Another brick in the wall: 30 years on – a short biography of the great struggle song | by Andre Marais

by Feb 14, 2012Magazine

When they protested in the winter of 1980, high school students fighting apartheid’s gutter education had a brand new marching song in their arsenal. This song became the trademark of the tumultuous events of that year and the succeeding decade, as opposition to apartheid shifted from political organisers to students, following the critical moment of June ’76 when student power burst onto the political stage. It was the catchy tune from the British rock band Pink Floyd’s 1979 release, The Wall.
Although the themes of ‘Another Brick in Wall, Part 2’ made no direct reference to apartheid, it could be heard in dark school corridors and playgrounds and struck a chord amongst youth everywhere, particularly in Cape Town. It captured the moment of discontent in a country where most of the population, including the youth, had no voice. It could be heard echoing on the daily marches and during confrontations when the apartheid police hit with teargas, vicious police dogs, and brutal actions that came to characterise the period.
While Roger Water, who penned the song, wrote it in a different context, its major themes of alienation and detachment were, and still are, universal. This is no accident. The song equates education with thought control. That is exactly how education is used in pretty much every dystopian literature ever written, as in George Orwell’s 1984. So while Waters may have suffered at the hands of his teachers, the song also spoke to people who had problems on a larger scale. Remember that apartheid’s deeply racially segregated school system was designed to prepare blacks for lives as second-class citizens. So the song’s warning had real meaning for us. After all, did Verwoerd not utter those famous words: ‘What use is teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?’
The uncharacteristic disco beat of ‘The Brick’ was unusual for a Pink Floyd song, and it was initially hated by the hard Floyd fans, who were more used to their epic reflective offerings. But be that as it may, the ditty found mass appeal amongst a whole new audience of angry young people in Cape Town. The use of the willing accompaniment of Islington Green School from North London on the chorus line of ‘The Brick’ was a master stroke and added to its power.
Amandla! asked some of the participants of that remarkable period to reflect on how they remember the song.

  • ‘The album was released in 1979, and being part of a large group of friends who were ardent Rock and Pink Floyd fans, we were among the first to have a copy. It was top of our charts for several months, and by the end of that year (my Matric year) the neighbours surrounding our hangout at number 40 Goldsmith Road, Salt River, were all familiar with it. We knew all the lyrics and sang them defiantly as our anthem in response to our overbearing parents and the oppression of formal schooling and inequality in education under apartheid. I was disappointed that the song wasn’t around when we protested and rioted in 1976 against gutter education, but I was very happy to hear it as a student boycott anthem on the Cape Flats in 1980.’  Martin Jansen
  • I was a student teacher at Livingstone High in 1980 81, so I have fond memories of the song. I used it in guidance class with my students (one of them was Clarence Ford, later a popular radio personality). For me, the song captured the alienation of growing up with apartheid schooling and gutter education. I often used music in the classroom and this song was very popular. We would have some great singalongs, with us trying to learn the simple guitar chords. The kids really responded well.’ Akki Khan (sound engineer and music producer)
  • ‘I was at Bridgetown High during this time. We used to change some of lyrics into Afrikaans. It was such an important song for us.’ David Abrahams, student and founding member of the Committee of ’81
  • ‘I was at Fairmount and was introduced to the song and Pink Floyd’s music by my teacher Nigel Penn (he later became a famous historian at UCT). It was an extraordinary time and an amazing song.’ Cecil Prinsloo, student and founding member of the Committee of ’81
  • ‘I remember it throughout my life as a student in the 1980s. We sang it on one occasion in defiance of our principal – a collaborator – and we got expelled for a few weeks. We got back to school and I wrote the lyrics and some lines on the toilet walls of our school. The principal found out, and we got suspended again.’ Mo Jagger Peterson, student leader
  • ‘I remember it raining and drizzling a lot, and the weather always overcast, that’s my memory with the song, especially during that long June/July student boycott and stayaway when the song became popular. Because of the weather we did the awareness programmes indoors, and taught each other the song. One day the Boere shot teargas into the hall and we all went flying. Some of us got very badly injured, but we continued to sing through it all …’ Fazlin Naidoo
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