The Fest music festival held in Gainesville each year has not only allowed me to rock out with some of my favourite bands, but has also put me in touch with the kind, honest and friendly people that make up the Fest 'scene'. This scene stretches across the world, bringing together Americans, Canadians, Brits, Australians and (although I know it seems a little strange) South Africans. I fall into this last group, and I can tell you that there were exactly two South Africans at Fest this year (the other was my boyfriend, Brett). I know this because it's a huge commitment to go to Fest (the South African rand is weak, it costs a lot to travel, not to mention that you have to go through the rigorous process of getting a travel visa, so many of our friends just aren't in a financial position to go) and the South African punk scene is relatively small (so, we suspect we'd hear if anyone else had decided to go out to the U.S for Fest). This year I met Colin and Emma (hi guys!) who have introduced me to some great British bands and invited me to contribute to this blog (these are the sort of awesome people you find at Fest). After we started chatting, they became curious about the South African punk scene, as punk is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Africa, and so the idea for this post was born.
When thinking about how to approach this I decided to write from my perspective as a member of the Johannesburg punk scene, which is connected to the Pretoria punk scene as the two cities are only about an hour apart. You may know Johannesburg as the most dangerous city in the world; it's also been called the largest manmade forest in the world. We call it Jozi, Egoli (city of gold), Hate City, and the driving school of South Africa (our road rage is legendary). If you look it up you may recognise it as the place that the Hulk destroys in Avengers: Age of Ultron (the beginning of the first trailer for the film has a great shot of the city skyline); it's also where Dredd was filmed. Unlike other cities that are built near a water source, Joburg was built on a gold reef and grew out of the gold mining industry. It's dry and dusty in Winter, but does have an abundance of tree-lined streets. It's the economic centre of the country and the lifestyle is a lot more fast-paced than any of the other major cities in SA - but, it's not the original home of SA punk.
Photo Credit: Kirby Mania
I think it's fair to say that SA punk really originated in Durban, which is a seaside city and where Joburgers go on summer holiday. There's a surf and skate culture in Durban that evolved into an alternative scene including punk acts. In the 2012 documentary Punk in Africa, Durban is referred to as the "heart" of punk in SA. Much of my understanding of the roots of punk in SA comes from that documentary. The 1970s was a turbulent time in the country, with oppressive racist laws and large-scale protest action such as the 1976 Soweto uprising. Bands began to play rowdy music that spoke out against Apartheid and its clearly unjust laws, as well as army conscription because young white men didn't want to have to go fight for a government that they didn't support. This was a very dangerous position to take, as the Apartheid government would try to censor any art or music that spoke out against it and there was a real threat of being harassed by the police or being sent to jail. This continued through the 1980s, when just being a multiracial band like National Wake was a political statement. White and non-white South Africans were not meant to socialise together, so just booking a show when you have members from different races in your band was really difficult. These bands took huge risks to speak out against the horrific racist laws that our country was forced to live under, and I'm proud to be part of a scene that descends from these beginnings.
Brett and I are products of the post-1994 punk scene, in which the onset of democracy coincided with the rise of pop punk in the 90s. Soon after Desmond Tutu was talking about the "Rainbow Nation" of the new SA, radio stations were blasting Blink 182, The Offspring and Good Charlotte. We had our own pop punk bands and the biggest of these was Tweak. There is not a single person in the SA punk scene who has not rocked out to their song "Birthday Card" at some point in their life, and they were a gateway band for me and many others. We also benefitted from the rise of third wave ska and the bands in SA combined this American sound with elements of Afro-jazz. Two of my favourite bands of all time are Hog Hoggity Hog (Cape Town) and Fuzigish (Joburg). Both are fantastic live and have such a quintessential South African sound. As the two biggest ska bands in the country they were said to be in some sort of rivalry (in general, Cape Town and Joburg are meant to be rivals) but I don't think this was ever actually true. Sadly, the lead singer for the Hog recently passed away and the Hog don't play anymore. Fuzi is still going. In fact, they're playing a forty song set for their bassist's fortieth birthday this month and I'm really looking forward to it. Our scene is small, and most of us grew up seeing each other at the same shows - so there's a real community spirit every time a big band like Fuzi play. To me it feels like a reunion, or going to punk church.
