Fire in Soweto

Burning all my people

Now there’s fire in Angola

A burning all my people

Riot in Mozambique

Affecting all my people

Fighting in Namibia

Crushing all my people

A shooting in Soweto

(Hey) A killing all my people….

This were the powerful lyrics of late Sonny Okosun’s incendiary reggae jam, “Fire in Soweto”, chronicling the plight of the black race in Africa. It added to the liberation movement that ushered in a new era in some parts of the continent, including South Africa which was once under the grip of apartheid regime.

Fela Kuti

While apartheid may have been dismantled, the dark days of the repressive policy and the struggle which came with it would never be forgotten in a hurry; so are the immense contributions of Nigeria and its artistry.

Nigeria’s support, as a front-line state in the struggle to end apartheid traversed political rallies and solidarity statements, but was also hinged on emotional-driven musical appeals. At the heights of apartheid in the 70s, the country’s musicians were forceful in using their music and talents to directly attack the apartheid government. Such songs kept the consciousness going even after late President Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

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With the efforts of the exiled South African musicians like late Hugh Masekela, Ladysmith Black Manbazo and the late Miriam Makeba popularly known as “Mama Africa” who kept up pressure on the apartheid government through their music, Nigerian musicians more than any other on the continent composed and dedicated powerful songs that were critical of the apartheid regime.

From Sunny Okosun’s revolutionary songs like ‘Fire in Soweto’, ‘Holy Wars’ ‘ Papa’s Land’, ‘Power to the People’, ‘3rd World’ , ‘Give Peace a Chance’, ‘Liberation’, and ‘ African Solider’ to Majek Fashek’s ‘Prisoner of Conscience’, Fela’s ‘ Beasts of No Nation’ and Onyeka Onwenu’s ‘ Winnie Mandela’ , Nigerian musicians confronted apartheid head-on with their evergreen songs. After Mandela’s release, these protest songs and eulogy of the former South African president remained one of the weapons of support for the freedom fighters.

For instance, releasing “Fire in Soweto” in 1977, on South Africa’s plight, shortly after he delivered, ‘Papa’s Land’ in 1976, and ‘Power to the People in 1979, Okosun reasserted African dignity and equality as well as freedom and justice for black South Africans.

“Fire in Soweto”, became an instant success, causing the exponent of Ozzidi to feature in the anti-apartheid album, Sun City. Okosun’s main concern was pointing the way toward a positive new world that would transform the ashes of oppression to freedom.

Like popular writer, Ogaga Ifowodo once asked ;Who could ever forget the impact of Okosun’s songs for emotional and moral force they provided anti-apartheid struggle to overthrow apartheid? His “Fire in Soweto” revealed the dire poverty and political unrest in some African countries. Five of Okosun’s songs dedicated to apartheid era left a rich musical legacy that had not been appreciated by the black South Africans with the passage of time.

The underlying strength of Okosun’s songs like other freedom fighters from Nigeria then lay in the way they weaved music to stir up liberation of a people.

“Papa’s Land,” perhaps Okosun’s most popular song was a direction confrontation to the apartheid government. Its unforgettable refrain is the poser: “Who owns Papa’s land?” Okosun was known to be a self-vaunted “freedom fighter” which he sustained until after the formal end of apartheid. “We want to know/We want to know … /Who owns Papa’s Land,” he and his chorus sang.

The land he meant was Africa, hence the lyrics that follow: “Africa is my father’s land/Yes, Africa is my Papa’s land/Will you let my people go?/We want to rule from Cape to Cairo … /Will you free my people’s hands?/We want to rule our papa’s land.” The lyrics are provocative and thoughtful.

In those days, Nigeria earned a respectable place in the global scheme of things to consider itself a front-line state in solidarity with Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

While Okosun’s revolutionary songs were still penetrating nooks and crannies of the continent, Fela’s ‘ “Beasts of No Nation” released in 1989, pitched a tent against three world leaders, the then U.S. President, Ronald Reagan, UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher and South African Prime Minister, Pieter Willem Botha. Depicting these leaders on the cover of the album, Fela sent a strong message to the then supporters of apartheid regime. The song itself was expository as it was a powerful weapon used by the late Afro beat king to denounce apartheid in its entirety.

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That was not all. Between the mid-eighties and early 1990s, Nigerian musicians came out in full force to compose as well as render songs that were critical of the apartheid government, calling for the unconditional and immediate release of Mandela from incarceration. Onyeka Onwenu led the way with her’ Dancing in the Rain’ and “Winnie Mandela” followed by Mandators’ ‘Rat Race’, ‘Crisis’ , ‘Rebel.’

Also, Majek Fashek’s ‘Prisoner of Conscience’, ‘Free Mandela’ and his remix of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song ‘ added to the external fight against apartheid. Nearly every album released then by a Nigerian musician that did not feature a song calling for African liberation was almost incomplete. In as much as apartheid was concerned then, Nigerian singers were united in their struggle to end it and liberate their South African brothers.

Winnie Mandela was close to tears after Onyeka Onwenu sang her ‘Winnie Mandela’ song during her visit to Nigerian back in the days. Just as veteran South African singer, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, acknowledged the immeasurable contributions of Nigerian musicians towards dismantling apartheid, when she pointed out that there was hardly any Nigerian musician between 1980s and 1990s that didn’t have a song about apartheid and Mandela.

Indeed, until the end of apartheid in 1994, Nigerian musicians and successive governments never backed down on the struggle to abolish racial segregation in South Africa. But it’s unfortunate today that after what the country did for South Africa, playing the ‘Big Brother role’ when it mattered most, the latter is repaying good with evil even as on reasonable person will defend crimes linked to some Nigerians in South Africa.

However, such criminals should be arrested and prosecuted. That is civil and not to embark on Xenophobic attacks and extrajudicial killings. It goes to say that South Africans are not appreciative of the vital roles and sacrifices made by countries like Nigeria to guarantee their future and freedom from the shackles of apartheid.

The recurring xenophobic attacks on Nigerians and other foreign nationals in the rainbow country, are only a confirmation that South Africans are still overwhelmed by the negative effects of apartheid which promoted and sustained racism among the people.

While the country is still struggling to overcome the shadows of the past, evidences abound that the apartheid policy which has psychologically damaged the people still lurks in the shadows and the back rooms.


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