This is the story of probably the 20th century’s most dissident alternative music scene. An anti-fascist punk movement, taking place in a fascist state; a multiracial musical underground, in a time and place where racial mixing was a criminal offence. This is the story of South African punk as told by musicians, activists and documentarists from the late 1970s to the present.
A shorter version of this collection of interviews appeared on Radio Wave, the Czech Republic’s public radio station for alternative music and youth culture, on 15 May 2009.
At the heart of the story is National Wake: South Africa’s first multiracial punk band. Between 1978 and 1982, they and their peers created a cultural — and multicultural — explosion whose effects can still be heard in South African alternative music today.
In 1948 in South Africa, the National Party came to power. A white supremacist organisation, many of the leaders of which had supported Nazi Germany during the Second World War, the National Party quickly set about reconstructing the country according to their own racial theory: apartheid. Everyone was assigned a racial category, which determined where they were allowed to live. Interaction between races was banned, and, while the best land was declared whites-only, much of the country’s black, indian and mixed race (or so-called “coloured”) populations were forced from their homes.
Ivan Kadey grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, in the late 1950s. He recalls:
“Once, before the age of 4, I remember being told a colored man was coming to paint the house. I hung around him indoors all the day waiting for him to take off his shirt- – as workers commonly did in the Orange Free State heat — hoping to see his skin of many colors. I remember being surprised when he did remove the shirt revealing a light brown even-toned back, not the colorful explosion I had expected. There was a definite shock when I realized things were not as named and the language of classification did not describe the reality of the situation.”
Ivan Kadey would go on to form, in 1978, the most radical protest band of his generation, National Wake.
But before that, something happened that changed the consciousness of all South Africa. In 1976, black students in the Johannesburg township of Soweto rose up in protest against new education laws. The police response left hundreds dead, and the country in chaos. And for the first time, it was all on television.
Kadey says, “The police response was horrific in its brutality and schoolchildren were shot at point blank range and many died. Images of South Africa’s reality were transmitted to the rest of the world … and the Soweto uprising changed everything both inside South Africa, and the outside worlds perception of the realities of white rule.
“This was an electrifying event in my political life — the example of the children — their resolve and steadfastness made me examine my own resolve and commitment to change. I watched images of the uprising (possibly the first I had ever seen broadcast in South Africa) with a mixture of horror at the brutality, and admiration and respect for the kids. I knew the nature of the struggle had entered a new phase and the days of white rule were numbered.”
On the fringes of South African society was a subculture that couldn’t be further away from the authoritarian state. A network of communes, where dissidents, white and non-white alike, could develop their own culture, and their own visions for a new South Africa.
Kadey, by then a young artist and musician, found his way to one such commune in Parktown, a suburb of Johannesburg.
“There was an active alternative culture dating back forever in Jo’burg, most recently manifesting as hippies, and sharing the sacraments of rock music, marijuana, and free living people,” Kadey said. “One commune was made up of politicos — those dedicated to the struggle, and working in trade union organization and other such politically directed forms of expression. Literacy groups who ran publishing houses producing material for worker education. Carpentry co-ops, teaching skills and living according to the principles of [19th century experimental social activist] Robert Owen. Ashrams. Rock and roll bands. Drug addicts. Artists. Free-thinkers. The network really stretched throughout the country.
“Characters would arrive to stay a few days from Durban or Cape Town, while they sorted stuff out, on the strength of acquaintance with someone in the house.
“I was either playing music or drawing at my drafting board. Informal jam sessions were a regular occurrence. At some point I started jamming regularly with a character known as ‘One-eyed’ Mike who played Conga drums.
“Mike Lebesi was born in Thaba’nchu, in the Orange Free State… One day he arrived with the Khosa brothers to jam and we got into some really exciting music. Gary led a funk band called The Monks at that time featuring himself on keys, and Punka on drums. Gary had been the drummer for an Alexadra based band called the Flaming Souls at age twelve. He’d been a star.
“Gary could play guitar and bass as well. I had been putting material together with another Jo’burg musician, Paul Giraud, and had come up with the name National Wake as a vehicle for a band.
