South Africa: Tune Me What - the Songs That Helped Bring Down Apartheid

22 September 2014

In 1989, the future in South Africa seemed bleak and hopeless. The government had declared another State of Emergency which suspended certain meagre civil liberties and allowed them to detain anyone suspected of being an "enemy of the state" without trial almost indefinitely. Violent resistance and repression were at their peak.

Although largely insulated from the ultra-violent repression in South Africa's townships, protests also intensified on our campus, leading President P.W. Botha and his hardline minister for education, FW de Klerk, to plan a clamp-down. We remember as students protesting against "the de Klerk proposals" which demanded that university authorities collude in repressing student dissent or risk losing state funding.

This was a year before Botha would be ousted and, startlingly, replaced with de Klerk, who would go on to free Nelson Mandela and embark on negotiations towards democracy. But in 1989, de Klerk was certainly giving few clues that he would be a reformist, ready to diverge from Botha's disastrous and repressive policies, and all in all, there was little optimism amongst progressive South Africans.

The apartheid regime was of course propped up by the strength of the army. Year after year, a new intake of spotty conscripts fresh from school acted us the unconscious enablers of the regime. Going to the army, or doing "national service", was a way of life for generations of white South African males. However, those lucky enough to have money and high school grades could get a university deferment - this is what we did, finding ourselves at Rhodes University in Grahamstown for the second half of the 1980s.

On most English-speaking campuses we could get politically involved and support campaigns for the ending of military conscription, taking the cue from the anti-Vietnam campaigning in the US a generation before. The soundtrack to the American youth revolution was now a part of popular culture in South Africa and the antiwar songs of the Woodstock generation - Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Bob Dylan and others - made much sense. All well and good, but we also needed an indigenous expression in our own vernacular by our own generation.

There was no hope any South African mainstream record company or radio stations would support anything so "seditious". But then along came Shifty Records, the label we introduced in our last post. They were formed specifically to record these dissenting voices, and they soon released a series of compilation albums with anti-apartheid and anti-conscription themes by a range of emerging artists. One was called Forces Favourites, a cheeky reference to a state radio show aimed at conscripts doing their national service. The second was called A Naartjie in our Sosatie. (For non-South Africans a 'naartjie' is a sort of tangerine and a 'sosatie' is a kebab. South Africans are fond of mixing meat and fruit, so literally it would mean that you had a tangerine on your kebab skewer, but of course it is a pun which is read as "anarchy in our society".)

Now, it was easy for the apartheid government to write off dissent on English university campuses because there had always been a feeling that English-speaking South Africans were, to use a popular crude term, 'soutpiele' (this essentially means they had 'salty genitalia' from straddling the UK and South Africa with bits dangling in the ocean - you get the picture... ). But what they were not prepared for was the spread of youthful opposition to the bedrock Afrikaner community.

We do seem to be talking a lot about political history and not a great deal about music, but there is a very important connection: some might even claim a 'causal' connection.

To begin with, Shifty artist James Phillips, using the pseudonym Bernoldus Niemand ('Bernard Nobody'), recorded the satirical song 'Hou My Vas Korporaal' ('Hold me tight, Corporal') which suggested that young men are wasting the best days of their lives playing war. This song became very influential amongst a group of emerging 'progressive' or 'alternative' Afrikaans artists.

Two particular fans were songwriters who had themselves contributed songs to a protest stage play called Piekniek by Dingaan ('Picnic with Dingaan', a provocative cultural reference too complicated to explain in this short article, but you can read about it here.) One of these, the journalist-turned-musician Ralph Rabie, changed his name to Johannes Kerkorrel (John Church Organ) while the other, André le Roux du Toit, first styled himself as André le Toit (an anagram of 'toilet' as he liked to point out) and later as Koos Kombuis (which can translate as 'Loo Kitchen', since the Afrikaans name 'Koos' is used to mean toilet like 'John' is in English... )

With the backing of Shifty Records, this duo put together a rock 'n' roll package tour called Voelvy (meaning literally "free as a bird" but colloquially "outlaws".

Kerkorrel and his Gerformeerede Blues Band - made up of many Shifty family faces - together with 'Bernoldus Niemand' and Le Toit set out touring the town halls and university campuses of South Africa with songs of social commentary criticising the regime and mocking the Botha. Our guess is that it was the humorous songs did significant damage to the confidence of the regime: they knew how to deal with dissent, but they couldn't cope with not being respected or taken seriously.

In the explosive opening song of their album Eet Kreef ('Eat Lobster'), Kerkorrel and the GBB urged listeners to simply "turn off the TV" when the face of finger-wagging Botha came on. Interestingly, the Afrikaans for 'turn it off' is the song's title 'Sit Dit Af', which is also Afrikaans for 'amputate or chop off', so it is possible they were craftily suggesting PW be deposed in the same way as Louis XVI of France.

The tour faced all sorts of harassment from the security police, from crude tactics such as puncturing their tyres, to strong-arming venues to cancel their shows. But they persevered and gained momentum and support, providing a lightning rod for the increasingly rebellious white youth who did not share the older generations vision of a racially segregated and militarised South Africa.

On a personal note, we both went to see the Voelvry concert in the Grahamstown Town Hall in 1989. We'd recently started our own student band playing covers of popular British and American rock classics, but in the middle of that show we looked at each other and decided then and there that we'd transform our band. We'd no longer play covers of imported music, but would write our own songs reflecting life in our own strange and twisted society. This led to many great experiences we might not otherwise have had - such as performing at Johannesburg's legendary Jameson's club - so quite apart from holding the line and giving us our generation the rock 'n' roll courage to stand up against the unjust regime and against the military machine that supported it, the Voelvry movement influenced our generation of musicians.

There is a wonderful documentary available on DVD directed by Shifty founder Lloyd Ross called "Voelvry - The Movie" and a very detailed book by Pat Hopkins for those who would like to find out more about the alternative Afrikaner rock 'n' rollers who soundtracked a sea-changing youth movement.

Tune Me What? is a podcast and blog by Brett Lock and Leon Lazarus that highlights South African music and artists at home and around the world. For more information, visit or

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