James Phillips, poet of the East Rand

Why does some art never leap the boundaries and time of its origins? Why does art that is locally and timeously powerful sometimes only appeal to a limited audience?

These were my questions after the screening, at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown/Makhanda, of The Fun’s Not Over, a film about the life and work of singer-songwriter James Phillips. The answers are not simple.

Firstly, one of the Phillips’ main contributions to popular resistance music was the album Wie is Bernoldus Niemand? Little Afrikaans literature, let alone popular music, has travelled beyond South Africa’s borders, even in translation. And English-speakers in South Africa, black or white, appear to have slight interest in Afrikaans literature or culture in the 21st Century. Demographics and language present real barriers, barriers that time builds higher. The zenith of Philips career – he died too soon for there to be a second act – was in the 1980s when he gave voice to disaffected younger white South Africans, particularly young men, whether they subscribed to philosophy of the liberation movements or not.

Some lines of probably the most popular song Phillips wrote and played with his band The Cherry-Faced Lurchers summed it up for a small group of whites:

Nowhere else in the world can you see so many monsters and mutations that creep out so
efficiently

And leave you wondering what happened to all those sacred things
They got shot down in the street
New morning, new morning
Old ways get away
But here in my cradle
I lie incapable
I’m a white boy who looked at his life gathered in his hands
And saw it was all due to the sweat of some other man
That one who got shot down in the street

This was the 1980s. Black people were fighting, openly and sometimes violently or simply by disobedience, a system that deprived them of their basic human rights and their dignity, a system that was intensifying repression even as it faced increasing global opprobrium and isolation. Most white people could ignore that and indulge in all the hedonistic freedom the State had to offer – with one Faustian proviso: young South Africans had to serve longer and longer dangerous terms in the military as part of the repressive regime. And even when they could avoid that burden, those with any sensitivity or moral intelligence could only temporarily ignore the bleak reality of the lives of their black countrymen.

Most conscripts found themselves in military browns and holding rifles before they became politically conscious enough to resist or elude conscription. Conscientious objectors, those who openly defied taking part in military service on political grounds, paid the heavy price of imprisonment.

Young white South African men suffered the unpleasant reality of conscription, many willingly. The unwilling and disaffected not only opposed Apartheid and the brutality it stood for but were also rebelling against the pinched, ungenerosity and hypocrisy of those in power and the warped obedience to State supposedly inculcated in them by the dour and unimaginative face of what was called Christian Nationalist Education. Only a few were drawn into the underground liberation movement. One alternative route of rebellion was rock, and then punk, music. This was a time when the memory of the public broadcaster banning the Beatles for being, in jest, compared in popularity to Jesus, was fresh and officialdom, strenuously European in pretensions, preferred classical or anodyne pop music.

The official music of Afrikanerdom was what English-speakers disparaged as “sakkie-sakkie” music, a genre invented to aid the growth of Afrikaner nationalism, featuring folksy instrumentals often dominated by the accordion, meant to be danced to in folk outfits harking back to the Great Trek of Afrikaners to freedom from English colonial rule in the Cape. Also popular was a type of country and western music represented by Jim Reeves, simple, repetitive tunes and simpler stories, beloved of rough, conservative working class whites.

Into this vacuum, and against this musical background, came the Bernoldus Niemand album.

The Niemand album is a curiosity for South Africans of newer generations, black and white, especially those thankfully never exposed to South African military call-up and national service of up to two years under the command of nationalist, racist and mostly Afrikaans-speaking Permanent Force soldiers. Permanent Force soldiers in the lower ranks such as the corporals also tended to be drawn from a class lower than that of the conscripts, particularly the English-speaking conscripts. They were what used to be known as “poor whites”, uneducated and unskilled and not fit for the world outside the military.

It must be stressed that a class difference exists even now between Afrikaans-speakers and English-speakers, with English-speakers still unconsciously willing to mock the accents and what they may consider, without knowing it, the relative lack of sophistication of their fellow white countrymen. English speakers’ opposition to Apartheid in the past seemed sometimes to be based on the fact that Afrikaners had come up with the concept, rather than that it was an extension of colonialism and global racism. It was also convenient to blame the Afrikaners.

Until after the Second World War in South Africa, racism meant the conflict between English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, not the subjugation and denigration of black people. A headline on a newspaper produced for the South African army operating in North Africa during World War 2 reads: “Racism in UDF (Union Defence Force)” and the article is about that conflict between Afrikaans-speaking and English-speaking South Africans.

