When South Africa Banned Pink Floyd’s The Wall After Students Chanted “We Don’t Need No Education” to Protest the Apartheid School System (1980)

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 GuardianThe 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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Pink Floyd’s “Com­fort­ably Numb” Was Born From an Argu­ment Between Roger Waters & David Gilmour

Under­stand­ing Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, Their Trib­ute to Depart­ed Band­mate Syd Bar­rett

Hear a 4 Hour Playlist of Great Protest Songs: Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Bob Mar­ley, Pub­lic Ene­my, Bil­ly Bragg & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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