Sugar Man: Empowering anti-Apartheid South Africa

In 100 years, the world as some of us knew it had been brought to the edge of destruction. From world wars I & II, Korean War, Vietnam War, the development of atomic weapons, large scale terrorism, racial and ethnic cleansing and the brutal civil rights infringements from governments but to name a few. There are men and women in history who are revered for their actions during the twentieth century’s turbulent times. Names like Roosevelt, Churchill, De Valera for some, Rosa Parks for others have lived long in the memory of nations and hopefully will continue to do so in the future.

There is a man however, in his own way, who has had a major impact in South Africa, and no it is not Nelson Mandela. Although we salute the work of such a great man such as Mandela, I am talking about another man, a musician. Any guesses? Chances are you haven’t guessed right, but that’s ok, because the world didn’t until just a few years ago and I didn’t until just recently. If you looked at the record charts over the past 60 years you would have seen names like Elvis, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones everywhere you looked. These were the kingpins of rock ‘n’ roll music in the twentieth century. But then you look at South Africa, a very different country to many in the world, and you hear a whisper of the name Rodriguez. Not the name you were thinking of? Sixto Rodriguez  is a Mexican-American singer-songwriter who unbeknownst to himself and pretty much everyone outside of South Africa is one of the best selling artists in South African history.

sugar rod

His music is difficult to categorise as it fuses elements of Rock, Folk, Jazz, Soul, Blues and even Classical flourishes. Rodriguez is a singer-songwriter in the social commentary style of Bob Dylan, with the feel of the old Blues masters and even touches of Rock and Roll.

My inspiration comes from the environment and personal angst…each song is written to a theme…
– Rodriguez, March 1998

I’ve always concentrated on social issues, because I’ve always found it easiest to write about things that upset me. But I can (and have) explored the boy-girl theme in music and I enjoy writing ballads too.
– Rodriguez, March 1998

His music was incredibly popular with white Afrikaans in South Africa during the 70’s Apartheid regime. But why don’t I let his fansite tell a little about these facts:

Rodriguez has been a household name among the white population in South Africa since the early 70’s. The album Cold Fact has become a cult classic in South Africa, but unbelievably Rodriguez was unknown elsewhere (except in Australia, New Zealand and Zimbabwe). He was never mentioned in any music magazines, rock encyclopedias or any other publications on the history of Rock.

It was this situation of an American artist being famous in South Africa, but unknown in his home country (and, of course, my love for his music!), that led me to set up this website. As one news headline said during the 1998 South African tour: “American Zero, South African Hero”. Through this website and the Internet I have discovered that Rodriguez also has fans in Germany, Canada, Japan, England, Brazil, Norway and the USA.
sugar rod 2

Since 2001 or so, Rodriguez has started getting mentioned in magazines like Mojo and NME, thanks in part to the David Holmes cover of ‘Sugar Man’. Shiloh Noone’s book ‘The Seekers Guide To The Rhythms Of Yesterday’ (published by the author in April 2004) also features a section on Rodriguez.

But worldwide fame and fortune still alludes this most humble of musicians.

What was Apartheid?

 apartheid: South African beach during the apartheid era [Credit: E. Andrews—Impact Photos/Heritage-Images]

Apartheid (Afrikaans word meaning apartness) was a policy that governed relations between South Africa’s white minority and nonwhite majority and sanctioned racial segregation and political and economic discrimination against nonwhites. The implementation of apartheid, often called “separate development” since the 1960s, was made possible through the Population Registration Act of 1950, which classified all South Africans as either Bantu (all black Africans), Coloured (those of mixed race), or white. A fourth category—Asian (Indian and Pakistani)—was later added.

apartheid [Credit: Margaret Bourke-White/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images]Racial segregation, sanctioned by law, was widely practiced in South Africa before 1948, but the National Party, which gained office that year, extended the policy and gave it the name apartheid. The Group Areas Act of 1950 established residential and business sections in urban areas for each race, and members of other races were barred from living, operating businesses, or owning land in them. In practice this act and two others (1954, 1955), which became known collectively as the Land Acts, completed a process that had begun with similar Land Acts adopted in 1913 and 1936; the end result was to set aside more than 80 percent of South Africa’s land for the white minority.

To help enforce the segregation of the races and prevent blacks from encroaching on white areas, the government strengthened the existing “pass” laws, which required nonwhites to carry documents authorizing their presence in restricted areas. Other laws forbade most social contacts between the races, authorized segregated public facilities, established separate educational standards, restricted each race to certain types of jobs, curtailed nonwhite labour unions, and denied nonwhite participation (through white representatives) in the national government.

Bantustans [Credit: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.]

