Mervin Morkel, a classmate, introduced me to reggae at some point during the long months that we were out on national school boycotts in 1980. Deep in winter, and bored with the ‘alternative education’ programme – listening to speeches, singing ‘freedom songs’ that were mostly old spirituals or hymns – or wary that police action may be imminent, we stayed home. Mervin would visit, carrying his sought-after army knapsack brimming with vinyl records: Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Forces of Victory, Peter Tosh’s Equal Rights, Jimmy Cliff’s Follow my Mind, “Remake the world” from the latter featuring as a freedom song sung at ‘mass meetings’ at school:
Too many people are suffering
Too many people are sad
Too little people got everything
While too many people got nothing
Remake the world
With love and happiness
Remake the world
Put your conscience to the test…
Bob Marley in there also, of course. Kaya, Natty Dread, Rastaman Vibration, Zimbabwe, later Uprising.
Rapidly becoming politicised during that period, and knowing something about 1976 through stories from older cousins, family and friends – a great-uncle who was principal at Hewat Training College in Athlone; a family friend who was a driver at Groote Schuur and related stories about school children brought to the emergency ward: “Ya Allah, die kinners se wange oepgevlek soes guavas; die meisies met pie wat by hulle biene afstroem”* – we found in reggae an expression of what we were learning about racial oppression and what we were experiencing and seeing around us in our own neighbourhoods. And reggae was also a spur to further learning: about colonialism and racial oppression elsewhere, about the Bible and also about politics and culture, politics and poetry. And slavery.
While, in my memory, not silent on the history of slavery in South Africa, our history textbooks treated it as a given in footnotes, a normality in the development of South Africa, neutralising it to the point of invisibility and, somewhere along the way, South Africa’s colonial society had inculcated a deep disavowal of slavery amongst its descendants. Slavery in South Africa had become disembodied from our individual histories, washed from our consciousness – unlike, say, in the US, where even in the dubious archive of blaxploitation film, the history of New World slavery is never far from the surface, ready to burst into the open as a platform for defiance. Instead, slavery here was present only as a linguistic tic, reappearing in language only as a mark of shame, protest, disavowal: “Wat, dink djy ek is jou slaaf?”** Slavery was a distant, distant item in a general South African history and not something we felt as part of our identities, as part of our history in South Africa.
Reggae provided the final few pieces in a jigsaw puzzle we, as growing teenagers, had until then not realised existed. Or was the picture coming into view simply because of circumstance and the spirit of the times – knowledge hungry teenagers with a growing awareness of apartheid and, by the logic of that particular historical force, happening to fall also into a tradition of protest which leads to further quests? And does one see it as cruel coincidence? Were the paths down particular branches of enquiry determined by the forces of apartheid? Not to grant apartheid sole or fundamental agency in how I came to political consciousness, but could it be that when white friends claim teenage innocence, this is what they mean, that circumstances for them led down other branches, one of them being away from knowledge of apartheid? Where does individual agency separate off from forces of history? If apartheid and its legacy as rhetorical devices be put to bed, as many people wish it, it is by insisting on individual agency. That is, the individual, being no longer constrained by apartheid legislation, is their own agent and can transcend the legacy of apartheid. Does this mean that during their teenage years my white friends had been constrained by apartheid too, it determining, among other things, a particular focus of knowledge? Certainly. For me the most powerful argument against apartheid is that, in addition to producing material inequalities, it was also a psychological project that denatured normal human growth.
The claim to innocence is an acknowledgement that there is a legacy to apartheid, that that structure brought its force to bear on the intimate lives of even its beneficiaries. How does one transcend a legacy of innocence? Can we transcend it?
Somewhere, someone at school had a photocopy of an anti-colonial history of slavery – I forget the title; maybe it was passed along among the ‘leaders’, the student activists at school, and I was friends with one, SA—, who passed on the book to me. The book included those prints illustrating how slaves were packed sardine-like in the holds of ships. The tone of the book defiant, declamatory, accusatory. It was around this time too that a neighbour and family friend lent me Alex Haley’s Roots, a book that brought that history to life, a book that captured my imagination through its individual characters caught in that vast sweep of history: the individual, willy-nilly caught up in and framed by the greater forces of history. No matter that I would later learn about the controversies surrounding the book – plagiarism, made-up history – its power, in recollection, remains undiminished.
So there was New World slavery, present in its descendants’ popular memories, present in popular culture, in books and music. I guess in some sense there was a certain perverse glamour for us in this: the New World slaves’ descendants had made something of their slavery, were talking and singing about it. It was all there. Here, it seemed, we had forgotten about slavery as a point of departure for analysis; it was not an item in the popular consciousness, it was not something on which any sense of pride could be built: this is where we come from, look, here it is.