“We started jamming as a five-piece with Gary on bass guitar, Punka on drums, Paul on lead guitar, Mike on congas and cow-bell, and myself on rhythm guitar. National Wake worked up a set of songs with all of us contributing, and we decided to stage a gig. Without any overt discussion — we all knew what we were embarking on, and were totally charged up and ready to go.”
The Meaning of the Name National Wake
As Kadey explains, “‘National’ totally identified in the South African context with Afrikaaner nationalism, the Republic, white supremacy. ‘Wake’ [stood for] Water, Air, Krak!, Earth.
He said “Krak!” means “fire in the form of lightning — a mark of the Highveld landscape.”
Put together, “National Wake” suggests, “Wake up the nation. Celebrate the death of nationalism. Dance on the corpse of apartheid,” Kadey said.
The Parktown commune soon became the National Wake headquarters. They named it the DMZ, as in demilitarised zone.
“Movement between Soweto and the city was not always easy,” Kadey said, “and as our commitment, both in time and spirit grew, the Khosa brothers started staying in Parktown overnight on a regular basis.
“Over the months and then years that ensued, the house became almost exclusively inhabited by the band members and various apprentices and friends. The racially-integrated commune took us into uncharted territory and, in terms of many statutes governing the domicile of the different races in apartheid South Africa, what we were doing was totally outside of the law.
“Gary, Punka and other black members of the house were at risk of being arrested for not having the right to be in the neighborhood, freely. There were black policemen who used to stake out the park which lay on the route to the stores and Hillbrow — one in particular, Bomma’Kama, is the character ‘Bolina’ in the song of that name.”
Under the set of restrictions called the Pass Laws, no-one could leave their designated area without official permission. In theory, there was no way a mixed-race band could travel around the country playing concerts. However:
“We formed a company (basically created a rubber stamp) called DMZ Productions to act as our front in the official documents, identity papers. Gary, Punka, and Mike, and other members of our crew were forced to carry. Sometimes a rubber stamp and someone’s signature were enough to get through the random inspections …
“Our attitude to all of this was to reject any legal stricture preventing our right to freely associate and perform our music.
“We never applied for permission and advised anyone booking us for a gig to not mention the racial composition of the band. We also played in the township clubs, both officially controlled within South Africa, and privately owned clubs in Bantustan areas. Our most incredible performances were the street gigs we played — one on Rocky street, and the other in the plaza area of Highpoint in Hillbrow. The street was an integrated area of the city and the band fit naturally into the scene. Seeing a group of musicians of different races always put a charge into the air. When we unleashed our electric music things took on positive energy as the band could really deliver, and these were amongst some of the most satisfying gigs we played.”
By late 1979, enough bands had emerged to justify a punk package tour. National Wake, and their contemporaries like Wild Youth and Safari Suits, set out across the country. They called it the Riot Rock Tour, and they used it to spread punk rock all over South Africa.
Recalls Kadey, “When we arrived, after a 1000 mile journey across basically enemy territory, we were greeted by the tour producer informing us that he had applied for permission for us to perform, and it had been denied.
“He wanted us to withdraw and go back to Jo’burg. I told him to shove it and that we were playing whether he liked it or not. We would appear at every gig we had been billed and advertised to perform and he would have to bar us from the stage.
“I also told him to just ignore the whole permission/denial thing — that the chances of any of the bureaucrats having any idea of what was happening was truly remote. He braced himself through the three initial concerts and only lost his nerve when we played the last one in Vishoek, the most conservative enclave on the Peninsular, where the actual contract governing the hall expressly forbade any mixed race gathering.
“We stood our ground and took the stage despite his threats. After the first ten seconds he pulled the plug on us and closed the concert. The audience were pretty pissed, but placidly accepted the end of the show and left without protest. Riot Rock indeed.”
The international record company WEA had an office in Johannesburg. One of their employees, Benjiy Moodie, was a dissident punk fan himself. Moodie began using the record label to officially release music from the punk rock underground. National Wake, the most politically unacceptable band in the country, now had a major label contract.
