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Protests Theatre Role in Apartheid South Africa


It has often been argued that theatre is political in nature because it is a part of all human activities, which are political in nature (Schumann, 2008). Apart from entertaining the society, theatres perform significant roles in any society. For instance, they contribute to the processes of educating, informing, creating awareness and addressing the daily occurrences that face the society at a given time.

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In 1980s, the black society in South Africa felt oppressed by the apartheid laws. Members of the Bantu people in the country attempted to use various forms of protest theatres as a tool of influencing change (Anderson, 2001). This paper examines how the protest theatres were able to impart knowledge, increase determination, self-realization, and protest against social and political status that was deemed repressive during the apartheid regime.

The role of protest arts and theatre in the fight against apartheid

South Africa experienced one of the most brutal systems of racial segregation, economic discrimination as well as social domination perpetrated by the whites. As repression continued in the country, activists were unable to protest against the oppression using the common democratic avenues.

Therefore, they attempted to use theaters to make their protests heard. In 1970s and 1980s, art, music, poems and dramas were considered as a weapon in the anti-apartheid struggles. In addition, they expressed the contrasting perceptions of the whites and blacks concerning apartheid (Anderson, 2001). The South African theatre art was redesigned to become a social organ that ruthlessly protested against apartheid.

Despite the fact that the protest theatres provided the South African communities with a true form of entertainment, it cited flaws and shortcomings of the apartheid government in an entertaining way while still performing the role of encouraging the audience to find ways to fight oppression (Anderson, 2001).

Various artists protested against apartheid using music, poetry, theatre, and dance. These artistic methods were mainly used to gather international support in the struggle against apartheid. For example, the ANC (African National Congress) used a popular slogan called ‘culture is a weapon of struggle’ in its anti-apartheid movements. Albert Sachs claimed that artistic styles were needed to enable a society portray the values of a new South Africa that was characterized with freedom from the oppression of the apartheid rules.

Mayibuye Cultural Ensemble, an ANC group based in London, was used to push the anti-apartheid agenda and raise awareness inside the movement. It examined the ways through which cultural activities could help in gaining national liberation (Schumann, 2008). Another ANC outfit Amandla cultural Ensembles was made up of ANC exiles. It acted as the ANC ambassador all over the world by promoting international awareness against apartheid and depicting the evils of the white-led government.

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Between 1970 and 1980, Mayibule Cultural Ensembles organized several events in an attempt to promote cultural values and create awareness on the reality of apartheid. In particular, the group used poems, political and traditional songs in an event named ‘poets to the people’. Mayibuye Cultural Ensembles presented various poems and songs.

For instance, songs like “Thina Sizwe” (we African people) and “Dubula ngembayimbayi” (we will shoot them with cannons) were performed to portray the plight of the black South Africans and encourage people to rise up and fight the apartheid regime (Schumann, 2008). Mayimbuye succeeded in raising the awareness of racial segregation, promoting international support for anti-apartheid and lobbing funds for the ANC party.

Amandla Cultural Ensemble played a major role in the struggle for freedom through integration of culture into the political activities of ANC from 1978-1990. Its performances included dramatized segments and poems integrated with traditional songs. Amandla also performed a number of dramas that portrayed the events of racial discriminations, forced migration and the effects of colonization.

In 1948-1994 some set of laws were established to separate and group South Africans into the white and black races. These laws prohibited marriages between the whites and blacks. It prohibited whites and blacks from sharing social, economic and other amenities such as restrooms, restaurants hospitals and schools. Obviously, the amenities meant for the blacks were substandard. During this era, people turned to music to seek refuge from the hostile world around them.

Individuals and groups used songs to protest and inform the public about the unfair laws. However, the white government constantly prohibited artists from performing the antiapartheid songs and poems in order to keep apartheid intact. Music is believed to have been one of the key reasons that ended apartheid. Baleka Mbete, the speaker of the national parliament, confirmed that music helped the nation pull through the years of struggle.

Radio Freedom carried out a discussion on liberation music. The disc jockey Rude Boy Paul defined freedom songs as “the songs that activists and protestors must use to instill the idea and feeling of togetherness” (Dean, Markgraaff & Hirsch, 2008).

Mass demonstrations were staged at different times and in different parts of South Africa. During these demos, the protesters would sing and dance to intensify the opposition. For example, after the government established and implemented the apartheid law in 1950s, the music culture became popular (Lowenberg & Kaempfer, 2008).

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In 1973, Steve Biko was denied the right to talk in public or even speak to more than one person at a time. These were some of the several other restrictions imposed on him due to his political activism, which had caused him an expulsion from university. This was a government strategy to counter rebellion in Kagablog. Stephen Bantu Biko worked in visual and performed arts like songs,books, websites, theatre plays, poems, films, paintings,sculptures, clothing labels, and graffiti on the walls in various townships of South Africa.

The materials carried the message “Biko Lives!” (Lowenberg & Kaempfer, 2008). It is evident that literature and the arts played a significant role as one of the media outlets that declared Steve Biko as immortal. He found self-definition, self-realization, self-love, self-respect, self-reliance and self-expression to be the best weapon for the physical and psychological liberation for the less unfortunate people.

Musicians such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masakela, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Vusi Mahlasela increasingly became internationally acclaimed South African voices. They were able to broadcast anti-apartheid messages to an audience that ‘inziled’ musicians could not have done due to the governments’ laws that made censorship of music compulsory. Many artists sought self-exile while others fled after realizing the threats involved (Olwage, 2008).

The regime used this strategy to eliminate the political threat the artists posed because hey were highly influential. It must be noted that the music that the exiled and ‘inziled’ musicians developed played very different roles throughout the struggle for freedom and were vital for entertainment.


Apartheid is a social, political and economic system that favored the white supremacist in South Africa. It sought to allocate the vast majority of resources in the mineral-rich nation to the 10% minority population of white colonists and their descendants (Lowenberg & Kaempfer, 2008).

An effective method was needed to influence the oppressed in order to encourage the black community defy and rebel against the regime’s inhuman acts. To accomplish this, protest theatres were used as a weapon for creating awareness, informing and educating the public and the victims of racial segregation.


Anderson, M. (2001). Music in the Mix: The story of South African Popular Music. Johannesburg: Ravan Press

Dean, S. S., Markgraaff, D., & Hirsch, L. (Executive Producers). (2008). Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony [DVD]. Cape Town: ATO Pictures.

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Lowenberg, A. D., & Kaempfer, W. H. (2008). The Origins and Demise of South African Apartheid: A Public Choice Analysis. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press

Olwage, G. (2008). Composing Apartheid: Music For and Against Apartheid. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press

Schumann, A. (2008). The Beat that Beat Apartheid: The Role of Music in the Resistance against Apartheid in South Africa. Stichproben: Wiener Zeitschrift für kritische Afrikastudien / Vienna Journal of African Studies

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