We were then in Standard 7 (Grade 9), attending Klein Nederburg Junior Secondary, a school hastily built with asbestos during the 1970s to accommodate a growing body of students as the two main high schools at that time, Noorder Paarl Senior Secondary and Paulus Joubert Secondary were running out of space. Of course, this was also to accommodate the children of families displaced by the Group Areas Act. KN (Ka-En) offered the first two years of high school (thus ‘Junior Secondary’), after which one completed the last three years at either Paulus Joubert, in the eastern, working-class neighbourhoods, or at NP, which by then was becoming known as a glampy school (etymology unknown, possibly from ‘glamorous’), catering to ‘bourgeois’ children, in our new, politicised vocabulary. NP was glampy to a certain extent, but teenagers from all over attended it, from Charleston Hill, Elridge Estate and New Orleans, yes, but also from the more thoroughly working-class neighbourhoods like Chicago, New York,*** Klein Nederburg, Amstelhof; and also pupils from Wellington and Franschhoek, and pupils from Wemmershoek, children of Bosbou-workers (State Forestry); pupils whose fathers were prison warders at Victor Verster Prison, and pupils from farms, of whom I had a friend, later at NP, who favoured me with apples large as cannonballs.
KN, the school, was a fifteen minute walk from our house in New Orleans, and situated in a working class area of free standing and semi-detached council houses, and Magnolia Flats, a group of three- or four-storey apartment-blocks built with cement brick. The Hugo River, a small tributary of the Berg River, bordered Klein Nederburg on the north, separating the neighbourhood also from Chicago, a poorer neighbourhood and one which you didn’t voluntarily visit, least of all at night. It was one of the most rop of the working-class neighbourhoods (rop as verb to be means “to rob”, as complement it means lawless; interchangeable with rof – rough). Even skirting it along the far pavement of dual carriageway Van Der Stel Street on the way between Klein Nederburg and New Orleans, was a nerve-bitten endeavour (for me). In fact, I was mugged close to Chicago one day, walking home from school and lost my first watch to Ougat, a short stout of a boy with a mean ‘fuck-you’ face. I know his nickname only because, driving through Chicago that afternoon with my uncle the panel-beater, we spotted the boy, who dashed away, my uncle giving chase on foot, rattling an unburnished sabre (‘Slamse swaard’) in his hand. The boy could run and dodge, and disappeared somewhere upstream of the Hugo. My uncle asked a few questions, made it known that he knew one of Chicago’s main dagga smugglers (who’s cover was fruit and vegetable hawking and who grew up with my uncle in Malei Straat). It turned out that Ougat ‘worked’ for the smuggler. But he never returned, or perhaps his employer just couldn’t care enough about a miserable watch.
The boundaries between neighbourhoods were, of course, not rigid. On its eastern side Klein Nederburg almost organically gave way again to areas of middle-class housing stretching south to Klein Drakenstein Road and beyond, itself interspersed with smaller houses and poorer households so that in one street a desperately poor family – bricklayer, single income, five school-going children – would be living next to a household with two teachers’ incomes, then still a largely respected profession with a respectable income. And eastwards, towards Du Toit’s Kloof, the area would meld again into Die Rug (literally ‘the back’, but possibly meaning ‘ridge’) and Amstelhof’s council houses. Even Elridge Estate, with new, privately built palaces, also had older, pre-Group Areas Act houses: solid post-war houses, two or three-bedroomed, some with large families – multi-income, but lower middle-class income nevertheless – houses that were starting to look shabby among the new houses being built by doctors, lawyers, building contractors whose businesses were finally bearing fruit, insurance salesmen who clearly were good at gaining commission, supermarket owners, even homeowners who had built businesses as ‘brokers’ (hawkers).
Like so many of these projects in other neighbourhoods in Paarl, as well as in other parts of South Africa, the grounds of Magnolia Flats were dusty and stony, fields of gravel strewn with broken glass and litter. Greenery was either patches of grey bushy veld or thorns as groundcover, left behind from the minimum clearance of the original building site. In a parking area for residents there may be a car on blocks, the owner hoping to get money together to fix it; in another, a car wholly abandoned, missing door, now a smashed windscreen as well, victim of either vandals or a running gang fight. And huddles of scowling young men, skollies and daggaroekers, perhaps future gangsters.
