Mandela. This news reached Mandela in the prison and Mandela said this gave him hope and a sense of joy. Three years later, in 1990, Nelson Mandela was eventually freed from incarceration, meaning at the same time the beginning of the end of the racist apartheid system in South Africa. It was officially abolished by 1991, but was considered really overcome with the first democratic, multiracial elections in 1994. Mandela won in those elections, readers will probably know, and became the first black president of South Africa.

Years after Mandela was released, he and Ruud Gullit met one-to-one before appearing in a television programme. Gullit relates from that encounter that Mandela said to him: “when I got out of prison, and later became president, every one, the whole world, was or became my friend. But when I was in prison you were my friend”.. Gullit said he was deeply touched by this remark.

Indeed it has an impressive dramatic feel to it. A dramatic feel that is so powerful that it conveys a deeper truth that is both emotional and rational. The stuff of which the best of literary and other art works are made. “When I was in prison you - the emphasis on “you” is important - were my friend (or one of my few friends-that’s what the emphasis on you says)”, was a wise way to point out how people tend to opportunistically associate with the strong and the winners, while eschewing the suffering and the losers. That many people are simply not willing to show true solidarity with the weak and downtrodden.

This is the deeper truth behind it. And it is a truth, I think. Not just an opinion or interpretation. Looking at today’s world relations: people holding on to their own: the rich West neglecting the world’s majority which is poor, the problems in for example Africa maintained by - mostly man-made - unequal economic structures etcetera, etcetera.

That’s the broader, deeper truth behind what Mandela told Gullit. Gullit indeed rephrased it as “when I was in prison you (emphasized) were my friend”, sounding as if he was saying: you were my only friend, perhaps because he made it so personal. This seemed however appropriate, since he was talking to Gullit in a one-to-one at the time. Maybe Gullit reproduced it a bit different from what Mandela actually said, that is also possible.

If Mandela indeed said, or meant, “you were my only friend when I was imprisoned” then there is a complicating issue. The deeper truth of lacking solidarity with sufferers or suffering Africans, which I mentioned before, remains truer than true. I have no doubt about that. Literally taken, however, it is not entirely true. Gullit was in 1987 not Mandela’s “only friend”. I am not talking about his cell mates or his family and friends who visited him regularly then. No, I mean internationally: symbolic friends (like Gullit) showing solidarity publicly.

Many reggae artists, to be specific, expressed solidarity to the imprisoned Mandela in their lyrics, and some artists in other genres as well, especially black artists. An international football/soccer price is however more mainstream than most of these artists, of course. With regard to global exposure then, Gullit’s gesture in 1987 was still relatively influential. Especially reggae’s relation to the general “mainstream” has remained up to the present, let’s say, problematic. Perhaps, exactly because reggae has relatively much socially critical messages and lyrics.

In this post I would like to focus on the “other only friends” of Mandela when he was in prison for fighting apartheid: I will discuss the role of South Africa, apartheid, and more specifically Mandela in reggae songs’ lyrics over time. Before and after around, say, 1987.

Songs against apartheid appeared in other genres as well: by (South) African artists, as well as outside and in more mainstream pop music, such as Peter Gabriel’s ‘Steve Biko’, or Eddy Grant’s Afrobeat/calypso-like hit ‘Gimme Hope Jo’Anna’, to give a few examples (both from the 1980s). I choose in this post reggae because it is the genre I know most about, having been a fan for about 28 years now.

Another reason is that the genre by itself is strongly associated with a focus on Africa, due to the Rastafari connection. Socially critical, Black Power and topical lyrics are also relatively more common in reggae of course, as a whole, when compared to other, even Black or Caribbean genres. In soul and R&B, as well as in salsa or merengue, social commentary in lyrics is still not very common, even exceptional. Love and party lyrics predominate there. To a lesser degree this is also the case in hip-hop or calypso. In reggae social/political commentary is more common, not in all its subgenres equally, but it is in a broad sense the norm. Increasingly since the late 1960s.


The Rastafari movement originated in Jamaica, and is derived from the ideas and prophecies of Marcus Garvey, and continued by Leonard Howell from 1932 onward. The coronation of Haile Selassie as emperor of Ethiopia in 1930 was for both Garvey and Howell an important symbol and sign of redemption of Black, African and African-descended people. The Rastafari movement which Howell helped develop since 1932 in Jamaica – in conflict with colonial authorities – became as a consequence focussed on Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, as a symbol of Africa, as continent of origin. Also, Africa as a whole got attention among Rastafari-adherents in Jamaica.

