South Africa flag




Sarah J. Bartalome (Louisiana State University)

Nation/Culture(s).  South Africa is the southern-most country on the African continent, boasting 1,738 miles of coastline along the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Sharing borders with Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe to the north and Mozambique and Swaziland to the northeast, South Africa also completely surrounds the independent country of Lesotho. The country comprises nine provinces: KwaZulu-Natal, The Free State, The Eastern Cape, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, The Northern Cape, Limpopo, The North West, and The Western Cape. The country has three capitals, each housing a branch of the government. Pretoria is the administrative capital and houses the President and the Executive branch. Cape Town is the legislative capital and the seat of the Parliament. Bloemfontein is the judicial capital where resides the Supreme Court of Appeals. Other notable cities include Durban, Johannesburg, Grahamstown (home of ILAM), and Port Elizabeth. 

There are eight international airports in South Africa including O.R. Tambo International Airport (JNB) in  Johannesburg, Cape Town International Airport (CPT) in Cape Town, and Durban International Airport (DUR) in Durban. The Baz Bus, a backpacker bus service, provides frequent, safe, and convenient service between major cities in South Africa ( For domestic air travel, South African Airways, Airlink, and British Airways serve the major cities, while Kulula ( and Mango ( offer no-frills economy options.

South African society is extraordinarily diverse, representing a truly pluralistic nation. According to the CIA Fact Book (, the population is made up of black African (79%), White (9.6%), Coloured (8.9%), and Indian/Asia (2.5%) peoples (based on 2001 census). There are nine black African ethnic groups represented in South Africa:  Zulu, Xhosa, Basotho, Bapedi, Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, Swazi, and Ndebele. While English is the language of government and administration, South Africa has 11 official languages: English, Afrikaans, isiNdebele, Sesotho, Sesotho sa Leboa, siSwati, Xitsonga, Setswana, Tshivenda, isiXhosa, and isiZulu.

South African history has been characterized by significant conflicts between indigenous African populations and European settlers, including Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonists. South Africa was under Dutch colonial rule as the Dutch Cape Colony from 1652 until 1795. The British occupied the territory in 1795 and remained in power (with a brief return to Dutch power from 1803-1806) with British sovereignty recognized in 1815. The ensuing years were checkered with conflicts between the British and indigenous populations and were characterized by a growing dissatisfaction with British rule among Dutch descendants (Boers). The Zulu kingdom was expanding and meanwhile the Boers set out to create their own independent settlements (later establishing the Boer Republics). This period was wrought with battles between the many diverse populations occupying the region. Of particular note is the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) during which Europeans (British and Dutch) were fighting for power on African soil. Finally, in 1909 the South Africa Act united the British colony and the Boer Republics as the Union of South Africa. In 1948, the racial segregation that began during the Dutch colonial period was formalized through the adoption of an Apartheid government. Apartheid (“the state of being apart” in Afrikaans) created legislation that enforced a divided society in which the government segregated residential areas, education, medical care, and other public services based on race. Apartheid was officially abolished in 1994 with the first South African democratic elections. Today, the country is not without its challenges, particularly those related to education, crime, HIV/AIDS, and socioeconomic and racial inequality, but the New South Africa is a truly multicultural society, enjoying increased tourism, business growth, and a budding democracy. The complicated political history of South Africa can be explored more fully at

Musical Features.  Given its extremely diverse population, South African music is richly varied. Each cultural group has its own traditional musics that have been continued and adapted over time. Years of colonialism have given rise to a strong Western classical tradition which includes powerful choral performance. Additionally, there is a thriving popular music industry that serves a variety of different genres. While it is impossible to cover every genre of South African music in this brief overview, several important genres and their defining characteristics are listed here as an entry point for those wishing to learn more about South African music.

Isicathamiya: Zulu-style a cappella singing; Traditionally men’s choirs singing in harmony (Listen: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, albums available through iTunes)

Freedom Songs: Liberation music from the Apartheid era (Listen: Miriam Makeba, “Ndodemnyama”; This Land is Mine: South African Freedom Songs, FW05588, available at

Kwaito: South African hip hop style that emerged in the 1990’s (Listen: Bongo Maffin: Also: Boom Shaka, Trompies)

Marabi: Early 20th century township shebeen music featuring keyboard (Listen: “Mabiletsa” at )

Kwela: South African street music popular in the 1950’s featuring pennywhistle (Listen: Township Jive: Kwela Jazz, 2001, Umbuntu, available through iTunes)

Mbaqanga:   Popular African jazz music originating in the Townships in the 1960’s with roots in the earlier Marabi and Kwela styles; Mbaqanga means  “cornmeal porridge” in Zulu (Listen: Mahlathini: King of the Groaners, 1993, Sterns Music, available through iTunes)

Voëlvry Music: 1980’s Afrikaans anti-Apartheid music (Listen: Johannes Kerkorrel, Eet Kreef, 1989, Shifty 

Records (now defunct), available at

Important Musicians.