The key song on the Bernoldus album was Hou My Vas, Korporaal, with its marching beat, reinforced by James’ mimicking of the Afrikaans marching order, Links-Regs, Links-Regs, Links-Regs, Links,” or “Left-Right, Left-Right, Left-Right, Left” in its peculiar Afrikaans army pronunciation, becoming “Lik-Jak, Lik-Jak, Looinks”.

The Korporaal in question was unlikely to hold you close, or “hou my vas”. He was probably a working class Afrikaans career soldier whose rank as corporal told you his lack of intelligence or class held him back from climbing to a rank higher than that of corporal, two ranks above private. He was rough, abusive, intolerant, often hung over, racist, and reveled in his petty power over you and black people, the only power he had. He was more likely to order you to do 20 push-ups or penalize you with guard duty or – as in the song send you running to a far landmark and back as exercise. This was usually done to a formula. He would point to a tree in the distance and say, “Sien jy daaie boom?” or “Do you see that tree?” The response had to be, “Ja, Korporaal”. He would then bark out orders to bring back a leaf from the tree, and you, the “troep” would have to run to the tree and back, often several times, depending on his whim.

Philips makes a joke about this in the song, making the Korporaal say in addition to, “Sien jy daaie boom?”, “Bring hom hier, ek will hom rook,” or “Bring it here I want to smoke it,” a pun on the word “boom” which means both tree and marijuana. Smoking marijuana or dagga was another act of defiance, indulging in the drug of the black man and the foreign, liberal hippies, and thereby thumbing one’s nose at the Calvinist morality of the Afrikaans and therefore dominant State church. The Korporaal probably drank copious amounts of cheap brandy instead of smoking dagga, and if he did smoke dagga he would have had to keep it secret. These things anyone who did national service would know.

The song itself repeats words and phrases common to the conscript experience, such as “Sal ek weer my Tjerrie sien, as ek van die trein afklim,” referring to the experience of having your girlfriend leave you while you completed your term of one to two years.

In the middle of the army nostalgia these lines hit home:

Oogklappe bring nie skoon gewete
Dis my plig, dis nie my keuse
Hier sit ek, ek sit en vrek
Dis nie my skuld maar ek hou my bek.

Wearing blinkers doesn’t clear the conscience
It’s my duty not my choice
Here I sit, I sit and perish like an animal
It’s not my fault but I just shut up
(The Korporaal is heard shouting a phrase familiar to conscripts and so characteristic of that particular form of authoritarian bullying, “Hou jou bek!”)

It was odd but fitting his eccentricity that Philips, an English-speaker, released an album in Afrikaans. The language of the South African Defence Force was Afrikaans, so Hou May Vas Korporaal, half protest song, half jest, had to be in that language. Yet other songs on the album are also in Afrikaans, and Philips had a greater grasp of the language than most English speakers to be able to write those songs. It would be better to say that he was bilingual, and that his identity was white South African, not English or Afrikaans. These categories were blurring in the 1980s, anyway, though they may have been resurrected after the arrival of democracy and renewed globalization. Perhaps they were merely submerged.

The other songs on the album have an ironic aspect, a humorous undertone, part of a detached observant personality which Philips could not suppress even when he briefly in his earlier life spurned his rebellious drink-and-drugs lifestyle and turned to an outward embrace of religion. He called himself “James the Boptist”.

Irony is often misperceived. James’ song My Broken Heart, for example, satirizes a certain kind of sentimental love song popular in the 60s. Boksburg Bommer, a catchy praise poem to one of our best white boxers – and one whom black South Africans also cheered, coincidentally – could also be a send-up. East Rand blues, an elaborate spoken duet between an Afrikaans speaker and an English speaker, both voiced by James, is pure satire, an elaborate and wonderful capture of a kind of sleaziness. James was an observer of zef before Die Antwoord made it fashionable. Snor City, in Afrikaans, homing in on the spooky conformism that was symbolized in the 1980s by a certain look that included moustaches and was prevalent in the capital, has many hilarious lines that satirise the paranoid policy of total onslaught. “If I was a terrorist I would have invented a moustache bomb.”

There’s an idea that James was making fun of Afrikaners with the Bernoldus album. While he was obviously contemptuous of the monsters bred by Apartheid, he shows too much affection for the subject matter, too much empathy for human beings, too much identification with South Africanness, especially for the kind of South Africans stranded in the cultural no-man’s land of the East Rand.

Poetry, I believe, lies in finding the universal in the specific, really looking at the details of life to identify meaning. Phillips’ songwriting puts a particular time-bound, geographically and demographically narrow, South African experience, and its music, under the microscope and sings the sorrow and the comedy of the absurdly cruel system in which we all lived, a system that imprisoned white people too, though with invisible, soul-draining chains of mediocre materialism.

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