The resultant release, National Wake’s self-titled 1981 album, is one of the great lost classics of the original punk era. Drawing on punk rock, dub and Clash-in-New-York ragged funk, National Wake stands as a timeless punk rock milestone.
Given the circumstances under which it was recorded, the album’s anger, frustration and revolutionary sentiments make most punk rock seem like mere posturing in comparison. Lyrics address topics ranging from media censorship and police harassment, to South Africa’s secret war in Angola, and the inevitability of apartheid’s collapse.
Equally inevitable, unfortunately, was the apartheid state’s growing interest in the band’s activities.
“As our reputation grew, and after we released the album through WEA Records, the amount of police surveillance and outright harassment stepped up,” Kadey said. “They had always kept an eye on us. In fact there was a time they used to bring the police recruits on their first outing from the academy to a night of patrol in Hillbrow, through the Wake house like a trip to the game reserve.
“The three years of the Wake house was life lived in a war zone. We created a world for ourselves that was, by circumstance, pretty insular. In years since others have described arriving at the Wake house as virtually entering another country.
“After the album release things got more intense. We were dragged down to the Hillbrow Station to meet with some plain clothes officer who was obviously in some state security and intelligence division. He advised us to leave the country expressing his considered opinion that if we named ourselves Exodus we’d probably make it big overseas. In the final days we were being visited about three times a day — cops simply walking through the house, looking in ashtrays, poking around, never saying anything, coming and going at will.”
Soon, the record company was visited by the security police. Songs about the coming death of white rule, South Africa’s secret war in Angola, and inter-racial sex were entirely unacceptable to the regime. And this is where the first part of the story ends.
National Wake imploded under the constant pressure, in 1982. But they left a legacy which would grow and grow….
“National Wake as a band, it was like a vicious orgasm. They did a lot of intense things over a very short period of time,” said Deon Maas, head of Meerkat Media. “And it’s only history that’s really been recognising them, people understanding their incredible groundwork that they did for not only the punk scene, but the whole music scene that followed subsequently…. I think that what National Wake did, they caused such a shock to the system, that the dynamite blast that they caused blew open doors instead of just opening them marginally.”
Today, Deon Maas is one of South Africa’s best known journalists and broadcasters. But back in the early 80s, he was one of the punk kids. He became a photographer for the emerging scene, and when he left school, he moved between Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, each of which had its own punk rock underground.
“The voice of punk was not only the voice of the underground, and the voice of politics,” Maas recalls, “but it was also a voice that was actively lobbying for change against a huge wall that we came up against. So the punk thing was a very strong underground movement where political ideas were freely exchanged, and therefore it became a very important pedestal for new ideas, a testing ground of new ideas …
“The anarchist thing at that point was a very important thing, because South Africa, and the way the average South African thought at that stage just leaned itself to anarchy, and in such an easy way. In that, the mainstream was so far removed from reality, that even trying to connect with them meant that you had to sacrifice certain of your ideas.”
Deon Maas and filmmaker Keith Jones are presently making a documentary film called “Punk In Africa”, looking at the punk scenes in South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and Kenya.
“One of the things which is interesting about the early South African punk scene is that some element of African identity was always there from the start,” said Jones. “And even though it wasn’t overtly expressed in the music, there were a lot of guys around — like Ivan Kadey from National Wake, Robbie Robb from Asylum Kids, Warrick Sony, who later bacame Kalahari Surfers but started in punk bands, and James Phillips — they used punk as a bridge into identifying themselves as Africans, and to express themselves politically in an African context.
“By the early 1980s, punk rock had a much higher public profile in South Africa. Bands like Asylum Kids and Leopard had their albums coming out legally, released through major labels. And that created a situation where that music was, for a moment, much more accessible. And of course, it was treated somewhat as a fad. And the fad receded, and the scene went totally underground.
