This universal story is about human strength, bravery and dignity in facing unimaginable hardship and repression. It is about right and wrong, and an unshakeable belief in profound social change. It is about the power of music in fighting for human rights.

Incarcerated and tortured in South Africa’s maximum security prisons, music was a key to survival…

It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones – and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals (Nelson Mandela, Robben Island prisoner 466/64)

Through new interviews with surviving former political prisoners and unpublished archival documents, KEEPING TIME examines music’s critical role in the anti-apartheid struggle, especially at Robben Island where activists led by Nelson Mandela were imprisoned and tortured during the 1960s on, and at other notorious apartheid prisons over four decades of defiance.

Music was a force for resistance which breached political, tribal, language and cultural barriers. Music united courageous men and women of all races against a common enemy to express their fight for racial equality and human rights. Music provided the strength to overcome the most shocking inhuman conditions both inside and outside the apartheid prisons.

Ironically, it is in jail that we have closest fraternization between the opponents and supporters of apartheid. … We have eaten of their food, and they ours; they have blown the same musical instruments that have been ‘soiled’ by black lips (Ahmed Kathrada, Robben Island prisoner 468/64)

Original oral histories bring to life the experiences of the unknown foot soldiers of the struggle – black, white, ‘coloured’ and Asian men and women from all walks of life – locked up in police cells and prisons all over the country for their part in fighting the white supremacist government’s policy of racial oppression and brutality.

It was not the searing pain that seemed to come as an explosion that took my breath away and had the greater impact, but rather the thought that fellow human beings were doing this to me in a completely cold blooded manner. The effect was dehumanizing and the anger generated was difficult to control (Sedick Isaacs, Robben Island prisoner 883/64)

Singing with your heart [in silence], it sustains you, it composes you, because you are alone, you remember the songs that you used to sing and the songs that were sung during the times of the wars of resistance among Zulus … those songs that they used to sing when they go for war are the songs that gave me power to face the enemy when I was all alone and knew that here [in detention] they can kill me. So those songs will give you power … My body will just be a stone upon other stones to build the castle of tomorrow (Grant Shezi, Robben Island prisoner)

These forgotten people, whose stories have until now been lost to history, gave up years of their lives for their belief that they would one day live in a free democratic South Africa. These testimonies from different political affiliations and linguistic, ethnic and tribal identities unearth a diverse range of musical repertories in their universal expression of struggle and protest.

There is an urgency to record their aging voices and their music for generations to come. The unique, poignant, vivid, heart-wrenching and uplifting musical portrait of the South African apartheid era resonates today in its universal defense of humanitarian values on a global level. Our project is a celebration of 20 years of freedom and democracy in South Africa and serves as a tribute to the unsung heroes of the liberation struggle.


This project was launched by Janie Cole being awarded the 2010 Janet Levy Prize from the American Musicological Society. This extraordinary history will be documented via a documentary film, a book and a unique digital South African oral history and music archive.

NB: Concept and treatments for KEEPING TIME (working title) are registered with and copyright protected by the Writer’s Guild of America West, Registrations # 1642145 and #1643859.