"The thing that saved us was music," says one of the many activists interviewed in director Lee Hirsh's Amandla!, "it was part of liberating ourselves". Ten years in development, this fascinating and compelling documentary tells the story of South Africa's apartheid regime from the perspective of the musicians who composed, played and sang songs of freedom, revolution and change.
Covering around half a century of apartheid rule, Hirsch interviews musicians, activists, politicians and former protestors in an attempt to discover what influence the songs of liberation had on the anti-apartheid movement.
Vitally important in mobilising a large - often illiterate - mass protest movement, the ballads, anthems and chants of this period were often the primary means of building political consciousness and encouraging solidarity in the face of adversity. Acting as both a documentary about music and a South African history lesson, Hirsh's film combines archive footage with interviews with now legendary figures such as Hugh Masekela, Mariam Makeba and Abdullah Ibrahim.
"REMINDS IS HOW HIGH THE STAKES WERE"
The linking focus of the film, though, is musician Vuysilie Mini, whose song Beware Verwoerd! (The Black Man Is Coming!) was one of the first responses to the establishment of apartheid in 1948 by Hendrick Verwoerd. Mini was executed in 1964, along with hundreds of other liberation leaders, and Hirsh edits footage of his pauper's grave being exhumed in 1998 and his subsequent, honorable reburial into the film in order to remind us how high the stakes were for those who fought against the white regime.
Contextualising the music against the background of the mass destruction of black communities in the 50s, the Sharpeville riots in the 60s, the Soweto uprising in the 70s, and the increasingly brutal response of the 80s that signalled the death throes of apartheid, Amandla! documents the ballads, protest songs, and anthems that prove, as one musician puts it "The more we sing, the more we shall see cracks in the walls of Jericho."