In no-man’s land I got lost

In niemandsland het ek verdwaal — “In no-man’s land I got lost.”
— Johannes Kerkorrel

t face=”Verdana,Geneva,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif” size=1>”Don’t use fugitive inks.”
— Robert Genn

What happens when an enfant terrible who spent much of his creative professional life holding a mirror to the ugliness of a culture, dies? On Tuesday, 12 November 2002, Johannes Kerkorrel, the apartheid era’s bad boy in contemporary music, committed suicide. The apartheid era is a matter of history according to most politicos here, but pussyfooting around sensitive issues like the cultural avant-garde is still, it seems, scarily sensitive.

The human thing about South African culture which was criss-crossed with legislation and bureaucracy for well nigh fifty years, was the subcultures that proliferated behind the scenes, and in many respects, punctuated what could easily have been an intolerable existence. And, don’t get me wrong: intolerable it was for many on both sides of the colour bar. But here, I speak of the broadly unpigmented ones who spoke in tongues of Dutch-extraction. Or, more directly, Afrikanerdom.

To all intents and purposes, Afrikaans-speaking white South Africa was the epitome of evil to the rest of the world. After all, these were the kind of people who spawned apartheid and who, by virtue of their cultural orientation and mother-tongue, must have been of the calibre of the Daniel Malans and the Hendrik Verwoerds of this world. They were the architects of a restrictive mindset, who dressed their women-folk in narrow shuttering black bonnets, spattered their language with pejorative racist terms to the point where it became common parlance and not noticeable, who were militarily heterosexual, upright, polite and civilized, and who were behind the scenes bullies, victimizers and cowards.

But hey. In this world, where we hold a deep awareness of the ways in which we cannot generalize, label, or otherwise discriminate against others, something seems to be falling through the system. There were, after all, Germans during the mid-century who were not Nazis.

In Afrikaner alternative music and poetry, Johannes Kerkorrel was like the Bob Dylan of white South Africa during the 1980s. But he’s been given other titles which embrace his importance to a culture that had been neglected and misaddressed for a long time. Kerkorrel, was, after all, the first creative practitioner to give the Afrikaans language and social dynamic exposure in the media. Indeed, from this point of view, he was instrumental in freeing the language as an expressive tool rather than a prescriptive weapon.

The “godfather of Afrikaans music” was born Ralph Rabie in Johannesburg in 1960. Kerkorrel did a number of turnabouts in his creative and professional career. Employed as a journalist for the Afrikaans medium daily, Rapport, in 1986 he made his stage debut, performing politically satirical cabaret. This heralded a time in his career when he began exploiting the material endemic to apartheid rule; from cloying love songs, children’s hymns, such as What a friend we have in Jesus to the national anthem, for his own bitingly funny and profoundly politically critical ends. Indeed, his pseudonym, Kerkorrel, translates to “church organ”, an ironic extrapolation of the Calvinist and extremely conservative upbringing that was the lot of many white Afrikaners.

Public performance of his work at festivals and very briefly in the media led him to be viewed askance by the socio-political powers that were. The heavily legislated platforms, which sanctioned very little of a creative nature, frowned heavily on awards he won and acclaim achieved.

In the following year, his band, Johannes Kerkorrel en die Gereformeerde Blues Band, was born. Again, a title poking a bit of rather serious and legally punishable fun at the establishment of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, which was central to so much pettifoggery and narrow social biases. The band comprised other alternative Afrikaans practitioners, such as André Letoit, a.k.a. Koos Kombuis (Koos Kitchen), and James Phillips, a.k.a Bernoldus Niemand (Bernoldus Nobody). It was also in this year that Kerkorrel was fired from his position as a journalist on the grounds that he was using the words of the then prime minister, P. W. Botha, as material for his hard hitting satire: a crime which was punishable by the state. And thus he began making music full time.

To the traditional rhythms of a blues composition, he articulated his horror at seeing P.W. Botha’s unpleasant face ubiquitously plastered all over the media, in his song Sit dit af!(put it off!). He made direct mockery of the nouveau riche generated by apartheid, with their pettiness, political narrowness and general nonsense, in a ballad called Ons ry a BMW (We drive a BMW). With his music he poeticised the ugliness of innercity decay and the vagaries of the lives that were subject to having their land raped by white settlers in songs like Hillbrow, a place of one of Johannesburg’s more notorious flat lands where the seedier side of society found sanctuary.

The late 1980s saw the first alternative Afrikaans rock concert in Johannesburg, with Kerkorrel at its forefront. This concert represented an opportunity for apartheid-sated Afrikaans youth to free itself of the incriminating chains of an apartheid mindset. In so many respects, it was like the Woodstock of Afrikanerdom. Not only did it tour the country amidst fierce anger from the authorities and fervent support from the youth, black and white alike, but it rocked the country in popularity, in bums on seats, and in controversy. In 1989, Eet Kreef (Eat Lobster), the GBB’s first album, was released. Each fresh, hard-hitting and rather beautiful single was predictably banned by the broadcasting corporation of the country. Other CDs subsequently released include Bloudruk(1990), Cyanide in the Beefcake (1994), Ge-Trans-For-Meer (1996), Tien jaar later (1999), Johannes sing Koos du Plessis (1999) and Die ander kant (2000).

Like many creative practitioners in South Africa, Johannes Kerkorrel was snapped up with alacrity in popularity ratings in the west, and became very sought after in the early 1990s in Belgium. The generally Afrikaans lyrics were understandable in the Netherlandish regions and the picture presented by these lyrics was different to that being broadcast on any official channels. Better still, it was neither sanctioned nor spindoctored. It came from the raw experience of alternative Afrikaans culture, but also from that of many South Africans, who could not find their own means to articulate these strong and politically subversive emotions.

The Afrikaner psyche, reading between the beautiful lines cast by Kerkorrel, was made complex by apartheid, fraught with self-hatred and anger, amongst other things. Kerkorrel and his friends had the courage to reveal the lie in the sweeping image that apartheid represented for the Afrikaans-speaking white. But there was a price. In becoming verboten on any level of mainstream consumption, creativity was difficult. Getting local acknowledgement was well nigh impossible. And retaining one’s status for ground broken bravery, was not to be. Obituaries for Kerkorrel speak of an estranged wife and child, but make no mention of his bereaved gay lover, and his proudly “out” status in the sub-community.

It seems that the price one pays for being alternative to a very tight and well-defined culture is that even in death, they will squeeze you back into their value structures. The South African world cannot deny the fame and glory which Kerkorrel earned in spite of the status quo, but nor can they remove the bad-boy stigma. It remains to be seen whether his music, which sits like a malignant spider on the roses of saccharine ditties in Afrikaans music sections in CD shops, will be recognised for the power it represents.