Not everyone had enough knowledge about all countries on the African continent. A retreat to the symbolic can be an expressed desire for redemption, for liberation. At the same time it can mean, in some cases, that more knowledge is lacking or deemed unnecessary. This can still be defendable if there is a deeper truth outweighing “factual” truths. The deeper truth that “Africa and Africans must be free” – the essential message of Rastafari – outweighs I think factual or practical knowledge about for instance Ghana, Cameroun, Angola, or Sierra Leone, although many Rastafari-adherents found information about these countries interesting in early stages of the Rastafari movement as well, of course. The distance some early Rasta leaders took from Vodou and Obeah-like African-derived religions – also present in Jamaica - , instead focussing on a Black rereading of Christianity and the Bible, points also at how the symbolic, however, got to outweigh the factual.

Even the factual truths are not always correctly represented. Simplistic historical representations as: “our African forebears came from (mostly from) Ghana” can be heard among both Jamaicans and Surinamers. This is due to some African retentions in both countries of clear Ashanti or Coromantee (Ghanaian ethnic groups) origin, and vague historical knowledge. The truth of the matter is that Ghana - under its colonial name Gold Coast - was indeed an important market for the English (and the Dutch) for their slave trade, but it was one of many. Scholarly studies show that probably about 35 to 40% of slaves in Jamaica (with similar figures for Suriname) came from the Ghanaian region. A large percentage, but not the majority. The majority came from other regions: the Angola/Congo region was where about 30% of slaves in Jamaica came from, according to informed estimations, and smaller percentages from other parts of West and Central Africa.

You might assume from this a contradiction between “official scholars” at universities and elsewhere on the one hand, and folk knowledge, as living on orally in African-Jamaican families, on the other. This is however partly a false contradiction. Many Jamaican families know from stories passed on (from grandmother to mother and before) more precise locations of the place of origin of their actual foreparents. So the correct knowledge has partly survived. The mother of reggae singer Chezidek said once that she heard from prior generations in her family that the roots of the family can be traced specifically to (what is now) Nigeria. Others can trace it quite correctly back to current-day Ghana (older reggae singer Winston Rodney - a.k.a. Burning Spear - for instance), while old-time (1950s and around) percussionist in Kingston, Watta King, influencing reggae and Nyabinghi percussion players, had a Congo background as family heritage. (I discussed Watta King in my blog post on bongos/percussion and reggae (

A liberation movement like Rastafari requires however symbols. Ethiopia primarily. Other symbols presented themselves as European colonialism in Africa continued, and white minority racist rule developed in Angola, Rhodesia. And South Africa: that what is called apartheid.


Apartheid became the official government policy in South Africa since 1948, and increased its institutionalized racism with intensity. Segregation, discrimination, and since 1970 Black South Africans definitely lost their citizenship rights within South Africa as a whole. From 1948 a racial classification system was implemented by the white government, African people were set apart and became effectively without rights, including forced resettlements to new homelands (‘Bantustans’) they were ascribed to by the white government. Extreme forms of segregation were behind all this, and also in places where both blacks and white lived. The “township” Soweto near Johannesburg is an example of a place where black South Africans in and around Johannesburg (i.e. working for white companies) were forced to live.

Forced to live in the generally less-developed, poorer, and inhospitable homelands/Bantustans, or in the townships, many black South Africans went to work for white-owned companies in South Africa – under strict conditions of course (passes etc.) – pointing at an added economic dependency.

Protests against apartheid were repressed harshly and violently, and Nelson Mandela – leader of the African National Congress (ANC) – was incarcerated in 1962, while Steve Biko was beaten to death while imprisoned in 1977. Both became martyrs for the anti-apartheid struggle.

This extreme form of a racist state policy, with its focus on segregation for white benefit, was combined with a series of measures part of what is called “petty apartheid”: laws that forbade amorous or sexual relations between white and black persons. Those who maintained such relationships were punishable by law. Someone I know - a white Dutch man who has lived in South Africa - told me that he and his black girlfriend eventually had to leave South Africa to live in Lesotho, a separate country surrounded by South Africa.

I am not going to describe the whole history of apartheid, because it can be found elsewhere, even on Internet. To get a good overview the Wikipedia-article (English) is insightful.

