The day the music died
The police's Security Branch simply could not resist harassing students during the apartheid era.
In the mid-1980s the Sans Souci hotel was a favourite watering hole for students from my residence at the then Rand Afrikaans University. One of the guys who used to hang out there used to stay at our res. My older pals who knew my red politics used to warn me against him because by then he was a Security Branch cop.
One night I was at res, swotting for a change. There was a knock and I had the fright of my life when his huge frame filled my door. He invited himself in and sat on my bed. I can’t remember which record was on my hi-fi but I turned it softer. I went to sit at my desk. After the “how are you’s”, he asked me whether I would sleep with a black woman. “I don’t know.”
Looking at my stack of records, he remarked that it seemed that I loved music. I nodded. He looked me in the eyes. “You know … if you want to make some regular money to afford stuff like records, you must let me know.” I said nothing.
“We’ll chat again,” he said. Next thing he was up and disappeared down the passage. I was stunned, shocked and then angry — that he thought I would spy on the small group of fellow lefties at RAU and sell my soul for more records and a better hi-fi!
It was also a time of creative subversion on the local music scene — the security establishment was well aware of that. With the alternative Afrikaans punk movement, Voëlvry, it wasn’t only young English-speaking and black people taking the authorities on, but their own Afrikaner sons and daughters.
The ouens from the branch weren’t always that good in going undercover. They epitomised all the stereotypes at the Voëlvry concerts: sipping nonchalantly on their beers, they tried to look “cool” but T-shirts tucked into denims, grey shoes and healthy moustaches gave them away.
But sometimes they were dangerously effective. In the late 1970s Roger Lucey, with his deep voice, beguiling guitarwork and poetic lyrics calling for justice and liberation, was undoubtedly one of South Africa’s rising stars. He started getting regular gigs at Jo’burg’s folk mecca, Mangles.
But his gripping songs did not only attract the attention of young lefties. In an extract on 3rd Ear Music’s website from his unpublished book, Foot Soldier for Apartheid, ex-security cop Paul Erasmus tells how he was summoned to the branch’s headquarters in Pretoria to see if he could stop this “filth”.
“I attended all of Roger’s shows, secretly recorded his mainly haunting, beautifully plaintive ballads in which he, inter alia, referred to Steve Biko’s death, state oppression and other ‘unacceptable’ issues,” Erasmus writes. “I dutifully transcribed the words and forwarded the whole lot to SB head office. They were incensed with the lyrics.”
Straight to the censors
They were even angrier when Lucey recorded The Road Is Much Longer at 3rd Ear Records. With “instigating” songs such as Lungile Tabalaza and You Only Need Say Nothing, it was sent straight to the censors at the Publications Board.
The former was about a young man who “jumped” to his death from the fifth floor at the branch’s offices in Port Elizabeth.
The latter had lyrics such as “And there’s teargas at the funeral of a boy gunned down by cops/ They say that there are too many mourners and this is where it stops/ And the moral of the episode — Is to do what you are told”.
To impress his bosses, Erasmus went to work even before the censors. In between planting bombs, harassing Winnie Mandela and about 500 other transgressions, the overzealous cop focused his attention on Lucey.
He called WEA Records (they distributed LPs for 3rd Ear Records) and told them the record was banned. “I also planted the seed that Roger was a ‘prime suspect’, connected with either the ANC/SACP [South African Communist Party] and dropped the hint that he was facing imminent arrest. WEA were aghast — obviously investing and promoting Lucey was not going to be a profitable venture.”
They refused to distribute any further copies of the record.
Erasmus went personally to Hillbrow Records, then South Africa’s largest record store, and confiscated 20 of Lucey’s records.
“We kept monitoring Roger’s live shows, stopping one at a Braamfontein [Johannesburg] restaurant in mid ‘track’ … by pouring CS (tear gas powder) into the air conditioning and watching the evacuation from across the road with great amusement! This ‘action’ was followed up by a series of phone calls threatening to blow up the restaurant if they continued with his shows. No surprise that his gigs didn’t last long.”
Threatening phone calls and even threats of bombs at the venue meant that Lucey’s concerts dried up — the last one was in 1983 Lucey’s first record was banned and the second was never released.
Ten years later Erasmus resigned. He later gave evidence at the Truth commission about all the dirty tricks and was granted amnesty in November 2000.
Apart from a short epilogue about Lucey and Erasmus, Back in from the Anger ends in 1995, begging for another book about what happened next. “There is another story. Jacana seem keen that I continue the story,” says Lucey. “A lot of amazing things happened … there were certain parts that weren’t so nice but they were interesting.”