Why Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ was banned by South Africa during the apartheid
Pink Floyd‘s album The Wall has often been cited as a ‘concept album’ or a rock opera but, for many, it is a staunch and anthemic protest album. Roger Waters’ record is undoubtedly an operatic masterpiece and conceptually it is sound as ever. For those reasons alone, it has been developed and distributed far and wide as a bastion of unbridled creative energy.
The album track ‘Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)’ gained further gravitas after it was banned in South Africa back in 1980 as it soon became the rallying call of the oppressed. Some of the darkest moments of South Africa’s history are thankfully behind them and apartheid, the implementation of racial segregation—a term coined by the nation—is one of the most horrific.
Roger Waters has always used his fame and celebrity to properly champion the humanitarian causes across the world, using a variety of subjects and actions. While it has often contributed to his sometimes sanctimonious demeanour, it has also added a steely resolve to some of the band’s most cherished work. His rock opera The Wall is, of course, the shining example of these two sides of Waters and Pink Floyd meeting.
Though some of his work can feel a bit misaligned, on The Wall, Waters’ astute writing not only provided a huge stage show for Pink Floyd’s fans, nor just a set of anthems for the disaffected suburban youth of the Western world but it also gave the poor black children of South Africa their own rallying song. Their own anthem.
South Africa had been racially segregated since 1948 and was unapologetic in its authoritative and vicious assertion of the strict rules all the way up until its collapse in 1991. However, in 1980, following its release, one song was still ringing around the schools of South Africa long after the song had dropped off the top spot of the US singles charts. Pink Floyd’s iconic number, ‘Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)’ became the anthemic call to arms for those children.
The children were protesting the vast and unjust inequalities between the racially segregated schools and would sing the lyrics of the track such as “we don’t need no thought control”. It was a way of showing their displeasure and a resolute way of unifying the entire school for one cause. Most potently, it was their unstoppable refrain of “we don’t need no education,” which had the overseers of apartheid quaking in their boots.
At the time, South Africa’s Directorate of Publications held all the cultural cards when it came to censorship, happy to ban books and records with a smiling swipe of a pen and, naturally, the song, with its foot-stomping push for protest, was quickly in the firing line. Soon enough, the song and the album were deemed to be ‘politically or morally undesirable’ and removed from the shelves. “People were really driven to frenzies of rage by it,” remembers Waters in The Guardian.
It would spark Waters into action and see the star refuse to play in apartheid South Africa’s own Sun City “until apartheid fell and white people and black people enjoyed equal rights”. Waters later said that one man who really understood the power of the song was the Archbishop of Canterbury who “went on record,” according to Waters, “saying that if it’s very popular with school kids, then it must in some way be expressing some feelings that they have themselves.”
He added: “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.”
The track and album were later performed in Berlin, at the Berlin Wall in 1990 and later in Israel’s infamous West Bank in 2006. Since the events, the song has become a bastion of the free spirit, justice and equal rights that Roger Waters and Pink Floyd stood for.
Despite being banned by the South African government, it remained an anthem for the disaffected school children who would eventually see apartheid dismantled for good.