When Apartheid states get the blessing of powerful nations, lobbies, and corporations, they seem to feel empowered to do whatever they want. Such was the case, for a time, in South Africa, the country that coined the term when it put its version of racial segregation in place in 1948. The Apartheid system finally collapsed in 1991, decades after its counterpart in the U.S.—its undoing the accumulated weight of global condemnation, UN sanction, boycotts, and growing pressure from citizens in wealthy countries.
Of course, central to Apartheid’s demise were the outcries and actions of celebrity musicians. One such celebrity, Roger Waters, hasn’t stopped using his fame to lobby for change, a characteristic that can sometimes make him seem sanctimonious, but which also gave his most compelling Pink Floyd songs an urgency and bite that holds many decades later, even though the circumstances are much changed (or not). Lines like “we don’t need no thought control” have as much currency now as they did forty years ago.
No doubt, some of the most strident, personal, and powerful music Waters wrote for the band comes from The Wall. The rock opera to beat all rock operas, it turned out, provided a rallying cry for South African students, who chanted the notorious lyrics sung by a children’s chorus in “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)” to protest racial inequalities in the school system. “We don’t need no education,” they sang in unison, and the song “held the top spot on the local charts for almost three months,” writes Nick Deriso at Ultimate Classic Rock, “a total of seven weeks longer than it did in America.”
Threatened by the phenomenon, the South African government banned the song, then the whole album, in 1980, imposing what Waters called “a cultural blockade… on certain songs.” Deriso explains that “South Africa’s Directorate of Publications held sweeping power in that era to ban books, movies, plays, posters, articles of clothing and, yes, music that it deemed ‘political or morally undesirable.’” The censors were not the only people to interpret the song as a threat. “People were really driven to frenzies of rage by it,” Waters remembers.
He has since played the song all over the world, including Berlin in 1990, and he spray painted its lyrics on the wall in the West Bank in 2006. “Twenty-five years later,” he writes at The Guardian, The Wall still resonated, this time with Palestinian children, who “used the song to protest Israel’s wall around the West Bank. They sang: ‘We don’t need no occupation! We don’t need no racist wall!” Waters compares the current boycott campaign to the refusal of major stars in the 80s to play South Africa’s Sun City resort “until apartheid fell and white people and black people enjoyed equal rights.”
As for the durability of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)” as a rallying cry for young activists, the best comment may come from an unlikely source—the Archbishop of Canterbury, who “went on record,” Waters writes, “saying that if it’s very popular with school kids, then it must in some way be expressing some feelings that they have themselves. If one doesn’t like it, or however one feels about it, one should take the opportunity of using it as a starting point for discussion—which was exactly how I felt about it.”