When learning about apartheid, the extremity of a state-institutionalized racist policy, by a white-minority government, to segregate and discriminate the black majority of a country on grounds of race seems harsh and absurd. It is on the other hand not so different from colonial practices in Africa since a century before, when a white minority ruled and decided over a black majority, killing and destroying on the way. The Belgian colonial regime in Belgian Congo, in seeking to enforce labour from natives in the mineral-rich Congo, caused about 8 million deaths among the Congo natives. Eight million! The white minority-government in Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe, likewise discriminated the majority harshly etcetera etcetera. Apartheid followed up on that colonial past in Africa. But, crucially, in a later stage (as said 1948 and after), when decolonization had become globally more accepted.

That South Africa especially became symbolic is therefore understandable. I think, however, that apartheid became more symbolic in a later stage, when decolonization continued more and more. The independence wars against Portugal in Angola and Mozambique in the 1970s, and the independence of Zimbabwe from Britain in 1981 also became symbols in some way. After these struggles: apartheid remained still in place in South Africa, downpressing the black majority in their own country. An undeterred remnant of colonial discrimination, so to say. Or last hurdle, if you will.

Apartheid, and specifically Nelson Mandela, thus got in a relative sense more attention in the 1980s internationally. This increased the pressure on the South African government.


Besides Ethiopia, other African countries have always received occasional attention in reggae lyrics, especially of course by Rastafari-inspired artists. This related to the topical and historical events. Bob Marley’s ‘Zimbabwe’ is a famous example, but other reggae artists have mentioned specific African countries other than Ethiopia as well. Angola (e.g. ‘We Should Be In Angola’ by Pablo Moses, or Mutabaruka’s ‘Angola Invasion’ – though linked to a South African invasion), Nigeria, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe (e.g. by Burning Spear), Zambia (by Misty In Roots), Kenya, Sierra Leone, Congo, Rwanda etcetera. And also South Africa. This occurred already in the 1970s.

All in all, however, this is less structural than the mention of Africa as a whole, or of Ethiopia. The latter is called on often symbolically, albeit aided by topical events (Mengistu, the violent Italian Fascist invasion). Well-chosen symbols can convey deeper truths, often out of reach to the merely topical or factual. Therefore - and that is in itself a good thing - reggae lyrics can be both symbolic as topical.

I note, however, that in the 1980s more reggae lyrics specifically mention African countries besides Ethiopia, but with one country being mentioned the most: South Africa. Often this consisted of critique on the apartheid system. Nelson Mandela, as symbol of the fight against apartheid, was also mentioned quite often. Calls to free Nelson Mandela have been uttered in reggae lyrics before Ruud Gullit dedicated his price to Nelson Mandela in 1987. No coincidence I think: Ruud Gullit was a reggae fan and I am almost sure he knew of these lyrics: they must have influenced him.

All in all many lyrics of many reggae songs - in Jamaica, as well as in Europe- and African-based reggae - began to deal with South Africa, criticizing apartheid, especially increasing in the 1980s. Literally dozens of songs by different veteran and newer artists. One of the earliest anti-apartheid songs on record was by Peter Tosh in 1977: the song ‘Apartheid’. It was a specific topic already then. The relatively unknown (Jamaican) group Well, Pleased & Satisfied, with a.o. member Jerry Baxter, had also a relatively early anti-apartheid song with ‘Fight Against South Africa’, in 1977. The Abyssinians’ strong ‘South African Enlistment’ (1978) was also relatively early in this regard.

It would increase in the 1980s, and even more in the latter half of the 1980s. After Mandela was freed in 1990 several songs on him and South Africa would appear commenting on/celebrating this release and later presidency (Culture’s ‘One Stone’), or warning Mandela for remaining Babylon dangers (Dennis Brown’s deep ‘Shepherds Be Careful’). Even many artists associated with dancehall of the less “conscious” and even “slackness” type, like Yellowman, Shabba Ranks, or Madoo, devoted songs to Mandela or South Africa.

I’ve tried to combine these reggae songs on apartheid in a Playlist on YouTube. See:

(If I forgot some that are on YouTube I am open for tips, of course.)

Interestingly: when I checked/researched the recording date of the songs in this playlist, it showed that a majority was released in the period between 1984 and 1989. It seemed by then to be more topical or – in a respectful sense - “in vogue”. Often it was the main theme of lyrics (not just “a” theme, such as in Bob Marley’s reproduction of Selassie’s speech in the song ‘War’, or other reggae songs on broader African struggles), showing in the titles with the name "Mandela" in them: there are several reggae songs with in their title both Mandela and “free”. Or, broader, with in the title, apartheid, Steve Biko, South Africa, or the mentioning/criticizing of white President Botha: who was president when apartheid received most attention (in the 1980s).

