The war that provided the soundtrack for subversive Afrikaans rock

Bernoldus Niemand (aka James Phillips) at the Market Theatre Warehouse in Johannesburg, 1989. John Hogg/The Times

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. The war was primarily fought between the South African Defence Force (SADF) and the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo). Under the hawk-ish President PW Botha, the role of the military was expanded.

The concurrent militarisation of white South African society, as well as the construction of white militarised masculine identities, were powerful societal forces. However, they grew increasingly unpopular. It elicited some resistance from within South Africa’s white population.

PW Botha. Mike Hutchings/Reuters

This resistance was indicative of wider dissent and opposition to apartheid especially 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.

Culture supporting the war

In contrast, popular culture in support of the war effort (music, film and literature as propaganda) 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, although there are some exceptions.

The sleeve of the record ‘Hou my vas korporaal’ (Hold me tight corporal).

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

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.

Free as a bird

“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.

‘Hou my vas korporaal’ (hold me tight corporal) was the unofficial anthem of the anti-conscription movement.

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. Phillips wrote into song the characteristics (and in Bernoldus Niemand, into character) of working-class whites who he no doubt had observed in Springs.

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’.

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.

Psychedelic rock came to Afrikaans children’s television courtesy of Wildebeest.

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'.

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.

Edited extract from ‘On Record: Popular Afrikaans music and society, 1900-2017’, African Sun Media, Stellenbosch, 2017.