Abdullah Ibrahim (b.1934) Distinguished South African pianist

Miriam Makeba (1932-2008): Grammy-Award winning South African singer and civil rights activist known as “Mama Africa”

Vusi Mahlasela (b.1965): South African singer-songwriter, known as “The Voice” of South Africa;

Hugh Masekela (b. 1939) South African trumpet player and jazz musician

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Multiple-Grammy award-winning male vocal cappella group featuring traditional Zulu Isicathamiya style

Neil van der Watt (b.1962) Afrikaans composer of classical music, especially choral music and settings of Afrikaans texts (Listen: “I Am the Voice of Africa,” The Voice of Africa, University of Pretoria Camerata, 2002, Guild, available through iTunes; “Onse Vader,” Music for a While, 2008, Prospect, available through iTunes)

Hendrik Hofmeyr: South African Afrikaans composer of opera, orchestral, chamber music and choral works; (Listen: “A Sexta Autem Hora,” Music for a While, 2008, Prospect, available through iTunes)

Notable Ensembles.

The Cape Philharmonic, Cape Town, South Africa,

South African National Youth Orchestra Foundation,

Drakensberg Boys’ Choir,

Soweto Gospel Choir,

Cape Town Opera,

University of Pretoria Camerata,

Jacaranda Children’s Choir:

Notable Festivals.

Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival,

Cape Town International Jazz Festival,

Music in the Mountains Festival:

Music in Higher Education.   There are 10 universities in South Africa that have Schools or Departments of Music. Of these ten, the most comprehensive programs are at the University of Pretoria, the University of Stellenbosch, and the University of Cape Town. Below is a list of each university and a link to the Music Department website.

University of Pretoria: ipkCategoryID=1508/eng/eng/music/eng/index.htm

University of Cape Town:

University of Stellenbosch:

Rhodes University:

University of the Witwatersrand:

University of KwaZulu-Natal:

Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University:

University of South Africa (UNISA):

University of the Free State:

North West University, Potchefstroom:


Diane Thram: [email protected] Associate Professor, Rhodes University & Director of the International Library of African Music

Caroline van Niekerk: [email protected] Former Professor, University of Pretoria

Alvin Petersen: [email protected] Professor, North-West University

Michael Barrett: [email protected] Lecturer, University of Pretoria

Recommendations for Listening.

Available through iTunes:

Miriam Makeba, Pata Pata, 1967; 2004Warner Bros. Records

Soweto Gospel Choir, Blessed, 2006 Shanachie Entertainment

Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Shaka Zulu, 1987, Warner Bros Records

Drakensberg Boys’ Choir, Cantemus – Just Sing!, 2012 Prospect

Kwaito, South African Hip Hop, 2000 Stern’s Music

Available through Smithsonian Folkways:           

Sounds of a South African Homestead, 1956, Folkways Records (FW06151)

South African Freedom Songs, 1960, Folkways Records (FWEPC601)

Zulu Hymns and Ceremonial Songs, 1955, Folkways Records (ILAMTR009)

Xhosa Divination Songs and Lullabies, 1957, Folkways Records (ILAMTR022)

Afrikaans Children’s Folksongs, 1957, Folkways Records (FW07201)

Recommendations for Viewing.


Amandla! A Revolution in 4-part Harmony (2002), Director: Lee Hirsch

Under African Skies (2012), Director: Joe Berlinger

Mama Africa (2011), Director: Mika Kaurismaki

Miracle Rising: South Africa (2013), Director: Brett Lotriet Best

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Journey of Dreams (1988), Director: David Lister

Feature Films:

Invictus (2009), Director: Clint Eastwood

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013), Director: Justin Chadwick

Recommendations for Reading.

Ansell, G. (2005). Soweto Blues: Jazz, popular music, & politics in South Africa. New York: Continuum

Blacking, J. (1995). Venda children’s songs: A study in ethnomusicological analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Coplan, D.B.(2008). In township tonight: South Africa’s black city music and theater (2nd ed.). Chicago: university of Chicago Press.

Erlmann, V. (1995). Performance, power, and practice in South Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Erlmann, V. (1991). Studies in black South African performance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mandela, N. (1995.) Long walk to freedom: The autobiography of Nelson Mandela. New York: Back Bay Books

Martin, D. (2013). Sounding the Cape: Music, identity, and politics in South Africa. South Africa: African Minds Publishers.

Recommended Websites.

South African History Online:  This website represents a thorough repository of South African history from pre-1500’s through the present day.  

Nelson Mandela Foundation:  This website is dedicated to life and times of Nelson Mandela and also houses the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory Digital Archives.

South African Society for Research in Music:  This website is dedicated to the mission and activities of the Society which organizes a conference annually in South Africa.

International Library of African Music:  Housed at Rhodes University and founded in 1954 by celebrated ethnomusicologist pioneer Hugh Tracey, ILAM is the headquarters of the African Music Society and issues the quarterly journal African Music.