I'd say the early 2000s is when I remember punk being at its height in Joburg. B# studios (who also released albums for Fuzi and Tweak) put out a compilation called "Family Business" that included the best SA punk, along with some bands on Fat Wreck and Hectic Records. *see photo* All the bands listed were SA punk heavy weights and were the soundtrack to Brett and my youth. Most of these bands are no longer going, but this compilation really reflects the sound of the SA scene and its influences. This compilation was also an attempt to take back the scene from commercial entities that were trying to get involved for their own profit. The back of the inside insert reads: This CD is the united reaction of the scene to inauthentic parties staking claims on subjects that they have only read about...The combined efforts of everyone in the scene is what you are holding in your hands. If this CD has anything to state it is the family-like unity ingrained in the scene and the strength and pride of our beliefs and the lives we live. This was also the era of the Punktuation festival (great name, right?) held at Thrashers skate park. Brett and I know that there were at least three Punktuations, and the line-up was essentially the SA bands included on the Family Business album. A notable highlight is Leek and the Bouncing Uptones, a ska-punk band from Pretoria. Many punk bands also played the big three-day festival called (perhaps predictably) Woodstock. The biggest Pretoria/Joburg festival now is Oppikoppi (this is a name derived from Afrikaans, meaning 'on the hill') but it offers a mishmash of bands. In fact, most SA shows are a mishmash. I remember going to shows where there would be three metal bands with one punk band thrown in. You learnt to deal with it.
The scene today is quite different. The people at shows are the same, but tastes have changed and many of these bands moved on to other projects. We still have awesome punk bands though: Half Price from Cape Town were just in Jozi doing some 15 year anniversary shows, The Slashdogs have been playing since 2003, Low Profile are a skate punk band from Durban that don't tour up here nearly enough, Cortina Whiplash and Japan & I are awesome all-female bands, with Japan & I belting out fun, edgy tracks while Cortina Whiplash have a more rock 'n roll vibe. Another amazing band from Durban - one of my favourite bands of the moment - is Black Math. They play a relentlessly loud and fast show that they're just starting to temper with slower sections/tracks (check out their song 'Endless Meat' to get an idea of what I mean). Other bands worth mentioning: The Deaf Commission, Brafcharge, The Left-Overs, Fridge Poetry, Misled, Brainwreck, Crossfire Collision, The Moths and The Carniwhores. I also have to mention the Afrikaans punk bands that have their own sub-scene: Fokofpolisiekar (fuck off police car), Van Coke Cartel, Straatligkinders (streetlight children) and Jaco & Z-dog.
In recent years, there have been some interesting developments. The skate punk scene in Soweto has blown up (alongside the Soweto hip hop scene) with Soweto Punk Revolution shows being organised in the township. Soweto is an important place in Joburg; the name stands for South West Township and it was an area designated for non-whites during Apartheid. It was the site of the 1976 Soweto uprising, in which thousands of children marched for better quality education taught in a language they could understand and were fired upon by Apartheid police, despite being unarmed. It's where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu lived for a time, and it's not a place that most white South Africans would choose to hang out in (because it's seen as a 'rough' area). In light of this, just organising regular punk shows in Soweto is crossing class and race boundaries in South Africa, which still persist as a hangover from Apartheid's political and economic segregation. The band at the centre of this scene is TCIYF (ahem...The Cum In Your Face), who have joined up with Skate Society Soweto to bring bands into the township to play for crowds there. Punk is traditionally seen as a Western or 'white' import, and over the years the shows have been primarily white (this doesn't represent the usual demographic of the country as 80% of the population is black), so the crossover into Soweto is progressive and exciting.
There's also been a growing folk punk and D.I.Y. scene in Joburg, with bands like Sloppy Folk, All These Wasted Nuts, Monday Morning Justice, South Shore Ramblers and The Shebeen (who just this week changed their name to The Shabs). Some of the guys from these bands are part of We Did This Records, releasing their own music and making every effort to bring more international acts to Joburg (they just announced that Leftover Crack will be touring next year!) As you can imagine, we're pretty starved for international shows down here at the tip of Africa; no one really tours. We've had NOFX come out, the Mad Caddies (still one of the best live shows I've ever been to) and Comeback Kid, but we've only had a handful in the past 10 years. When I see a band outside of SA I always try to convince them that it's worth making the trip down to come see us. We're a friendly and open group of people who would be only too happy to show you around and take you out. There are so many great things to see here, but I hope this has given you a little insight into the punk scene down in South Africa.