Nelson Mandela became a vehicle through which in reggae lyrics apartheid was criticized/discussed, but far from always. Many lyrics discuss apartheid in South Africa broader, without mentioning even personal names (or just one time in a verse Mandela, Biko, or Botha). At times also Steve Biko, but Mandela more often.

In the remainder of this post I will just discuss the broad lines among these reggae songs with lyrics on apartheid, and Mandela. The songs themselves can be found in the said YouTube playlist. I can say that I find some songs relatively better from a strictly musical perspective, and sometimes I find the lyrics more inventive (“deeper”) than those of others, but that is often so. In some cases – in my opinion at least - relatively deep lyrics combine with good musical qualities, such as on the strong song ‘Mr Botha’ by the Mighty Diamonds, the soulful ‘South African Enlistment’ by the Abyssinians, the Mighty Diamonds impressive song called ‘Apartheid’, Burning Spear’s engaging ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, or Junior Delgado’s raw but catchy ‘Hanging Tree’. While not quite of this classical roots calibre, in my opinion, I still must admit that the Dutch reggae band Revelation Time’s song ‘South African Downpressor Man’ (with Ruud Gullit singing along) does not stay too far behind, and is I think actually an up-to-par “real” reggae song, with good vocals and a nice Rockers Roots riddim, almost reaching Jamaican standards.

Further, there are several other good and catchy songs in that playlist I did not really know before. Such as the strong tunes by Frankie Jones, Barrington Levy, Leroy Sibbles, and Tetrack in the playlist. There are the good singing and lyrics of Carlene Davis, nuff crucial chunes, and groovy riddims often too..But of course all this is subjective and my personal taste that may or may not be similar to that of the readers.

The broad lyrical themes regarding South Africa can however be more objectively analysed.


The situation in South Africa had become more known internationally, and the racist segregation, downpression and discrimination by a white minority of a black majority is mentioned in many lyrics, all of course correct and in line with actual history. Mandela is an important but not dominant symbol throughout these lyrics. More often the apartheid system in South Africa is the main theme, of which as a subtheme Mandela is derived in the lyrics. This makes sense: the broad, unjust system led to Mandela’s incarceration, as an anti-apartheid fighter. President Peter Botha was mentioned a lot of course as a personal representation of the apartheid regime. Botha even seemed discussed as a personification of apartheid in a few lyrics, although apartheid was there before him, of course, and Botha implemented some (albeit mostly marginal) democratizing reforms. His successor President de Klerk became known as reformer, since under him Mandela was freed, and apartheid eventually abolished. (According to some, however, De Klerk was also hypocritical. Mandela himself said that De Klerk deliberately destabilized the situation in black areas in South Africa to undermine the changes in progress.)

Mandela is thus mentioned often as derived from the theme of apartheid. The other way around: departing from discussing Mandela in prison - and through this broader apartheid - does occur regularly but a bit less often. Such specific lyrics on Mandela when incarcerated, showing solidarity with him were still there within reggae, especially in the mid- and later 1980s. I found about a dozen songs more specifically on Mandela and his incarceration for 27 years. Some of these were released years before Ruud Gullit dedicated his football/soccer price to Mandela in 1987. Like I said, I think Gullit – as then self-declared reggae fan and also occasional reggae singer – must have been inspired by this.

Mandela was broadly speaking right: when Mandela got out of prison in 1990 and became president of South Africa in 1994, practically everyone in the world (in a manner of speaking) was on his side and his “friend”. This was much less the case when he was actually imprisoned. British and US governments of the time even deemed him some kind of terrorist, refusing thus to support him or show solidarity with Mandela up to well in the 1980s, Yet, by contrast, “Gullit was his friend” when he was imprisoned, Mandela said to Gullit in a one-to-one, which understandably touched Gullit deeply. It is beautifully put: both in a symbolic sense, as in a literal, practical sense.

He was his (symbolic) “friend” then, that is true, and an influential one: football/soccer being an internationally popular sport and Gullit was then more or less world famous as AC Milan player, also among the “mainstream”. On the other hand, the solidarity expressed in several reggae songs and lyrics around the mid-1980s shows that he was at the time not Mandela's only friend...