“By the mid-1980s, a state of emergency had been declared in South Africa, and as the punk scene became more politicised, it also went much more underground. It wasn’t something that you could easily find in record shops, you really had to go into a cultural underground to even get access to this music, or to this subculture. There was a whole underground network of fanzines and tape-trading, and semi-legal or non-mainstream venues like Jameson’s in Johannesburg or Smuggler’s Inn in Durban, where literally this was existing on the fringes of society.”
Deon Maas added, “Not only would the police try to prevent gigs by banning them before they actually happened but, should the gig continue, they’d come and break it up. And they’d — a lot of the gigs were tear-gassed, you know these were small, little, sometimes literally underground clubs, they were just lobbing tear gas into these clubs, people would come out and they’d hit them over the head with batons …
“It was dangerous, but at the same time it was also very exciting, because you knew that you were doing something that was pissing the authorities off. And that was the message that a lot of the people in the scene were trying to get out there: ‘We don’t believe in the bullshit that you’re feeding us. We don’t believe that you can keep a lid on it …’
“We were in a war in what is now the northern part of Namibia, into Angola, a war that was totally denied by the SA government at the time. And we had conscription, so once you finished school you had to go into the army and go and kill people.
“And that opened a lot of peoples’ eyes, because at that point the war was sold to the average SA as a war against communism, but people started realising that it wasn’t against communism, it was against black people.
“Also a lot of people died, so a lot of your friends didn’t come back. They came back in a body bag or some of them were killed while you were next to them. You know, in contact situations.
“And that also brought about a lot of discontent.
“And then in the mid 80s, like ’85 … up until then, you had to be born in South Africa to be eligible for national call-up to the military. But in 1985, because they were running out of able-bodied men, they started calling up immigrants as well, people who were born in different countries. And the English people were not as conditioned as the Afrikaans people at that stage by the media and by the whole national party dogma.
“So all of a sudden they had conscientious objectors that rose from 100 or 200 a year to literally 1500 to two and a half thousand per year. So the movement gained momentum because the government refused to listen to the people, and just continuously made the same mistakes over and over again. And when they were unhappy with how people reacted to their deeds, they would just implement more draconian security laws to limit things even further. And that made people angrier and angrier.
“So the government in itself dug its own grave, it became the snake that ate its own tail.
“It was a music show in about 1986 called Concert in the Park, a multiracial music show that was attended by a hundred and twenty thousand people, that convinced the National Party that they couldn’t keep a lid on it anymore, that they would actually have to start making certain changes, because they couldn’t control the youth anymore.
“And eventually in 1988 when the Afrikaans punk protest movement started, called ‘voelvry’, I think by then they just threw their hands in the air and thought, ‘How the hell do we get out of this alive?’
“Here what you had was a genuine youth revolution that was driven by music, and it just gained momentum … and eventually, there were like 1200 people at gigs where it was, like 5 or 6 years earlier there were 20 people at gigs.”
As the alternative scene grew, it remained defiantly multiracial.
Upbeat party rockers The Genuines mixed traditional Cape Town guoma music with punk influences, while the jarring Koos introduced South African culture to the discordant sounds of post-punk. And increasingly, the lyrics were in the Afrikaans language rather than English.
Deon Maas explains why: “A lot of the punk movement were Afrikaans people, but at that stage it was really an embarrassment to actually speak Afrikaans. Because it was associated with apartheid and with the colonial laws of the government. So a lot of the people who were involved in the punk movement, even though they were Afrikaans, they wouldn’t speak Afrikaans and nor would they sing in it.
“But as the resistance grew, and more Afrikaans people started finding that there were other Afrikaans people who thought like them, the decision was consciously made to actually start singing in their own language. Firstly because they felt more comfortable in it, but secondly and more importantly, they felt it was important that people had to start understanding that they were Afrikaans people who didn’t agree with the government. And this was a major watershed movement.
“By 1988 it was a really strong movement that pulled up to 10-, 15 thousand people at a gig. And most of these gigs they tried to ban them, and people actually continued these gigs in spite of the bannings.
