Weeping for Palestine

In 1987, a band led by a group of South African Jewish brothers released a song against apartheid repression. Today, its lyrics speak to conditions in Palestine as well.

The exodus of Gazans from north to south. Image credit Gaza Palestine on Flickr PDM 1.0 Deed.

In the dying days of South Africa’s apartheid era, the band, Bright Blue, released “Weeping,” an iconic song that was widely embraced as an anti-apartheid anthem. Its powerful refrain asserting that the sound echoing across the land “wasn’t roaring, it was weeping” is one that has long lingered in the memory of those who lived through that time in our history.

As apartheid prime minister and later as president, PW Botha implemented what he called a “Total Strategy”—a mixture of superficial reforms and repression that were rejected out-of-hand by the vast majority of South Africans. Botha was intent on securing and maintaining control of the widespread resistance to the apartheid regime by turning his back on the demands for democracy by the majority, and instead clamping down on any resistance with draconian censorship regulations, troops in the townships, detentions without trial, political incarcerations, and targeted assassinations of activists. As Bright Blue songwriter Dan Heymann later said of that time: 

It was difficult to be too outspoken, because one would never have another chance to write a song again. One would be in prison […] nobody could actually say “Bring down the damn government” because if you said that, you’d be out of a job, you’d be out of the business.

This was made possible by an initial state of emergency in 36 magisterial districts in 1985 in response to the township uprisings of 1984-1986. The state of emergency was applied nationwide in 1986 and renewed annually by Botha, and was kept in place following Botha’s ousting by his cabinet in 1989. Young white men were conscripted into the army to be deployed across the country in the townships. Township residents rejected the regime’s bogus Local Authorities, as well as the Tricameral Parliament that most were excluded from. Instead, they set up grassroots civic associations, and joined newly-formed trade unions and trade union federations. The National Forum and the United Democratic Front, ideologically distinct organizations, rejected all of Botha’s initiatives, and together with civics, religious groupings, and union federations, they embarked on rolling mass action against the state, despite the increased restrictions and bannings. A loose federation formed in 1989 in the wake of the bannings, the Mass Democratic Movement, made the country effectively ungovernable, while the international anti-apartheid movement grew in solidarity with the internal resistance.

The song “Weeping” captures this final decade of apartheid rule most evocatively, by depicting Botha as “a man who lived in fear” of the groundswell of resistance against apartheid drawing ever closer to him. This is described as the “demon he could never face.” Instead, Botha’s response is described thus:

He built a wall of steel and flame
and men with guns to keep it tame
Then standing back he made it plain
that the nightmare would never ever rise again
But the fear and the fire and the guns remain.

Clearly, the successive states of emergency under Botha’s presidency did not quell the unrest; indeed, it inflamed it further. Under the wide-ranging censorship regulations, when journalists “curious to know about the smoke and flame” tried to report on the widespread protests and the intensification of repression, Botha assured them “there was nothing to be heard at all.” They were largely denied access to the townships.

And then one day the neighbors came
they were curious to know about the smoke and flame
They stood around outside the wall
but of course there was nothing to be heard at all

Indeed, in the international arena Botha insisted that his “Total Strategy” was in place, and he had full control on what he claimed was a communist-led “Total Onslaught.” “My friends,” he said, “we’ve reached our goal
the threat is under firm control.” Even so, the song insists that instead of a “roaring” threat, the people were “weeping.”

But as the night came round I heard
it slowly sound
it wasn’t roaring it was weeping
it wasn’t roaring it was weeping.

Bright Blue was originally formed in Cape Town in 1983 by two Jewish brothers and their friends: Ian Cohen (bass, vocals), Peter Cohen (drums), Robin Levetan (vocals), Tom Fox (guitar, vocals), and Dan Heymann (keyboards). Shortly after, Heymann and Ian Cohen were conscripted. As Heymann recalls: “In 1986, responding to the Apartheid Government’s clamp-down on the media, I wrote the words of ‘Weeping’, over a piece of music I had composed more than a year earlier….” Heymann later indicated:

The music happened while I was stuck in the army against my will, far from Cape Town at an army camp, where there happened to be an old piano. I was just one lunch-time doodling on the piano, and I just came up with the saddest piece of music I could think of, basically. Because of the army and the politics and the whole situation in the country […] the government declared the second state of emergency; they clamped down on the press, I mean that was the topical story of the time. There were […] mass shootings going on in the black neighborhoods, which were sealed off from the prying eyes of the media and television, papers, everything. So that’s what the song is about, it’s about the muzzling of the press.

