Having a national party

Voe?lvry: The movement that rocked South Africa by Pat Hopkins (Zebra)

There’s something pleasing in the fact that Pat Hopkins’s book about the Voe?lvry tour was released just as PW Botha left Planet Earth for good, because Botha is undeniably the villain of the period covered by the book. It was his face on TV that Johannes Kerkorrel was referring to when he urged us to “Sit dit af!” It is fun to speculate, also, that the upsurge of young Afrikaner rebellion represented by Voe?lvry had something to do with the stroke that ended Botha’s political career.

In 1989, just as the apartheid state entered its death-throes, the Voe?lvry tour took a bunch of “alternative Afrikaner” musicians on a Great Trek around South Africa, whipping up establishment outrage and youthful ecstasy wherever it went. The headline act was Die Gereformeerde Blues Band, fronted by Kerkorrel, but the presence of Andre? Letoit as the joke-troubadour, and Bernoldus Niemand as the spiritual godfather of Voe?lvry, made it all a very attractive and powerful package.

Rock’n’roll had had a liberating effect on Western society in the 1950s and 1960s; in 1980s South Africa, rock’n’roll learnt to speak Afrikaans, and Afrikaner youth responded wildly to its Dionysian energy. It was like all the pent-up resentment against a heavy-handed, militarised Calvinist patriarchy burst forth — a boil lanced by the Voe?lvryers.

As Afrikaans universities such as Potchefstroom (Kerkorrel’s alma mater) and Stellenbosch (the supposed bastion of Afrikaner verligtheid) used bannings and the like to prevent Voe?lvry from performing there, and demented dominees found Satanic messages in the lyrics, the tour just drew more and more attention and pulled bigger and bigger crowds. It wasn’t called “Boere Beatlemania” for nothing; suddenly the Afrikaans youth who had not been entirely brain-washed by the apartheid machine had spokespeople, had songs that articulated their feelings — and had a pleasurable way to express their discontent.

As Letoit (in his Koos Kombuis persona) says in his afterword to Hopkins’s book, Voe?lvry may not have single-handedly brought the apartheid state down, but “we hurt the Nationalist dictatorship in a place where no one else could hurt them”. Voe?lvry represented the white children of apartheid turning on the social and political values of their parents, and noisily rejecting them while having a damn fine time in the process. Their elders had taught them that rock’n’roll was the tool of the devil, that it would corrupt their minds away from the ideals of Christian-Nationalist education, and their elders were right. Hopkins traces the background and trajectory of Voe?lvry, including its internal rifts and what happened to its protagonists in the aftermath.

There is a wealth of colourful, enjoyable photographs by the late Steve Hilton-Barber, through which his own sense of fun seems to shine. There are many song lyrics reproduced in this well-designed, attractive book; they provide a good sense of what the Voe?lvryers were actually saying. The whole makes a great package, and sparks some nostalgia for a reader, like me, who was there — but Lloyd Ross’s documentary of the tour (a DVD of which comes with the book) sparks more.

Hopkins gives us a lot of Afrikaner history, without really conveying the feeling of what young Voe?lvry-supporting Afrikaners (and others) were trying to escape from: the suffocating claustrophobia of the Calvinist values and social repressions that underpinned Afrikaner society and, indeed, seeped into Anglophone South Africa. This had as much to do with sex as it did with apartheid, so rock’n’roll was the appropriate catalyst for a violent lurch toward freedom. As for the inspirations behind Voe?lvry, Hopkins dismisses the influence of James Phillips’s Bernoldus Niemand persona as “coincidental — and never that strong”, while indefinitely deferring “the question of when and where the movement started”.

I am biased, because Phillips was a good friend of mine, but I think Bernoldus was vital. This fictional Mr “Nobody” had the freedom to say things people could not in their own voices — the plethora of silly pseudonyms to which the Voe?lvryers were given (Kerkorrel, Kombuis, Piet Pers, and so on and on), were in this spirit. At the heart of the Voe?lvry rebellion, indeed, were identity issues; it was about wanting to be someone other than the person your parents, Afrikaner society and the state wanted you to be.

Bernoldus as a concept may have been over for Phillips by the time Voe?lvry happened, and his resuscitation of the character (in Bernoldus’s only live appearances) may have galled a little. But the album, Wie Is Bernoldus Niemand?, which came out years before Voe?lvry, undoubtedly created the conditions of possibility for a new kind of South African music. Its tone of affectionate satire, its mix of humour and pathos, formed the template for Letoit/Kombuis’s performance work, as he indeed tells Hopkins; the punning title of his best album, Niemandsland, acknowledges that he was going where Niemand led, and Phillips made a major musical contribution to that work.

(By the way, Kombuis was not persuaded by Shifty Records to “grow dreadlocks and take on a semi- Rastafarian persona” to attract a “wider African” audience, as Hopkins asserts — those dreadlocks were part of a joke hat, worn in the spirit of general silliness to which Kombuis ascribed. After all, he had sung about the Rasta who loses his contact lenses. Also, contra Hopkins, no one in “the media”, which was getting used to such shenanigans, really took seriously the announcement of Letoit’s “death” when he renamed himself Kombuis.)

More than one person in the Ross DVD attests to the inspiration of Bernoldus, and to the overall impact of Phillips on the attitudes struck by Voe?lvry. Yes, Kerkorrel came out of Afrikaans cabaret, and, along with Letoit, it was tour organiser and general provocateur Dagga-Dirk Uys who propelled him into rock’n’roll — which made all the difference to his impact. But Kerkorrel said, in a 1988 interview (if nowhere else) that he felt he was “building on” Bernoldus’s work, among other sources.

Phillips was not an Afrikaner, as such, so his send-up of Afrikanerdom was more distanced and more ironic than Kerkorrel’s could ever be; but then, as others point out, Voe?lvry was, in fact, not just about and for thoroughbred Afrikaners. Many of the participants (on-stage and off) were “bastards” — like, indeed, the Afrikaans language and Afrikanerdom itself. That was a point made by Breyten Breytenbach, long before Voe?lvry, and his work and example lurk in the ancestry of Voe?lvry, as do those of other Afrikaner dissident artists. But, as Hopkins and his interlocutors in this book make clear, it was rock’n’roll learning to speak Die Taal that turned the cry of protest into a juggernaut.

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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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