Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

Why Punk in Africa Fails to Capture the Spirit of Punk

Why <em>Punk in Africa</em> Fails to Capture the Spirit of Punk


Who suffered the most under apartheid? An individual unfamiliar with the repressive history of the once-militarized South African Republic might believe, after watching Deon Maas and Keith Jones’s Punk in Africa, that white folks really got the worst of it. Though the film talks about black problems, it focuses visually on the white experience. The story begins by describing a jackbooted, sanitized atmosphere where the height of good living was thought to be all sunny skies and Chevrolets, and young whites hungry for anarchy realized they were living in an “oasis of boredom.” While history tells us that black citizens were bitten by rabid police dogs and hurled into the obscurity of prisons, the film showcases the white South Africans, who were lolling around in this haven of mediocrity and repression as if waiting for Kevin Bacon to blow into town so he could show them how to be footloose. In the 1970s, punk arrived instead. Just think of the trademark style: road-spike hair, shredded shirts and air-conditioned jeans, grim leather, chain slings, and in-yer-face tattoos to accompany the androgyny. And let’s not forget the caustic language of its yammering youth. To quote the film: “What’s after irony?” “Fuck you.”

Punk is a style without a guidepost, music refusing to conform; once it does, the sound ceases to be punk, because punk is anti-everything—it is even against itself. However, once punk rooted itself into South African culture, the outward trappings of the style transformed. Unable to publicly adopt the gnarly lip rings and transgressive behavior associated with the music (for this would have spelled jail sentences and worse), punk in South Africa was forced underground. In clandestine clubs, free-form dancers—looking to break free from their straight-jacket lives—could flaunt their rip-and-run style while zonking out to the tin-fluted, reggae-inflected, scraping-calabash, soca-and-samba-style mishmash of sounds. One of the more interesting phenomena this documentary spotlights is how altered this sturn und drang music had become once it reached African shores. Though there were a few early bands heavy on the industrial slang and trash-rhythms, such as Wild Youth and National Wake, over time the music became softer, more rhythmic, and far more danceable than it ever was in London or New York City. Punk in Africa became more about the freeing of bodies, and even the swaying language of love, than a celebration of entwicklungshemmung.{{1}}

Meanwhile, ever since the 1948 ascendancy of the Afrikaner National Party, blacks in South Africa were segregated, terrorized, and stripped of their citizenship. The main voice of dissent (and, as it would turn out, a guerilla fighter who practiced the arts of sabotage), Nelson Mandela, had been thrown into prison just at the height of his activities. It was only after 1984 that apartheid was abolished, but some would argue that the effects of that four-decade period of violence and repression are still being felt.

It seems strange, then, that music with a reputation for being so anti-establishment wouldn’t at least try to alter the socio-political landscape of a country with that type of political atmosphere.

[pullquote_right]Can we be led to believe that punk did nothing to assail apartheid and cast allegiance with the righteous cause of black people?[/pullquote_right]

Aside from the shuttering of one club, we never hear of a musician being clapped into jail, or of any overt examples of direct revolt against the system. Can we be led to believe that punk did nothing to assail apartheid and cast allegiance with the righteous cause of black people? And if this were truly the case, then shouldn’t the filmmakers make it a point to explain why?

The film strains to demonstrate how punk acted as a force against apartheid; we are privy to sparse and questionable anecdotal references to acts of heroism that are never confirmed visually or alluded to via historical record. What we see instead is that punk music in South Africa did little more than inspire a welter of bodies in a concert hall to reach the point of ignition. Were there any uprisings inspired by punk during its nearly thirty-year reign in South Africa? Mass demonstrations against government officials? We aren’t given any examples of destructive, even anti-establishment behavior.

Compare the work of countercultural musicians both past and present: Sid Vicious, leader of the Sex Pistols, once trashed the office of the managing director of A & M, capping the havoc he wreaked by puking on the man’s desk; Bob Dylan & Joan Baez sought interdiction of the Vietnam War and the U.S. government’s overseas depredations in the ’60s; in the ’70s Bob Marley translated his Rastafari tenets for a mass audience and reflected his desire to rout out racial oppression and political corruption in Trench Town and beyond; and, most blatantly, think about the Russian punk-rock collective Pussy Riot, whose anti-Putin performance in a cathedral earned them two-year stints in prison camps, cited especially for their  “criminal hooliganism” (making them the supreme standard bearers for punk, in addition to casting them as the Solzhenitsyns of our time).

There is an onslaught of visual information on display in Punk in Africa, and lively performances that clearly demonstrate an enduring love for the music. The lo-fi footage captures the spirit of punk—a genre tack-welded with differing styles—but, with a serious deficit of knowledgeable talking heads, the role of punk music in South African culture remains unclear. This may also be a consequence of the filmmakers’ overreliance on clips from social media that seek—in vain—to explain the storm of unruly passions that comprise the music, and their negation of the tried-and-true method of shoe-leather reportage works against the narrative they struggle to conjure, namely the symbiotic relationship between punk and African styles of music. There are no interviews with “inziles”—artist dissidents who chose to remain in their embattled homelands, even though their inflammatory music could not be broadcast to the general public due to constricting laws prohibiting anti-apartheid messages, nor is there any mention of famed South African exiles who were able to reach a wider public with their resistance music, such as Miriam Makeba (known affectionately as Mama Africa), though we are given the by-now obligatory reference to Fela Kuti.

Another point overlooked is punk in general. After viewing this documentary, anyone unfamiliar with the provenance of the genre would think that it could have sprung from anywhere, say, the dim warrens and smoky ruins of Eastern Europe. We aren’t offered any signal examples of punk’s singularly chaotic standard bearers, who would have swilled cockroach vomit if that equaled breaking society’s rules. Firebrand performers like Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, and the Clash were at the forefront of the scene. So perhaps Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence is at work. A society seeking to rediscover its own creative center would understandably wish to begin with a clean slate by sloughing off precedents that have emerged from imperial monoliths such as the United States and the United Kingdom. But to distort or present factual material in an attenuated manner is less forgivable. In this film, the beleaguered history of South Africa is delivered in a haphazard fashion. Touchstone events, such as the massacre of high-school students during the Soweto Uprising are mentioned in passing, and left unexplained.

In the end, Punk in Africa is too overcome by awe; the directors seem to be in love with the fact that energetic musicians were able to exist in such a sterile environment, yet refuse to engage in the deep-tissue research required to examine the corpus of what they deemed a movement. Though we can’t blame the South African musicians for not bringing change—they were forced beneath the soil, where only a certain few were given access to their sometimes anti-apartheid lyrics—we can blame the filmmakers for failing to tell us more about the underground activities, and how the musicians strove to influence their exacting world. Instead, what they present is a corpse lazily dissected, giving us the familiar organs of an enterprise that plays out with the high speed of a VH1 or MTV mockumentary, as opposed to the special intricacies, and the secret majesty, that can be divulged from every hidden form when in the hands of knowledgeable craftsmen.

[[1]] Arrested development.[[1]]