Bright Blue recorded the song, defiantly including snippets from the then-banned struggle anthem “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” as a bridge, and yet it was widely played on the airwaves despite heightened censorship under the state of emergency, with even the tune of that anthem banned at the time. It also featured Basil “Manenberg” Coetzee on saxophone, and the original video was filmed in the township of Manenberg. “Thank God, the government censors were asleep at the switch,” Heymann later said. “They didn’t pick up on it at all!  […] The DJs at the radio stations—government and otherwise—they picked up on it, they loved it, they played it like crazy.”

“Weeping” spent two weeks at number one on a local radio station, and subsequently, in 1999, was voted as the #1 all-time favorite South African song. In Cohen’s retelling: “[We] didn’t know what Weeping would become—it was the B-side of a single” they had self-funded, recording both tracks overnight.

Weeping in Palestine

In the wake of Hamas’ attacks on October 7, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu declared war on Hamas and justified it as Israel’s right to self-defense. He has never been prepared to countenance the end to Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land, and Palestinians’ right of return to the land they were violently dispossessed of during the 1948 Nakba.

I knew a man who lived in fear
it was huge it was angry
it was drawing near
Behind his house a secret place
was the shadow of the demon
he could never face.

Netanyahu has instead amplified the threat posed by Hamas despite the evident asymmetry of the conflict, and the disproportionate loss and trauma suffered by Palestinians living under occupation generally, and under bombardment currently in Gaza.

The literal “wall” with endless checkpoints built to contain Palestinians in the West Bank, and the enhanced fencing of Gaza, empower Israel’s occupation forces more than the metaphorical “wall” in Bright Blue’s lyrics. In “Weeping,” the “wall” kept out “curious” journalists, intent on finding out what was happening in the townships. In November 2023 in Israel and the Occupied Territories under its increased control, censorship of local and international media, and indeed of individuals, has recently escalated. Media agencies “curious to know about the smoke and flames” have been targeted. The Committee to Protect Journalists argues that in what the Israeli regime claims are “national interests,” journalists are censored, denied press clearance, and barred from reporting, with their equipment seized. The Israeli state has launched cyberattacks on media websites and media agencies have been shut down. It has assassinated family members of journalists to further intimidate them. In the absence of a lack of personal protection equipment, the Israeli regime has assaulted, injured, and killed journalists. This total control far exceeds the power the South African apartheid state wielded under its emergency regulations in the 1980s, and the Israeli state’s disinformation campaign is more intense as well.

Under new regulations promulgated in the Israeli Knesset on November 8, individuals can be arrested on “suspicion of incitement.” A teenager was arrested on “suspicion of incitement to commit violence” even though the “evidence” was “a fake Instagram post.” The amended counter-terrorism law disproportionately targets “48″ Palestinians, and in one of many examples, “a Palestinian woman has been arrested after being accused of expressing support for activities labeled as ‘terrorist’ via a WhatsApp status,” after she posted “may God grant them victory and protect them.” Human rights agencies such as The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel have termed the Knesset’s amended “counter-terrorism” regulations as thought policingwhich invades the realm of personal thoughts and beliefs.”

This attack on individual and media freedom is taking place within the context of air and ground assaults on the barricaded Gaza strip, with settlers dispossessing and displacing Palestinians in the West Bank under the watchful eyes of the IDF. The Israeli regime is bombarding civilians in schools, universities, UN-run refugee camps, hospitals, and bakeries, and while they are fleeing as instructed by that state from the north to the south in Gaza. Palestinians in Gaza have little or no food, water, fuel, or power due to the ongoing siege and air attacks. The IDF is injuring, maiming, and killing Palestinians across Gaza even while they are starving and unable to access the basic necessities of life and any semblance of sustained medical care. Netanyahu’s apartheid regime has outstripped Botha’s apartheid regime in its claims to “‘national security,” enforcing the mass displacement of Palestinians. All this while he proclaims to the world that he is simply defending his people:

He built a wall of steel and flame
and men with guns to keep it tame
Then standing back he made it plain
that the nightmare would never ever rise again

The Israeli state’s culpability in creating the conditions that led to the attacks of October 7 is never admitted, just as Botha never admitted culpability for the crime against humanity that was South African apartheid.

Until resistance and international solidarity brought about the downfall of the apartheid regime, the people of South Africa were left to weep. So too the people of Palestine are now weeping.

Further Reading