“And all the Afrikaans universities, which was the core of this resistance, banned these bands from playing there. And then they would literally play just off the campus, literally the hotel that’s like one block away from the campus. So all the students went there anyway. And the authorities at the university started also seeing that they couldn’t control this anymore.
“It started getting to the point where, especially the university authorities were starting to worry about some kind of a revolution that didn’t just involve people waving placards and shouting slogans, they were starting to get worried about direct action, and subsequently relaxed a lot of the laws and rules and regulations.”
And then — in the early 1990s, the apartheid regime collapsed.
Nelson Mandela became president after free elections in 1994. In the alternative scene, much of the angry protest punk gave way to celebratory ska.
Today, South African punk is still going strong. Hog Hoggidy Hog is a contemporary Cape Town ska-punk band. Their trumpet player, Lee Lips, explains something of the resonance of punk for his generation.
“My generation, the generation that was, like five years old when all this stuff was going down, has this inherent, like, feeling of guilt,” Lips said. “And the fact of the matter is, we hate what that was about. We hate what the old government was about. That was why we got into punk rock…. One person is as African as the next. We’re all here, we’re all together, we’re all from Africa.”
Hog Hoggidy Hog is one of the longest-running punk bands of the democratic era. While being firmly rooted in the ska-punk tradition, they are also overtly African in their sound.
Lee Lips explained the musical influences at work in their recent song “Opium for the Masses”: “It kind of opens up with a marumba and pennywhistle intro, that goes into a ska thing which is not really straight up ska, it’s more like based on a Cape Town rhythm called guma, and suddenly it breaks into a double-time good old punk rock chorus.
“A marumba is basically a big oversized wooden xylophone with wooden sticks. … I played trumpet in a marumba band for like 5 years. in my early 20s, and i toured all over the world with them, and that was where my influence came from with regard to that particular instrument…. The sound is for me, synonymous to Africa in general, maybe not particularly South Africa, you know?
“The penny whistle’s very South African, I mean, the pennywhistle was used a lot in the 50s, and in a style of music called kwela, which is, very generally, the South African interpretation of swing music. And there’s also traces of kwela in our music too.
“Growing up in South Africa, you kind of hear these things around you, and you kind of absorb it. For me those instruments, like the penny whistle, the marumba, and certain percussion instruments become like part of your musical identity, because that’s what’s around you. And it gets absorbed in….”
South African punk rock today, then, continues in the tradition that Ivan Kadey and others carved out for it in the late 1970s: a cross-cultural fusion of European roots and African consciousness.
“We’re a bunch of, like, white kids in South Africa,” Lips said. “My family’s from Scotland, and my singer’s family’s of Greek origin, and my trombone player’s family’s also of Scottish origin…. There’s no choice in it, this is where destiny had me land up — here, in Africa. And I was born here, this is my home. It’s where I’m from, and I’m proud of it.”
Getting the Music
National Wake now have a selection of classic tracks for sale as MP3s on the website of South African label Rhythm Records. There’s a lot more amazing unreleased stuff still to come — watch for a double CD later this year. More info about this will follow on the National Wake Facebook group, which is also streaming a selection of Wake classics.
Rumours abound of a forthcoming compilation of classic early protest punk tracks, and over on the Punk In Africa Facebook group, there’s a growing clamour to make it happen soon. Join it!
There are several other great underground bands from the late 70s/early 80s period whose recordings have not yet been re-released – Wild Youth and Corporal Punishment are particularly worth seeking out, and you can hear them on the radio documentary linked below.
In Afrikaans-language music, the seminal 1989 post-punk album “The Black Tape” by KOOS has recently been re-released by One F Music.
In contemporary punk, Cape Town stalwarts Hog Hoggidy Hog have just released a new album Method to the Madness while up-and-coming Johannesburg punks Swivelfoot have their debut album coming out in July.
Punk In Africa, the documentary film by Deon Maas and Keith Jones, will be released in 2010. It inspects the punk scenes in South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and Kenya. You can find out more about the film on the Punk In Africa Facebook group — and you can also watch the trailer for the film here on the SPIN Earth website.
this article first appeared on spin earth