The 1980s was the Decade of the Big Crocodile in South Africa. Pieter Willem Botha, or PW, known as the “Groot Krokodil” in Afrikaans, had the reins of power firmly in his hands.
Botha held multiple positions in the state. He was prime minister from 1978 to 1984 and then became South Africa’s first executive state president from 1984 to 1989, concentrating even more power in his office. But before he became the country’s leader, he was its minister of defence.
It’s therefore no surprise that the country became even more militarised under PW. The military was the centre of his paranoid power base. Under his leadership, power shifted from the police to the military and PW even brought one of his friends, former general in the army Magnus Malan, into the Cabinet as minister of defence.
A subversive poster by the End Conscription Campaign (ECC), an anti-military conscription group, summed it up best during the 1987 whites-only general election, which was held during a draconian state of emergency: “The problem with this general election is we don’t know which general we’re electing.”
Brutal power in a time of resistance
As resistance against apartheid grew dramatically, the government became more and more reliant on the army to maintain control. PW talked of facing a “total onslaught” of resistance forces both inside South Africa and in its neighbouring states. The government tried to prevent these countries from supporting South African liberation movements through a policy of destabilisation. The then South African Defence Force (SADF) regularly launched brutal cross-border raids on suspected ANC bases.
The SADF was also used in South Africa to suppress the uprising against the state. During the intensified resistance of the 1980s, troops had occupied the townships. They used violence and terror to generate fear among residents.
As a result of this increased militarisation, the SADF needed more and more men to serve in the army. The government introduced compulsory conscription, which forced all young white men from the age of 18 to serve time in the South African Defence Force.
From January 1977, compulsory military service had been extended to two years. Young white men who had just finished school were drafted into the army.
They had no choice in the matter.
Many of these young men didn’t want to join the army, or fight for a country in whose policies they did not believe. There were few options available to them, all of them difficult.
Some left the country and went into exile. This meant they were forced to leave their families behind and there was no possibility of return. Others went to university to study in an attempt to avoid the draft for as long as possible. Small numbers of men chose to become conscientious objectors and refused to serve in the army. In return, they were given a six-year jail sentence. It was not until the formation of the ECC in 1983 that there was a coordinated response to conscription.
The power of popular culture
When the ECC turned 25, I wrote a piece about how the decision to use popular culture as a weapon back then was a deliberate one. “For the serious politicos in the ECC, it initially was a nice-to-have,” former ECC leader Chippy Olver told me, but insanity prevailed with the formation of a very active and creative cultural subcommittee early on. “The use of culture grew over the period of the campaign and by using posters, youth culture and bands our message reached a much wider audience.”
By understanding the power of the party, the ECC got its message across in a more powerful way than many politicians managed. It took the authorities a while to realise this, but when they did, they came for the ECC, military boots and all. Malan called it “disgraceful that the SADF, but especially the country’s young people, the pride of the nation, should be subjected to the ECC’s propaganda, suspicion-sowing and misinformation”. His law and order colleague, Adriaan Vlok, declared that the ECC was part of the “revolutionary onslaught against South Africa”.
In August 1988, the ECC became the first white organisation in more than two decades to be banned by the apartheid regime.
The saying that if you really were part of the decadent 1960s, you won’t remember much seems to apply to 1980s South Africa, too.
To get anyone who can remember how the ECC music compilation Forces Favourites came about seems impossible. The ironically titled LP – named after the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) request programme for the conscripted “boys on the border” – was recorded by Shifty Records’ mastermind Lloyd Ross in 1986. When I contacted Ross, who is now an award-winning filmmaker, and asked how Forces Favourites happened, he responded:
“Shit, I can’t remember…” How did the recordings go? “Mmmm, I can’t remember…” Who was the ECC person on this project? He couldn’t recall.
The resonance of Weeping
Although they were not on the Shifty compilation, the one band that would always remain synonymous with the ECC is Bright Blue.
Bright Blue’s Dan Heymann explains: “By 1987, we were a four-man outfit, all of whom had endured two pointless years in the SADF. So we could readily relate to the ECC cause.”
Bright Blue played their first ECC concert in mid-1987. Their achingly beautiful, gentle-paced song Weeping became the ECC’s unofficial anthem because of its apt lyrics and their links to the organisation.
The normally eagle-eyed – or is it eagle-eared? – apartheid censors failed to spot a brief but clear musical reference to Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the banned ANC anthem. They also failed to notice how Weeping’s lyrics were a powerful response to the state of emergency that was attempting to throttle resistance against apartheid.
The story of Weeping tells of “a man who lived in fear”, who “built a wall of steel and flame, and men with guns, to keep it tame”.
Like the man who proclaimed the state of emergency in apartheid South Africa, the one in the song believes his harsh measures will work, telling his neighbours:
“My friends,” he said, “we’ve reached our goal
the threat is under firm control
As long as peace and order reign
I’ll be damned if I can see a reason to explain
Why the fear and the fire and the guns remain.”
Weeping sneaked past the formal, government-appointed censorship body, the Directorate of Publications. But this body only responded to complaints, and so it only made banning decisions about material that had been submitted to it. The directorate formally banned fewer than 100 pieces of music in the 1980s. However, the government used its control of the powerful state broadcaster, the SABC, to prevent “undesirable” songs from being played.
Artists were required to submit their music for scrutiny to an SABC body called the Central Record Acceptance Committee (Crac), which interpreted the Publications Act of 1974 strenuously and with vigour. Its members met weekly to review all music intended for airplay for evidence of anything that failed to comply with government policies. They banned thousands of songs.
To ensure that these rejected songs didn’t make it on to the air, stickers indicating what to avoid were then placed on album covers – “offensive” songs were made illegible with pen scribbles. Vinyl records were physically scratched with a sharp object so that the needle would jump when playing an “offensive” track.
But Weeping miraculously sidestepped Crac, too. The song became hugely popular and reached number one on the state’s own youth station, Radio 5.
Thirty-three years later, like the best protest songs, Weeping remains a powerful and relevant song. Its longevity is owed to the universality of its message, the sublime melody and Bright Blue’s haunting interpretation.