Johannesburg 1989: No matter how much the apartheid government turned the volume down they could always hear the music of resistance. One of the loudest songs was Sit Dit Af! (Switch it Off) by the Gereformeerde Blues Band.
It was a raucous Afrikaans punk rock number mocking His Master’s Voice, as state broadcaster the SABC was called by its enemies. But alas, they couldn’t switch it off. South African music was flexing its collective muscle, spawning a new type of alternative Afrikaans rebel music.
This style of music was growing in popularity, largely because of a soutie (English-speaking South African) from the industrial East Rand town of Springs. Singer-songwriter James Phillips, in his guise as Bernoldus Niemand, inspired the seminal Voëlvry musical movement and tour. Rather aptly, Voëlvry translates both as “free as a bird” and “outlaw”.
Not only did the musicians perform in Afrikaans, they also tauntingly took on the Afrikaner-dominated apartheid government. English protest and anti-establishment songs were easier to understand and even shrug off for the authorities because, well, they were by English speakers, not their own people.
Now it was their own children breaking the rules, calling them out and, worse, making fun of them.
The apartheid authorities knew only one way to deal with sharp satire: go at it with a blunt object. That is what they did with this political Afrikaans music, literally. At the SABC, they set their censors to work crudely scratching any “offensive” tracks on the vinyl records, a foolproof way of making it impossible to play them on any radio stations. In addition, the state’s official censors banned some of the records from being distributed and sold in record stores.
Still, it was a losing battle for the country’s grey-shoed patriarchs. Hot on the heels of Bernoldus Niemand came the charismatic Afrikaner journalist-turned-musician Ralph Rabie. He didn’t only challenge the regime’s politics. As arch-subversive Rabie went for the pious government’s tenderest toe – he called himself Johannes Kerkorrel (John Church Organ) and his band, the Gereformeerde Blues Band, after the largest Afrikaans church, the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church). Kerkorrel quickly became the musical spokesperson for the Voëlvry movement and tour.
The tour filled dance floors across Afrikaans campuses all over the country. Some appearances were banned – you didn’t take the piss out of then president PW Botha and not expect consequences. But at the same time, the “alternative” Afrikaner movement was taking root. It was 1989 and they were being viewed as outlaws by officialdom. But rock musicians love being viewed as outlaws, so no complaints there.
I had been a photographer for five years by the time I saw and photographed their one massive show at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. I was by no means as savvy as those young rebels I captured on film and didn’t fully comprehend the enormity of this movement, the songs and the reactions. Wide-eyed and rather naïve, I had stumbled out of the enclave of the three white suburbs and East Rand town centre where I had grown up.
Working at The Star newspaper at the time, a lot was becoming clear although much of swiftly changing South Africa was also still confusing. But not as badly as for some of my white compatriots.
Some people in Afrikanerdom were still – astonishingly – convinced of the “evils” of dancing and other forms of popular culture at this time. Everything the ruling National Party had carefully curated to create what they considered to be the perfect Afrikaner identity was now being challenged and mocked by Voëlvry. The movement was important in that it opened many young Afrikaner minds, one loud chord at a time. But as it behoved good punks, the Voëlvry gang imploded within months following the usual excess of sex, drugs and rock and roll, as well as “artistic differences”.
Johannesburg 2019: The reformed Gereformeerde Blues Band took to the stage in Johannesburg on a Friday night, 30 years after I first photographed them and others from that time. There were the survivors from 1989: Willem “Mr Volume” Moller, Jannie “Hanepoot” van Tonder, Lloyd Ross and Tonia “Karla Krimpelien” Selly. Newbies were Churchill Naude and Riku and Jackie Lätti.
The venue was a crowded and hot Pirates Bowls Club and the lighting nostalgically rudimentary. The audience was largely made up of, in singer David Kramer’s words, bejaarde jollers (aged party animals) and the evening started with Kenyan Simba Morri and Boerepunk Guillaume Gap.
The band didn’t try to recreate the 1980s, although they played all the seminal hits from their oeuvre, favourites such as Sit dit Af!, BMW, Rock & Roll Ossewa and Hillbrow. It was more a celebration of the past three decades, looking back at a more innocent and optimistic time when the apartheid enemy was easy to identify.
As within the press photographic community, where a lot of brave and dangerous work was being done, tragedy struck over the years. James Phillips and Ralph Rabie are no longer with us, neither are several of my photographic friends. It was a time to celebrate Phillips and Rabie, but also fellow photographer Steve Hilton-Barber, who photographed the tour back in the day. He was the perfect man for the job and his motto, which I’m sure was in line with that of the musicians at the time, was “Think crooked, shoot straight”.