Here’s an idiot’s guide from the 1980s on how to protest against fascists from the inside and, importantly, how to piss them off. This guide involves a tribute to a great human being who died this week, sitting down as a weapon, loud electric guitars and how to wrestle a crocodile into submission.
First, the death. My best friend, Anton Steenkamp, died in northern Zambia on Monday 20 May after being bitten by a black mamba. On leave from the labour court where he was a respected judge, Steenkamp was on holiday with his wife, Catherine, doing what he loved so much: touring through his beloved Africa.
Both from enlightened Afrikaner homes, we became friends in the early 1980s. We bonded over left-wing politics, struggle T-shirts, good books, the odd doobie, a love for partying and South African music, especially township jive, jazz and Afrikaans punk.
As students, we were leftist troublemakers in the reactionary laagers of our respective campuses – he at Stellenbosch, me at Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg). He was more effective because of his diligence. Like a Trojan horse, he became the editor of the university’s student newspaper, Die Matie, leading a small island of vocal, principled progressives in a sea of suffocating, self-serving conservatism.
Steenkamp was involved in setting up the Stellenbosch University branches of the End Conscription Campaign and the National Union of South African Students. But it was as editor that my subversive friend not only got up the noses of the Broederbonders who ran the campus – PW Botha was the chancellor of Stellenbosch University – but also pursued with a vengeance reactionary student leadership on campus. The Afrikaanse Studentebond or student league was a national formation of Broeders-in-the-making/finishing school for National Party leaders. Marthinus van Schalkwyk, who went on to become the last leader of that party, was the chair at the time.
A mutual friend, Riaan Smit, reminisced this week about their life-changing years at the university. “One scene keeps flashing through my head,” he said, “an Afrikaanse Studentebond congress ends in the Endler Hall circa 1984. We were there for Die Matie and we remained seated at the end when Die Stem was sung. It wasn’t planned ahead. It was instinctive, because it was the right thing to do. Steenkamp many times in his life remained seated, not for effect but because it was the right thing to do in the face of the indefensible.”
Revolution in the air
In 1989, Steenkamp and I joined the new radical Afrikaans newspaper Vrye Weekblad as journalists. They were heady times, you could smell revolution in the air. The apartheid edifice was slowly but surely cracking around the once invincible PW Botha, aka the Groot Krokodil or big crocodile.
The Afrikaner establishment’s children turned against them and we no longer found the cantankerous Groot Krokodil’s finger-wagging scary. We gave him and his system – the teacher, the dominee, the sergeant – the middle finger.
The soundtrack of our rebellion was loud, subversive and provocative Afrikaans punk rock. The 1989 Voëlvry concert tourof mainly Afrikaans university campuses became a movement of sorts, and it was this that helped turn the establishment’s children. We covered and danced to it. Our advocacy journalism was clear: we chose sides against the apartheid fascists.
Ralph Rabie, better known as Johannes Kerkorrel, was the reluctant rebel leader. Calling himself Kerkorrel (church organ) and referencing the biggest Afrikaner church in the name of his band, the Gereformeerde Blues Band, satirising the Afrikaner’s immense respect for anything linked to the church, he invited the ruling establishment’s ire. The band’s 1989 album, Eet Kreef (Eat Crayfish), opened many young minds.
“The shit came raining down,” Kerkorrel later told me in a retrospective interview, not long before his suicide in 2002, “when we plugged in the first electric guitar.”
‘The right thing to do’
We went to most of their riotous Gauteng concerts and travelled to Kroonstad in the Free State for a show in a school hall. Singing along to Kerkorrel’s satirical songs made you feel less scared of Botha and his security establishment, even those intimidating moustachioed security branch thugs who attended the shows.
The highlight of every performance was their satirical song about the state broadcaster, the SABC, which was dominated by Nationalist propaganda. The blond Kerkorrel, in his favourite zebra motif T-shirt, a sarcastic sneer on his face, started banging away that infectious bluesy riff on his piano. “Sit dit af, sit dit af!” (Switch it off, switch it off) he exhorted us, referring to the televisions dominated by Botha and his wagging finger.
“Sit dit af, sit dit af!” we responded with gusto. We were wrestling the crocodile and believed we were winning.
For Botha and his securocrats, it was easy to brutally suppress black protesters. It wasn’t as easy to silence their own questioning children with a well-aimed snot klap (smack), although heaven knows they tried. The music gave young rebels a sense of solidarity and allowed them to laugh together at the apartheid establishment.
Like my friend Steenkamp and Kerkorrel, we knew “it was the right thing to do in the face of the indefensible”.