Honouring music’s role in the making of South Africa


26 August 2014

The struggle against apartheid in South Africa had a soundtrack, and a project running this September – Heritage Month – will pay tribute to the music and the musicians who played a part in the country’s transformation to democracy 20 years ago.

Independent record label Shifty Records has partnered with the Alliance Française of Johannesburg and the South African History Archives (SAHA) to conceive “Shifty September”, a month-long programme of exhibitions, documentary screenings, panel discussions and concerts that aim to consider the role of protest music in the making of democracy in South Africa.

Shifty Records was founded by Lloyd Ross and Ivan Kadey in the early 1980s, and was soon recording and releasing – censorship depending – a wide variety of music: Sankomota, the Genuines, the Kalahari Surfers, Urban Creep, James Phillips (known as Bernoldus Niemand), Vusi Mahlasela, and Simba Morris.


As Gwen Ansell wrote recently in Business Day, Shifty released “some of the most defiant and radical sounds” on to the popular music scene in South Africa.

Crossing all genres – from folk to jive to reggae and choral music – Shifty had a musical and social influence on South African society. Perhaps the best known of its initiatives was the so-called Voelvry Tour, which took place 25 years ago.

The tour in 1989 by radical young Afrikaans-speaking musicians, headed up by singer- songwriter Johannes Kerkorrel and his Gereformeerde Blues Band, spawned a movement that tapped into an Afrikaans counter-culture that was against the values of the National Party and conservative Afrikanerdom.

‘Infectiously danceable’

Ansell says Shifty documentation and distribution of “iconoclastic music that defied genre and racial boundaries” in the 1980s built up an archive of edgy sounds that are still “infectiously danceable”. Much of this music informs today’s “rebels and genre- challengers” such as Blk Jks, Die Antwoord and Fokofpolisiekar.

Events and exhibitions during Shifty September “will draw on historical artefacts from the archives to explore the various ways in which Shifty Records created a musical outlet for South Africans to express their resistance to the apartheid regime, to challenge conscription, and to raise awareness of the plights of detainees, communities under threat of forced removals, and other key struggles for justice within the broader anti-apartheid struggle,” the 30-year-old record label says on its website.

“But it wasn’t all serious stuff, as there was also a healthy subtext of partying apartheid into extinction through the power of song.”


The SAHA’s archives of South Africa’s history of “musical activism” will be made available to the public during September at exhibitions at the Alliance Française in Parkview, Johannesburg.

Shifty September will culminate with a concert at the Bassline, a club in Johannesburg, on Heritage Day (24 September).

Tickets are only available via Thundafund, a crowdsourcing campaign set up to cover logistical costs and allow the organisers to expand the project towards the production of a documentary.

SAinfo reporter