SANBONANI – I see you

Sanbonani, I see you & the World sees us

April in South Africa:  Easter, Splashy Fen & Freedom Day: Resurrection, celebration & change.

Don Clarke – Earlier this month (at Splashy)

Splashy Fen, the South African music festival has been going from strength to strength since it started in 1990. Although elections are only scheduled for 2019, there is a wave of discontent sweeping the country. Hearing Don perform Sanbonani reminds me of the year he wrote it – A year of turmoil, unrest & ja …. Discontent. While the calls to oust President Zuma are rising up from all over the country today, the movement for change is peaceful & coherent. It wasn’t always this way.


The 1980s were South Africa’s times of great change. In reality, this change had been in the air for a long time. By 1986, the minority government knew its days were coming to an end. News seeped from the bush telegraph & into the airwaves & the propaganda pressure cooker started to pop.

Don Clarke won the first Song for South Africa  competition with Sanbonani.  The sound back then was much different to the sound at Splashy this year. The final round of the radio contest was televised so when P J Powers performed the song, people were able to watch as well as hear the performance.

In contrast to the times, the tune was upbeat & the lyrics envisaged a future. After this performance, the song really took off. Why did Sanbonani resonate with the people of South Africa? Was it the lyrics, the voice, the rhythm or the live vibe? I would guess it’s the way it all came together.

Sanbonani – P J Powers – Performance 1986

This song, which I wrote in 1986 when this country was on the verge of a civil war, was one of the first successful reconciliation songs. It was a hit for P J Powers – Don Clarke

South Africa 1986

In our book of history … 

Civil unrest was the new normal. Bombings, terror, disruption & bullets were the beat of the nation. Vehicles detonated landmines,  police & transport police were targets of grenade attacks, limpet mines were used in power stations & policemen were maimed & killed. The coup in Lesotho was almost a welcome change in the headlines. Parliament opened & the State President outlined a plan to restore S A Citizenship to Blacks … then a Soweto man was shot dead after tossing a grenade at yet another group of policemen. It was only January. 

There’s a page of misery 

Police, soldiers, power stations & the Transkei Minister’s car were targeted. Limpet & anti-tank mines were the weapons of choice, probably because they were so easy to source. John Vorster Square & the Hillbrow Police Station were hit & incidents competed for the headlines. Police retaliated with grenades & arrests. Bans were lifted people like Trevor Manual, police came under fire at funerals. The Commonwealth EPG group had talks with Nelson Mandela as part of their detail to investigate Apartheid in South Africa. Sanctions were in full swing with no end in sight. Bombs were found in schools…..

What’s the matter with you?

Bombings continued at railway stations & spread to public places. Post offices, the Wild Coast Casino & the home of a school principal were attacked. A Sandton Shopping Centre was hit, a car bomb was discovered in  Durban & acts of terror spread through the country from the mountains to the ocean. Rural locations & cities were hit sporadically. Innocent people from all walks of life – from police to farm labourers – were killed & injured. I nearly lost my sister when Robert McBride bombed the Why Not Magoos Bar in Durban on 14 June. We were lucky. Three people were killed & 69 were injured. By July, gift shops, a Wimpy Bar, a pedestrian bridge & an incident on the Bophuthatswana border had ravaged lives. On the 23rd, the government gave in to international opinion & relaxed the Passbook Laws, but this did little towards healing the divisions in the country. 

You were born in a troubled land .. 

The State of Emergency that preceded & probably fanned the flames of violence was ended fleetingly in 1986, before being brought back soon after on a far bigger scale. The SOE was designed to enable the government to use draconian measures to control civil unrest without breaking the law. It provided a broad scope for arrests,  enabled the deployment of the S A Defence Force & provided the government with a legal right to take almost any action deemed necessary to restore or maintain public order.

Everyone hears a different tune … 

The rest of the year was much more of the same. From a facility that provided holidays for underprivileged children, through to political targets in the government, the ANC & the IFP, it seemed that everyone was at it. While factions faced each other off with guns, bombs & landmines – The population was torn between prejudices, politics, race, language, age group, tradition & anything else that could be summoned out of the worst fear & brutality in man. South Africa was going through the worst of times. The rest of the year was much more of the same. Mozambican President Samora Michel died in October when a ‘plane crashed into the Lebombo Mountains.  There were rumours this wasn’t an accident. 

Why do you Cry?

Tensions back then are hard to understand, & trying to explain or rationalise them now is impossible. The rhetoric that Black South Africans hated White South Africans & lashed out violently because they had been hurt held some truth for some people. State retaliation hit back hard against the violent waves of terror. Power struggles attract maniacs on all sides – Maniacs manipulate the misery of everyday people for their own ends. Old Black vs Black & White vs White tensions boiled over against the backdrop of violence & nobody wins this game of zeros. Not really.

Acts of terror were perpetrated across all population groups. Infighting across the board was inevitable. The country was ablaze. Ever more people lost a loved one or knew a family who had lost a loved one to either the bush war, civil unrest, state violence, terrorism & plain criminality. Essentially we had a population suffering from PTSD living in a violent & traumatic world. Few were innocent, less were guilty – Everyone was afraid. 

THAT said, we all knew how to dance – & dance we did.


P J Powers describes Don Clarke’s song as “achingly beautiful..about the pain & politics of the time .. hope for a better future” in her autobiography.

Sanbonani – by Don Clarke – Lyrics

Everyone hears a different tune,  a little voice that they listen to, Some may hear the perfect truth – some may be mistaken You were born in a troubled land, now you feel must make a stand, but if you just put out your hand I know it will be taken

Chorus: Sanbonani, sanbonani –  Why do you cry? Sanbonani,  sanbonani, – We will be together Sanbonani, sanbonani – No need to cry – The sun will shine ….  on the other side.

In our book of history, there’s a page of misery – (it) doesn’t mean there has to be a final confrontation Happiness & peace will come,  only when we stand as one,  here beneath the southern sun –  to grow as one big nation – Chorus

What’s the matter with you?  Can’t you hear your instincts calling? What you gonna do –  in a world without love? It can all come true, this can be a new age dawning –

Is it me AND you for a new South Africa?  For a new South Africa – Chorus. 


Credits: All rights belong to the artists – Please support them   Featured Image: Adult Art Splashy 2017 Tomislav Švorinić