Under the Bantu Authorities Act of 1951 the government reestablished tribal organizations for black Africans, and the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act of 1959 created 10 African homelands, or Bantustans. The Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act of 1970 made every black South African, irrespective of actual residence, a citizen of one of the Bantustans, thereby excluding blacks from the South African body politic. Four of the Bantustans were granted independence as republics, and the remaining had varying degrees of self-government; but all remained dependent, both politically and economically, on South Africa. The dependence of the South African economy on nonwhite labour, though, made it difficult for the government to carry out this policy of separate development.

South Africa, history of: apartheid and Mandela [Credit: Stock footage courtesy The WPA Film Library]
Nelson Mandela
Although the government had the power to suppress virtually all criticism of its policies, there was always some opposition to apartheid within South Africa. Black African groups, with the support of some whites, held demonstrations and strikes, and there were many instances of violent protest and of sabotage. One of the first—and most violent—demonstrations against apartheid took place in Sharpeville on March 21, 1960; the police response to the protesters’ actions was to open fire, killing about 69 black Africans and wounding many more. An attempt to enforce Afrikaans language requirements for black African students led to the Soweto riots in 1976. Some white politicians called for the relaxation of minor restrictions, referred to as “petty apartheid,” or for the establishment of racial equality.

apartheid-era sign, Cape Town, South Africa [Credit: Dave G. Houser/Corbis]Apartheid also received international censure. South Africa was forced to withdraw from the Commonwealth in 1961 when it became apparent that other member countries would not accept its racial policies. In 1985 both the United Kingdom and the United States imposed selective economic sanctions on South Africa. In response to these and other pressures, the South African government abolished the “pass” laws in 1986, although blacks were still prohibited from living in designated white areas and the police were granted broad emergency powers.

In a more fundamental shift of policy, however, the government of South African president F.W. de Klerk in 1990–91 repealed most of the social legislation that provided the legal basis for apartheid, including the Population Registration Act. Systematic racial segregation remained deeply entrenched in South African society, though, and continued on a de facto basis. A new constitution that enfranchised blacks and other racial groups was adopted in 1993 and took effect in 1994. All-race national elections, also in 1994, produced a coalition government with a black majority. These developments marked the end of legislated apartheid, though not of its entrenched social and economic effects.

How did Rodriguez impact South Africa?

South Africa during the Apartheid Regime was an incredibly oppressive regime. For years, the government censored all material that was deemed a threat to them. All media outlets were state run and in many cases, South Africans did not have a television. South Africa housed a massive collection of songs which talked about sex, drugs and anti establishment over the years that were forbidden to be played by radio stations. In fact, playing such songs was practically impossible as they had destroyed many of the tracks on vinyl.

sugar rod 3

Rodriguez was the first musician that spoke about standing up against the oppressor that got heard in South Africa. Much of this was made possible to the bootlegging of his albums which could partially explain why he was unaware that he was famous in South Africa. In the film “Searching for Sugarman”, a man named Sugar Segerman explains how Rodriguez’s songs, including “Sugar Man” and “I Wonder” became anthems for the country’s white youth who began to stand up against Apartheid.

 “In the 1970s, if you walked into a random white, liberal, middle class household that had a turntable and a pile of pop records…you would always see ‘Abbey Road’ by the Beatles, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ by Simon and Garfunkel and ‘Cold Fact’ by Rodriguez,” he says. “To us it was one of the most famous records of all time. The message it had was ‘be anti-establishment.’ One song is called ‘The Anti-Establishment Blues.’ We didn’t know what the word was until it cropped up on a Rodriguez song, and then we found it’s OK to protest against your society, to be angry with your society.

The first anti-apartheid movement groups derived from rock musicians listening to his words. His songs were leading these people to really wake up to the problems in South Africa. The story of Sixto Rodriguez is an incredibly unique one. For a man to have such an influence on a nation and not even be aware of it sounds like it is made up. For many years South Africans believed Rodriguez was dead; many different stories had circulated throughout the country in the last 30 years. The most difficult thing about Rodriguez was that he was a complete mystery to South Africans. In 1997, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman set up a website, called ‘The Great Rodriguez Hunt’, with the intention of finding any information about the mysterious US musician of ‘Cold Fact’ fame. In the same year Brian Currin established ‘Climb Up On My Music’, a tribute site to the life and works of Rodriguez. In 1998, when Rodriguez was discovered, alive and well and living in Detroit, by Sugar and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, the search was over. South Africa had finally found the man responsible for inspiring many South Africans during a very troubled time.

Sixto Rodriguez in South Africa is bigger than The Beatles, Elvis and Dylan combined! Yet this humble man continues to live a basic but comfortable life in Detroit, Michigan.

I can’t leave it there and not share a song of his. Enjoy!

For more information on Rodriguez, why not check out these sites:

Searching for Sugar Man‘ is a 2012 documentary film based on the search for Sixto Rodriguez. You can read about it here:

sugar doc

For everything else…keep it here!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s