Dissent

How Afrikaans Rock Ignited South African Anti-War Protests

Defying propaganda art, a few Afrikaans rockers revolted against South African military conscription in the second half of the 20th century and sparked an anti-war protest movement.

Bernoldus Niemand (aka James Phillips) at the Market Theatre Warehouse in Johannesburg, 1989. Credit: John Hogg

In 1967, military conscription became compulsory for all white men in South Africa over the age of 16. In the subsequent two decades the country got ever deeper involved in the so-called “Border War” on the Namibian/Angolan border between the South African Defence Force (SADF) and the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo). Under the hawkish President PW Botha, the role of the military was expanded.

The concurrent militarisation of white South African society and construction of white militarised masculine identity were powerful societal forces. But they grew increasingly unpopular, eliciting some resistance from within South Africa’s white population.

Former South African President PW Botha. Credit: Reuters/Mike Hutchings

This resistance was indicative of wider dissent and opposition to apartheid in popular culture. English-language rock bands like Bright Blue, the Kalahari Surfers and the Cherry Faced Lurchers, along with solo artists like Roger Lucey, were openly opposed to apartheid and the conscription of white males into the armed conflicts.

These artists often performed under the banners of the End Conscription Campaign, a lobby group formed in 1983 to end compulsory military service. These performances were highly politicised and held a considerable element of risk for the artists.

Pro-war propaganda 

In contrast, music, film and literature in support of the war effort was common. Numerous pro-war music releases in both English and Afrikaans appeared on the market.

Among the Afrikaans releases were albums by two of the most popular South African singers of all time, Gé Korsten’s “Huistoe” (Homewards) and Bles Bridges’s “Onbekende Weermagman” (Unknown Soldier). Notably, while some English bands were openly opposed to the army, the war and apartheid, Afrikaans music remained almost completely compliant. Protest among Afrikaners was still rare, with some exceptions.

The sleeve of “Hou my vas Korporaal” (Hold me tight, Corporal) Credit: The Conversation

In 1983, opposition towards conscription and South Africa’s involvement in the Border War was steadily increasing at the time. That year, two acts released Afrikaans songs that parodied the army experience.

Bernoldus Niemand (the alternative persona of English-speaking musician James Phillips) released his single “Hou my vas Korporaal” (Hold me tight, Corporal). The rock group Wildebeest released an EP, “Horings op die Stoep” (Horns on the Stoep), containing the song “Bossies” (Bushies).

“Bossies” is a vernacular term referring to post-traumatic stress following military battle. The fact that these are Afrikaans songs, make them a poignant testimony to the unravelling of Afrikaner hegemony. This was a significant change. Afrikaners as a group had arguably more invested in the apartheid system than their white English counterparts.

Wildebeest’s EP, ‘Horings op die stoep’ (horns on stoep) Credit: The Conversation

The two songs were not successful commercially. Nevertheless, they represented the earliest examples of Afrikaans music that echoed the dissent felt among a large group of troops.

Artists like Wildebeest and Bernoldus Niemand represented a non-commercial sub-category that had little to no exposure to the mainstream. This was in contrast to the “Musiek-en-Liriek” (music and lyrics) movement which had the support of mainstream television and state-sanctioned arts organisations.

“Hou my vas Korporaal” was followed by the release of the album, “Wie is Bernoldus Niemand?” (Who is Bernoldus Niemand?), in February 1985. It was the first record of its kind and set a certain tone: observant, satirical and couched in the rebellious language of rock ’n roll.

Before becoming Niemand, Phillips played in an English band called Corporal Punishment which hailed from his hometown of Springs, a mining town on the East Rand of Johannesburg. It was a hotbed of punk-styled anti-establishment music in the late 1970s. Corporal Punishment’s songs delivered biting political and social commentary.

Although stylistically influenced by 1970s British punk, South African punk bands could not realistically claim the same links to the working class. In the general local context, their race made them privileged. However, not all whites were equally privileged. Through the character ofBernoldus Niemand, Phillips wrote into song the characteristics of working-class whites in Springs.

Free as a bird 

Many consider the album to have started the “Afrikaans new wave” which climaxed in the 1989 Voëlvry tour. The Voëlvry (“free as a bird”) tour was an anti-apartheid uprising of sorts: disaffected rock artists performing in Afrikaans on campuses countrywide.

Not surprisingly, “Wie is Bernoldus Niemand?” was banned by the state broadcaster. The satirising of the army experience – which so many young white South Africans could relate to – would become a regular theme for later Voëlvry artists. “Hou my vas Korporaal” also became the unofficial anthem of the ECC.

The cover of Johannes Kerkorrel & Gereformeerde Blues Band’s album ‘Eet Kreef’ Credit: The Conversation

The music of the other Voëlvry artists Koos Kombuis and Johannes Kerkorrel later mocked the vapidity of middle-class Afrikaner suburbia from the position of rebellious middle-class Afrikaners. But the white working-class character theme in Phillips’s music represented a different subversion, because in the 1980s working-class Afrikaners tended to support the political right.

Although Niemand’s influence on Voëlvry might have been debatable (as suggested by Pat Hopkins in his book “Voëlvry”), it remains a very poignant comment on white conscription during apartheid.

Afrikaans psychedelic rock 

Wildebeest, on the other hand, was an enigmatic group in their own way. For one thing, the bassist, Piet Botha, was the son of then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Pik Botha. The band is still remembered for a rather strange appearance on the fogey Afrikaans kids’ television programme “Kraaines” (Crow’s Nest) in 1981. Long-haired and subversively sporting military style khaki outfits, Wildebeest raucously beat traditional African drums and played heavy psychedelic rock.

The songs were all composed by drummer Colin Pratley who, like James Phillips, was also not a first-language Afrikaans speaker. Wildebeest was influenced by African genres and rock music, and used a variety of indigenous instruments while sometimes singing in Afrikaans. Their EP “Horings op die Stoep” contained four tracks and tellingly, all were in Afrikaans.

In contrast to Phillips, however, Wildebeest was not associated with formal opposition to conscription.

Afro-rock group Wildebeest in the early 1980s. From ‘On Record: Popular Afrikaans music and society, 1900-2017’ Credit: The Conversation

Considering the socio-political atmosphere of the early 1980s, songs like “Hou my vas Korporaal” and “Bossies” were significant releases. Both songs touched on sensitive and realistic aspects of a shared experience between many white South African males conscripted into military service since 1967. This was in stark contrast to the numerous music releases in support of military service that portrayed conscription as the patriotic duty of young white South African males.

Songs like “Hou my vas Korporaal” and “Bossies” chimed with wider fault lines in Afrikaner society as the apartheid regime’s grip on power started to slip. Their specific significance is that they offered alternative interpretations of the army experience, and by extension white Afrikaner male identity, that resonated with much wider socio-political shifts.

Schalk van der Merwe is lecturer of history, Stellenbosch University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.