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Hartwick College's Student Newspaper

The View From Oyaron Hill

My Tragic Love 

Affair With South African Punk


Charlie Feher-Peiker

When I went to South Africa for the first time last J-Term, I had taken the course on South Africa and I had been brushing up on contemporary South African politics and social happenings. I was ready to spend a month there, I knew all about South Africa and I felt that I had successfully eradicated 18 years of misconceptions and false information from my consciousness. I was wrong of course.

As soon as I landed in Johannesburg, at Tambo International I looked out the window at the incredible urban sprawl of the Joburg skyline and I realized that though I had known I was going to see Africa’s largest city, a city the same size as New York City, until I saw it for myself I hadn’t been able to rid myself of all the lies I had internalized about the African continent. I was pissed.

Then it dawned on me, all in one moment of painful and horrific realization, everything I knew about South Africa, even the correct information, had been clouded over by 18 years of internalized falsehood and anti-African propaganda. Even though I knew what it would look like, I still couldn’t imagine South Africa as it was, only how I had been taught it would look; a dusty, barren waste, overcrowded, littered and woefully undeveloped. Nothing like the cosmopolitan metropolis I was experiencing.

So, when I came back from South Africa I had to find the source of the disconnect of information between South Africa and the US. I started with what I know best, underground music, political Punk specifically. Annoyingly though, for some reason after the late-1970’s South Africa’s underground music scene pretty much disappeared, and until recently very little has started to surface in the way of politically minded music addressing social problems in South Africa.

What history there is of South Africa’s underground music scene and its Punk Rock bands are a little hard to get information on since they were literally underground.  Until 1994, government censorship laws forced musicians who dared to publicly mix races and speak out about the Apartheid regime into basements and backrooms at bars, the only places they could play freely and gather in peace. By the mid-1970’s Reggae had become very popular in South Africa and the loud, confrontational and overtly political sensibilities of early British Punks inspired young South African groups like National Wake and The Genuines to blend the genres and draw on their cultural origins to create their own style of loud, raw, powerful and uniquely South African musical protest.

Through their music, they dared to break all social convention along with more laws than could be counted on three hands, and to risk torture, imprisonment and death to form interracial bands and make music criticizing the Apartheid government and its fascist, genocidal agenda.

So not knowing where to start exactly, I ran a Google search for “South African Underground Music Scene” and all that came up was a contemporary Afrikaner group called Fokofpolisiekar, South Africa’s Nickelback, over-hyped, under-talented, aggressively heterosexual and rife with controversy. Considering South Africa’s history of amazing musicians who weren’t afraid to break laws and get arrested to protest social injustice, I refused to believe that this was all I was going to be able to find for South African Punk in the 21st century.

The more I looked though, the less fruitful my search became. Though Fokofpolisiekar does have an interesting story, it doesn’t really address the situation of most South Africans. Their songs only deal with life for upper middle-class, Afrikaans speaking, white men growing up in secluded, homogeneous suburbs. Not unlike the American Pop-Punk scene.

Finally, mercifully, I stumbled across a compilation of South African Punk produced by a record distributor called We Did This Records, which gives out samplers of music by South African artists for donations and then directs interested audiences to the respective bands to purchase full records. It still wasn’t exactly what I was looking for since all of the artists were white. But it was a step in the right direction.

On that sampler, one track stuck out to me in particular. It was by a group from Cape Town called All These Wasted Nuts and it was titled “I benefited from Apartheid.” The honesty of it caught me off guard and set me to thinking. Who has always been involved in the Punk Rock community? Since its creation, the whole scene has been overwhelmingly white and male. Except for a few notable examples of black artists the Bad Brains and Death and female artists Bikini Kill and Blondie becoming major forces in Punk, there has been very little variation.

Following this realization it occurred to me that I was looking in the wrong places to find out about what I was missing about South Africa by assuming that it would look like something American or European or that it would have anything to do with them at all. Of course! Why should it resemble in any way or at all look like anything that might come out of the US or Europe? To assume such, would just perpetuate the imperialist legacy: expecting things to look the way you’ve always seen them and refuse to learn or see it in a new light.

This sort of mentality is exactly what leads people to imperialism, leading them to take something that other people have built and attempt to make it more closely resemble their own notion of how it ought to look.  As a matter of fact that’s exactly why Cape Town’s “Indie Rock” scene is lame and unoriginal. It isn’t South African. It isn’t even African. It’s American radio pop imposed imperialistically by international media conglomerates who have monopolized South Africa’s music industry. 

These capitalist forces influence what privileged few in South Africa can afford instruments, spend the time to learn to play them, form bands and then get permission to play in public since house shows, impromptu performances and DIY music venues are all illegal in South Africa. This forces musicians to internalize what sells in the Neo-colonial bastions of advanced capitalism and regurgitate exactly what has been fed to them if they want to make it.

So that’s why you can’t find interesting South African music today. Except what is put out by minuscule, unrecognized music collectives like We Did This Records and the Sounds Of The South, an anarchist Hip-Hop group from Cape Town everything else is exactly like what we as Americans hear on the radio anyway. All the music that was produced in the 1970’s and 80’s before the end of Apartheid was only allowed to be made and distributed because the Apartheid regime could sell it as “exotic” to western consumers, fascinated by the music styles of Africans. Anybody who dared to use their music to speak out in protest was silenced with prison cells, bullets and bombs.

Once Apartheid fell though, it wasn’t lucrative anymore to support African music. So all the music that is produced today is pretty much just what western audiences already want to hear, thus manufacturing supply and influencing demand to grow profits and increase market share. Music from South Africa that obviously shows its African origins gets relegated to “World music” sections in record stores, only bears a passing mention on iTunes and as the dust collects on the Ladysmith Black Mambazo records, they fade into the depths of obscurity. Then slowly, through the haze of hollow statements of concern for the ailing populations of the “third world” that were showing up on my browser after repeated searches with the word “Africa” in them, I saw the hideous face of colonialism emerge, alive and well, malignant and insidious.

The more I thought about it all, the more it became clear that Punk Rock is just another domain of privilege. In defense of Punk Rock, it is a radically democratic genre of music because it requires very little in technical skill and the instruments are relatively cheap. But that assumes that your notion of cheap could ever approach even the least expensive of instruments and that you could possibly have access to the means of transportation necessary to move the gear and the band to and from shows.

Even to be able to engage with Punk Rock as a medium you have to have access to instruments and have a place to play once you’ve put a band together. For South Africans even those most basic of necessities for music, that we as American’s take for granted, are pretty much unattainable. So in the end my search ended with a sampler of South African Punk Rock, written by white artists about the problems facing black people in a country where the government of that country succeeded in engaging in genocide for 50 years against 90% of its own population.

The sad reality is that Punk Rock really is dead. It was doomed from the day it was came into being to die an ironic death at the hands of it’s own fans. But real Punk isn’t about how you dress or what music you like. Punk is about resistance against all odds. It is about standing in opposition to power systems and social structures that you know full well you have little or no power to change in any meaningful way, simply because you can feel that it is right. And if there is one thing South African’s understand, it is resistance against all odds. South African resistance to injustice doesn’t look anything like American resistance and it shouldn’t, which is exactly what makes it South African Punk.