Protest music thrives in South Africa's shack settlements

10 February 2009 - 2:24pm

In South African's shack settlements activists are increasingly using music to oppose government policies that violate the rights of the poor. Abahlali baseMjondolo (ABM), a grassroots movement of shack dwellers and War on Want partner, has been at the forefront of this powerful form of resistance.

During the Apartheid era activists opposing the South African government were prohibited from contributing to mainstream media outlets such as national newspapers and the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). As a result of strict government control over the media, South African activists turned to a range of alternative sources to express their opposition to the minority rule government. Music in particular emerged as a crucial channel through which activists could mobilise against and raise awareness of the oppressive nature of the regime.

After the fall of Apartheid regime 15 years ago, music still plays a role in the movement to oppose policies that have devastated poor communities. On their recently released album ‘Hlis'uMoya' (‘bringing salvation' in isiZulu), the Dlamini King Brothers, a 12-member acapella choir based in Durban, South Africa, lament the conditions faced by poor communities - and the failure of government to safeguard their rights.

abm_thumbThe Dlamini King Brothers are based in the informal settlements of Durban where Abahlalibase Mjondolo (ABM), a War on Want partner organisation, began its landmark campaign against evictions and the lack of public services for communities of shack dwellers. In recent years ABM has earned many crucial victories in its struggle promoting the rights of the poor communities located in and around Durban.

ABM's efforts in building a powerful movement have been supported by the music of groups like Dlamini King Brothers. The group pays tribute to ABM on their latest album with a song named ‘Ablahali'. The song praises the organisation for its campaign work on behalf of Durban's poor communities. In the song the group calls on the government to listen to the needs of impoverished communities, echoing ABM's own call to government officials to ‘talk with us, not for us'.

Many Apartheid-era pieces of legislation have remained on the books despite the rise to power of the African National Congress, depriving South Africa's shack dwellers a role in the political process. These communities face a range of social problems, from a lack of clean water and electricity in their homes to inadequate health care and a subpar education system. Moreover, the recently passed Slums Act has resulted in thousands of forced evictions and the demolition of shack settlements. As South Africa prepares for the 2010 World Cup, it is expected that the number of forced removals will increase.

In spite of the challenges faced by poor communities, ABM and the shack dwellers will continue to fight for their homes and for the provision of social services. As the group builds its movement, ABM and poor communities in the Durban area will continue to draw inspiration and strength from the music of the Dlamini King Brothers.

You can listen to the song 'Abahlali' by the award-winning Dlamini King Brothers, and purchase the album online by contacting ABM

Also available online is 'A Place in the City', a recently made documentary about ABM

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