South Africa and anti-Apartheid in British popular culture before Mandela (1976-1983)

This post is partly inspired by my work on The Young Ones and the cultural depictions of the history of Thatcherite Britain. In the first episode, ‘Demolition’, which aired in late 1982, Rick and Neil have an argument over whether the vegetables in the meal were from South Africa (there was an international campaign for a boycott of South African produce at the time). Apartheid in South Africa was a hot topic amongst political activists in the UK, particularly from the mid-1970s onwards, after the Soweto uprising in 1976 and the death of activists Steve Biko in 1977, and the issue permeated through British popular culture, as demonstrated by this scene from this alternative comedy show.

In the wake of the Nelson Mandela’s death in December last year, some commentators reminded readers that Mandela was not always the focal point of anti-apartheid activism or a popular representation of the oppression of the apartheid regime outside of South Africa. As the online archive of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement outlined, awareness about Mandela’s imprisonment was raised by campaigns by the United Nations and the South African Sunday Post paper in the early 1980s and this had gained significant momentum by the mid-1980s. In the UK, the image of Mandela as the representative figure of the oppressive nature of Apartheid South Africa was bolstered by the 1984 hit by Jerry Dammers (from The Specials/Special AKA), ‘Free Nelson Mandela’.

But as Dorian Lynskey wrote, Mandela was not part of the popular conception of South Africa and apartheid before the mid-1980s. Lynskey stated:

It was Steve Biko, not Mandela, who became the first anti-apartheid icon. When the young leader of the radical black consciousness movement died in police custody in 1977, he inspired songs by the folksinger Tom Paxton, the prog-rock star Peter Hammill, the reggae artists Steel Pulse and Tappa Zukie, and, tardily but most famously, Peter Gabriel.

I am interested in how South Africa and apartheid was represented in British popular culture from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, when both British popular culture and South Africa were dramatically changing. In British popular culture, it was the rise and demise of punk and its surpassing by the various streams of post-punk, as well as the birth of alternative comedy. In South Africa, the 1976 Soweto uprising signified a change in the resistance to the apartheid regime inside the country, demonstrating that ordinary people were willing to undertake militant actions against the regime and regenerating the anti-apartheid forces outside the country. After Biko’s death in 1977, many Black Consciousness Movement followers joined the African National Congress in exile and swelled the resistance to the South African government.

From 1976 onwards, Soweto and Steve Biko became the main representations of South Africa in the British popular consciousness and were referred to in various ways. Paul Gilroy notes that during the Notting Hill riots in August 1976, a number of people involved chanted ‘Soweto, Soweto’ while confronting the police. Apparently ‘Soweto’ was a familiar cry at many demonstrations and episodes of public disorder in Britain during this period. An article in the Communist Party journal, Comment, in 1980 mentioned the chant of ‘Soweto, Soweto’ at a counter-demonstration against the National Front in London as well.

Most famously, Peter Gabriel recorded the song ‘Biko’ in 1980 as part of his Peter Gabriel III (or Melt), but Birmingham reggae band Steel Pulse also recorded ‘Biko’s Kindred Lament’ for their 1979 album Tribute to the Masters and Jamaican/UK reggae producer Tapper Zukie recorded a song in 1978 called ‘Tribute to Steve Biko’.

Punk figure Malcolm Maclaren released a single called ‘Soweto’ in 1983, while Afro-Caribbean-UK dub/fusion band Steel an’ Skin recorded a song ‘Fire in Soweto’ in 1979. Most interestingly, The Clash recorded a demo called ‘Where You Gonna Go (Soweto)’ during the London Calling sessions in 1979.

From a precursory glance, it seems that the Soweto uprising and the death of Steve Biko dominated popular conceptions in Britain of South Africa and the brutality of the apartheid regime in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The boycott of South African produce (one of the many ways that the Anti-Apartheid Movement strove to bring attention to what was occurring in South Africa to the British public) was also a reference point in British popular culture in the early 1980s. For example, in Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (first published in 1982), the protagonist recorded:

In afternoon did shopping in Sainsbury’s with my father. Saw Rick Lemon dithering at the fruit counter; he said selecting fruit was an ‘overtly political act’. He rejected South African apples, French golden delicious apples, Israeli oranges, Tunisian dates, and American grapefruits.

I think this changes with the focus of anti-apartheid activists on freeing Nelson Mandela, which was reinforced in the British popular imagination by the song ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ and the 70th birthday celebration in Wembley Stadium in 1988 (what Mark Perryman referred to as ‘the Mandela moment’).

So, I throw it over to you, connoisseurs of British popular culture – can you inform me of any other mentions of South Africa/Apartheid in British pop culture between circa 1976 and 1983 (songs, television, film)?



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