Joan Armatrading

Diane de Beer

Music was often the art form that managed to get the message out there most loudly and widely when the apartheid machine was at its harshest and most successful at keeping the bad news from breaking out.

Anthems of Democracy is a glorious way to celebrate our 20 years of democracy with a group of local singers all famous for their particular brand of music during those dark years. They kept the hope alive and, if nothing else, kept the country singing in hope.

During Freedom Week from April 24 to 27, these special South African musicians will join together on the stage of The Mandela in Joburg. They include Bright Blue (Weeping), Yvonne Chaka Chaka (I Cry For Freedom), Jennifer Ferguson (Hand Around the Heart), Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse (Burn Out), Victor Masondo (Stimela), Mzwake Mbuli (Change is Pain), Themba Mkhize (Bayete), Vicky Sampson (Afrikan Dream) and Soweto Gospel Choir (Voices of Heaven) with one exceptional international star, Joan Armatrading.

Travelling from the UK, she will perform at each concert with her Mandela song The Messenger, the star of her repertoire, on the night.

“I will be singing with the Soweto Gospel Choir who I heard most recently at Mandela’s memorial at Westminster Abbey,” she says.

She has a thrilling connection with South Africa through Mandela whom she first went to see at his home in ’95 when she was visiting the country.

“I thought I was going to be part of a group, but it was only me,” she says.

She loved every minute and at another time, she had the chance to perform The Messenger (which was written for Mandela) in a very intimate UK concert.

“He did his jive and it was extra-ordinary,” she says. “I’m so honoured to be part of these voices who were part of the sounds of fighting for freedom.”

She’s not simply mouthing these thoughts. She talks easily about what’s happening in the country, pointing to the Oscar Pistorius trial.

“Look at the judge. We wouldn’t have seen that 20 years ago. She’s both woman and black. It ticks all the boxes,” she says. “It’s about equality.”

She knows freedom is a tough task master: “I always think the majority of people in the world are good people. We’re making money to live, to do the stuff that makes us happy. On the other side, the numbers are small, but they’re vocal and make the most noise.”

She strongly believes we’re a country with huge potential: “South Africa deserves the best. Let’s make it happen, I hope we can.”

Talking about her 42-year career, she can’t believe her luck or longevity. Her most recent recordings were three albums described as a trilogy; the Grammy-nominated Into The Blues and 2010’s rock-driven This Charming Life and finally, a set of jazz songs. She views these performances in Joburg as the start of a world tour later in September, “me and guitar and piano” and she’s excited to travel the world these next two years.

“I’ve never done it on my own before,” she says, as she is usually part of a larger group.

Africa is not yet on the itinerary, but let’s hope having started with the continent, she might want to close the circle that sweetly in a strictly solo sense.

Joining all the musicians on stage, storyteller supreme Gcina Mhlope will be the narrator of the local season as she introduces the singers as well as links the story and songs of the times. Poetry and music were often the target of the apartheid system who found silence the most effective way to keep their system going.

“During the period 1980 to 1990, a group of South African musicians was very active in protesting against the then government of South Africa,” says the theatre’s Bernard Jay. “Anthems of Democracy features many of these artists whose songs became songs of hope and encouragement through troubled times. At such an emotionally important time as the 20th anniversary of democracy, Joburg Theatre honours these artists and pays tribute to them and all the other artists who fought for democracy in their country.”

The concerts are being produced for Joburg Theatre by Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse and Roddy Quin.

Tickets are on sale through or call 0861 670 670. Performances: April 24 and April 25 at 7.30pm and April 26 at 3pm and 7.30pm. A Freedom Day performance on April 27 will be announced later.