Mervin lived in Magnolia Flats, but would visit me in New Orleans. As my parents were both at work, and my brother and I had a rudimentary hi-fi (a second-hand, cheap three-in-one, one of those that could be powered by a PM9 battery) squeezed into the small bedroom, we could smoke freely and turn the music up. Other friends and perhaps one of my best friends, W—, might be there too, all squeezed into that small space, listening to reggae, assimilating and simulating Rasta-speak. Mervin and I eventually focussed on reggae, shunning other forms of music as ‘bubble-gum’. Eventually, we saw ourselves as sufferers, trodding through Babylon (the past tense of “tread” used here itself as verb to be). “Hey,”, Mervin might say, “dis four bells. Ek gaan nou eers trod.”****
The Pink Floyd was an exception. Before it was banned in South Africa, ‘Another brick in the wall (II)’ from The Wall had enjoyed airplay and, given its lyrics rejecting an education of control and repression, in the broad racial division of music markets, it had crossed over. Some friends owned the 7” single. Lyrics from the song often appeared on protest posters. But Mervin, who had an enviable musical sensibility, also owned The Dark Side of the Moon, which he tried to get me to listen to, one day, at his home, pointing out the atmospherics layered into the music. But the lyrics made no sense to me and the abstract cover-art held no interest. I shook my head as he impressed on me how amazing that heartbeat was, how it always invoked anxiety in him. I wanted to see more photographs of sufferers trodding the dusty paths of Jamaica. I wanted to listen to lyrics that spoke more directly about oppression. When I eventually started listening to The Wall two years later, I was astounded by how it spoke to me,how the personal and the psychological could be turned into art, and how that complemented the themes of oppression found in reggae.
It was not difficult becoming a Rasta sufferer. Some of the photographs of the shantytowns and poor neighbourhoods of Jamaica used as album cover-art could have been taken in Paarl. Barring the flora, the dusty roads and yards of Trenchtown, the scrawny dogs, the feel of summer heat, the look on people’s faces, the signs of poverty, of the sufferer’s life, were strangely familiar. Over and above the righteous messages from reggae and Rastafarianism, discernible beyond the visual in the photographs of Rastafarians trodding about was something familiar, something universal, and a frame that we easily transplanted onto our own environment: the heat of a summer’s day radiating from blocks of flats and small houses, some with a shed or shack in the backyard, the web of footpaths, stony and dusty and shimmering, the sunned skin, shiny with sweat, of people encountered and passed along footpaths, all was part of the same system, our own Babylon.
Soon, we were hunting for the kind of militarist clothing we saw Rastafarian musicians, mostly from Britain, wearing, and their wardrobes of necessity (cheap clothing at army surplus stores) turned into a fashion with political undertones for us. But Sergeant Pepper’s in Cape Town was still undiscovered to us, and would have been too expensive. Nevertheless, someone somewhere always had a cousin or brother or someone they knew who was or had been in the SADF (Coloured Corp), an employer to many working-class people, but also some from the middle-classes, and from whom they secured a brown shirt or a green beret or a knapsack. Aunts were harangued to knit scarves and tams in red, yellow and green. Ribbon of the same colours we used to fashion small insignias and stick them to berets and shirt pockets with a very sticky double-sided tape. I had a beret festooned with a chain (oppression, naturally) and Rasta colours (liberation). Not having the money for a ghetto blaster worthy of the name, Mervin and I took to trodding Paarl with a respectable portable tape player, hanging out sometimes at Huguenot train station, where there was a good fish-and-chips shop close by. But most days we didn’t have money for fish-and-chips, and consoled ourselves that our sufferation was all good and well, and made us better Rastafarians.
Try as we might, though, our hair would not turn into dreadlocks, even when a few years after I had lost my interest in Rastafarianism, Mervin was still trodding and his hair had grown matted without turning into dreadlocks. By my first year at university, I discovered that Mervin was working at Kohler Corrugated, the cardboard packaging factory down the road in Oosbosch Street, where my father was a general mechanic, maintaining trucks, forklifts and conveyer belts. “Daai jong met die verslonste hare? Nee, hy kom dikgeroek werk toe,” my father once told me.*****
Mervin had been the truer Rastafarian and had started smoking ganja, hanging as he did with a growing band of real Rastafarians close by Magnolia flats. The strictures of my household, partly Islamic, kept me from doing the same: my brother and I did not have the freedom to hang out in huddles with people who in my parents’ eyes were or could be skollies. Except for my deep love of reggae, I felt that to Mervin I was probably ‘glampy’, a word he always managed to, not spit out, but say dripping with derision in his quiet manner when, for instance, referring to middle-class fellow pupils at NP. With some envy, I listened to Mervin’s stories about the latest gumba held in Orleans Park, the drumming, the chanting, the smoking. For me, the pleasures of skanking to a reggae beat while high on marijuana was still a few years off.
* Ya Allah, die kinders se wange oopgevlek soos guavas; die meisies met pie wat by hulle bene afstroom/ By God, the children with their cheeks split like guavas; the girls with pee streaming down their legs.
** What, do you think I am your slave?
*** By what irony did the city planners at that time name these neighbourhoods after iconic US cities.
**** Hey, it’s four o’clock. I’m going to go now.
***** That lout with the neglected hair? No, he comes to work highly stoned.