About “Stories from South Africa’s Freedom Struggle”
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About the Album
The Robben Island Singers are a group of three ex-political prisoners from South Africa. They tell stories from life in the townships, joining the armed struggle to free their country, and their time in prison on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was serving a life sentence. One of the things that sustained them in prison was singing. The songs they sang, mostly traditional folk songs, took on new meanings through the context of the struggle. This album includes some of those stories and songs in addition to their personal stories from the struggle for freedom.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s Grant Shezi, Muntu Nxumalo and Thembinkosi Sithole were incarcerated for taking up arms to end Apartheid. They served 10, 13 and 9 years in prison on Robben Island, the infamous apartheid era prison. Like thousands of young men and women, they joined Umkhonto weSizwe, or MK, the armed wing of the African National Congress – a banned organization under apartheid (now the governing party of South Africa). Individually each man was captured, chained, tortured, tried for treason and terrorism and sent in the bottom of a ship to an island prison.
They would soon meet older prisoners who taught them how to survive and how to sing the history of their struggle. Prisoners sang traditional folk, freedom and worker songs in various African languages and in English, sometimes just adding new phrase or two to a vintage song to give it a new meaning. Entire sections of the prison, or just a few prisoners might launch into one of these simple and stirring acapella phrases in celebration of good news, or in resistance to prison authorities, or simply to express the desperate need for a morale boost during a long struggle against oppression, racism, loneliness. Frequently prisoners would sing a familiar melody and improvise new lyrics to challenge prison authorities. In this album, you will hear these stories and songs. It is a history of struggle that will surprise you for it speaks in rich harmonies across all the boundaries that divide by race, poverty and privilege.
Ironically, these three singers had never performed together outside of the prison until a documentary filmmaker, Jeff Spitz, brought them halfway across the world to the United States. Now through collaboration with Groundswell Educational films, they have been invited to sing at universities, high schools, churches and cultural institutions.
The Robben Island Singers are now taking their unique, unscripted musical performances into American communities, including disadvantaged, violence-stricken neighborhoods. Because of their own life experiences, their bravery and sacrifice for freedom, and their creative, wise insights into forgiveness, The Robben Island Singers give voice to youth and inspire audiences of all ages.
Track Listing & Samples
“We came together to release a CD that tells stories about our personal experiences during our imprisonment and struggle for freedom through songs. These are the songs we sang in our childhood. Everyone sang them while we were fighting and added new layers of meaning during the years of struggle. These songs helped us feel strong and kept our spirits up during imprisonment.”
“We are not war heroes or famous in our country. We are not professional musicians. We are just ordinary soldiers in the fight for freedom and our songs are the songs of all South Africans.”
“We came to America because we want to share our stories with you, and because we joined in a collaboration with Groundswell to make a film so that our stories can be heard around the world. Our history is based on oral traditions and songs. The film we make will preserve our stories and songs for posterity.”
“Through our stories and songs, people will understand that in situations of extreme conflict the human spirit can persevere and that negotiation with the enemy, and forgiveness can, in fact, bring peace. What happened in South Africa is not a miracle. It is possible for everyone. We would also like to thank the American people for their support during our struggle. The international support played a major role in our triumph.”
– The Robben Island Singers
“Singoban’ Thina” (Who are we?)
“Sizothabatha Umthwalo” (We will take our belongings)
This is a motivational song about packing up all of our belongings and leaving the country to join Umkhonto Wessizwe (ANC MK) to get military training.
“Sikhalela Izwe lakithi” (We are crying for our country that was taken by the colonizers)
“Izinqa ZikaMahlalela” (The buttocks of the unemployed are as hard as concrete)
We sang this song about being homesick on the island and longing to be with a girlfriend. But this nostalgic song was originally created in a different context. The song first came about as an ironic commentary on the sadness of being unemployed far from home. Day laborers (living in men -only dormitories) would sit along the road in the cities far from their homes, in the hope of being picked up by an employer to find work for that day. If you are not called upon for work, your seat might become cemented, metaphorically-speaking!
“Sizobadubula Ngombayimbayi” (We are going to fight by using big cannons)
This song was very popular among youth because it gave encouragement. It declares war against Apartheid and committed us to use weapons.
“Sihole we Mqabuko”
We remember the comrades who died with this song.
We are Waiting for an Answer (We Won’t Strike Without an Answer)
“Luthuli Bambiza E Oslo”
This song is a tribute to Chief Albert Luthuli, president of the African National Congress in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. Chief Luthuli was the first South African to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
This is an MK (Umkhonto Wessizwe) song that we sung when we were getting ready to fight on the front lines. It means, “We will kill them I swear by my mother that we will kill them. When I jumped the fence I saw the hippo (a war truck which was used to kill young students during the fighting for freedom) running away. When I jumped the fence I saw Voster (he was the South African minister during Apartheid regime) running away.”
This song is about how a South African oil refinery was sabotaged by the ANC.
“Toi Toi” (War dance)
“Take Over” (Take Our Country the Castro Way)
This song pays homage to Fidel Castro, who had supported the South African struggle against Apartheid.
In Spanish, this song translates roughly to “Viva Communism.” We were taught this song by a Cuban fighter.
“Chimurenga Dzakatanga” (The struggle continues in Zimbabwe)
This song is in Shona, the largest linguistic group in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean African People Union (ZAPU) was formed by workers and peasants. This song talks about Ian Smith (Former Prime Minister of Zimbabwe) and how he caused the conflict in Zimbabwe.
“Kure Kure Kwa Ndinobva” (Far away is my home)
“Far away is my home. Mother and father we shall meet in Zimbabwe. When we come home we shall meet in Zimbabwe. Mozorewa, Smith, Chirawu you will shiver like cowards. When we come to Zimbabwe.
Sugar was a scarcity for prisoners. They were deprived of sugar, but also sugar was used as a source of energy during the hunger strikes.
“What a System” (What a Crime)
These satirical words are sung to the tune of Oh my darling, Clementine.
“Ama Come Duze” (Come Closer Sweetheart, Daddy is Here)
A folk song we used to sing when missing our girlfriends and wives
“Bulawayo” (The Enemy Appears From Around the Corner?)
We learned this song from MK veterans who fought with the Zimbabweans to conquer Smith (He was Zimbabwe’s president then).
“Umzabalazo Uyasivumela” Everywhere the Struggle is in Our Favor
The song gives one strength and confidence. It is still relevant and people still sing it during commemorations.
“Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” God Bless Africa (South Africa’s National Anthem)