Tim Hopwood, fotograaf, deel sy herinneringe van die Voëlvry-beweging
What follows is the text from my book of photographs of the Voëlvry Tour; that incredible time in 1989 when young Afrikaners rose up in their thousands and said “We’ve had enough of this shit” to their leaders.
I am back in the darkroom again, after an absence of 6 years. I never went digital. Instead I became a songwriter, after being a photographer for 20-odd years. But now I have started shooting again. And I was persuaded by a young Afrikaans friend to dig out and exhibit my images of the Voëlvry Tour for the KKNK.
So here I am in the only darkroom east of the Sundays River, at Rhodes University, where I had studied from 1989. This time I am staying with friends on a farm just outside Riebeek East, and driving into Grahamstown each day. Each day I churn out my lith prints. They require long developing times, 6 or 7 minutes, and as the developer becomes exhausted, much longer. Longer than standard black and white prints. For the first 5 minutes one sees only a faint, ghostly image. Then the blacks start to come, and quickly they spread over the whole print, like a fire out of control. It’s then that you have to pluck the print and throw it in the acid stop-bath.
Watching the ghostly figures of James Phillips and Johannes Kerkorrel appear is unsettling. The darkroom is a good place for being unsettled, for thinking. Each night I drive the little dirt road back to Riebeek East. The same road James was on when he had the car smash that led to his death. More than any of the others these last few weeks, I find it is Phillips who I think about the most. He was the only one I never met. I met Kerkorrel several times. I gave him prints, and designed a poster for his show in PE. I shared a commune with Koos for 6 months, and he and Valiant Swart stayed in our house during a Grahamstown Festival. But even though by many accounts it was Phillips who started it all, he is an enigma to me. And he was a soutie, like me.
My father is English/Irish. My mother is English-speaking but is a direct descendant of Jacob Cloete, who came here in 1652. Some Cloetes moved to the Eastern Frontier in the 18th century. In the early 1800s when all those boats arrived full of Scottish and English girls, many of the Boers in the Eastern Province learned to speak English pretty smartly and married Settler girls. So I have Afrikaans blood, but I’m a soutie.
I never knew Afrikaners when I was growing up. I made my first Afrikaans friends when I was 18. I thought my father would dislike them. He hated the government vehemently and would hurl abuse at the TV screen every night. I guess I heard my dad shout “Turn that bloody tit off!” often enough and for long enough before I heard “Sit Dit Af.” He was referring to PW, of course.
But he seemed to like my Afrikaans friends.
In many respects I was a typical English South African, culturally. I listened to all the music my older brothers listened to, music from overseas. I first heard Dark Side of the Moon when I was seven and was completely captivated by it. When I was alone in the house I would play it very loud.
My first experience of a local band was going to watch Juluka in PE when I was 17. It was a life-changing experience. From then I attended the Four Winds Folk Club every Sunday night, in a dingy downtown hall. But there wasn’t much in the way of protest music, and certainly nothing in-your-face. But it was live, and that was all that mattered.
In 1989, I went to study photography under Obie Oberholzer at Rhodes University. My best friend was a guy called Roger Christian from Cape Town. He had all these subversive Shifty Records tapes: The Kerels, Corporal Punishment, Illegal Gathering and Kalahari Surfers. But I never liked them much. I was outta reach by then.
You see, I had come to loath all the eighties music. Maybe because it spoke of nothing. What did a band like AHA have to say to me, living in a country at war with itself? I hated all those bands. Modern Talking, OMD, Howard Jones, all those horrible keyboards. People who say the eighties had the best music have rocks in their heads. When I hear white South Africans reminisce about the eighties and say it was all about bad hairdos and great music I wonder what planet they were on. The eighties were about riots in the townships, civil war, PW, brutal repression and the Total Onslaught. They still play Modern Talking on Radio Algoa in PE, can you believe it. Never heard them play Koos or Kerkorrel. And James Phillips? Forget it.
At high school I had begun listening to some of the eighties junk coming from overseas. But when I left school and spent 3 years at the PE Tech Art School, I joined the Bluesway Record Library. And that was the end of the eighties for me. I went back in time, back to all my brothers’ music: Neil Young, Dylan, Van Morrison, Rodriguez, The Doors, Pink Floyd. And I discovered some of my own: John Martyn and Nick Drake. So I guess, musically, the stuff Roger played was too anarchic for me.
Then in 1985, I heard the Waterboys’ This is the Sea, and U2’s Joshua Tree, and watched with delight as all that keyboard rubbish died, and heartfelt guitars were back. I found out years later that This is the Sea had been a favourite of Koos Kombuis and his friends. There was something in that album that was incredibly transcendent and redemptive, and very real and sincere, too. And I guess that’s what we all wanted: redemption. We carried so much guilt and so much anger. It was a crazy time, especially in a conservative city like PE. You could easily pretend it was all OK, and not think about it. But if you did think about it, the truth would, like Riaan Malan said, “bury its poisonous claws in your head and drive you insane.”
So by the time Voëlvry passed through Grahamstown I had, to a large extent, drifted off, musically speaking. But I went with Roger to the gig that night, in the town hall.
We were a bit late and had missed Koos’s set. Not that I would have known. Few of us in Grahamstown had heard of him. We walked in on Bernoldus Niemand en die Swart Gevaar.
It was a brutal assault on my senses. From never having seen a rock band in my life I suddenly found myself being blasted into orbit by what was probably the tightest, loudest outfit in the country. What struck me like a sledgehammer was the sound of Hanepoot van Tonder’s trombone. It was so fucking loud – in that small space! As if having just walked into a war zone, I hauled my camera out and immediately began shooting. By the end of their set I had shot off almost all my film. I think I had only brought two or three rolls anyway. I know I must have shot at least a few of Kerkorrel that night, because three months later I weaseled my way into his Grahamstown festival show for free by giving him a print of himself. And it was there, that night, that the strangest most bizarre coincidence happened.
Once again I had only taken two rolls of film with me. We shot carefully in those days, no banging away like a monkey that people do in the digital era. Two rolls was enough. And Obie was teaching us how to see well, and expose well, and think before you shoot.
I came to the second roll and shoved it in. What I didn’t realise till the next day was that it was a roll that had already been exposed. I had shot a few rolls a few weeks prior as part of a little photo essay I did on a guy called Louis, who was the church organ player at the Anglican cathedral. I photographed the rituals he went through before he practised, how he ascended the narrow little flight of stairs to the organ bare-footed, and took shots of him putting on the shoes he would leave there, tying the laces, then some of him at the organ. So that’s what I saw when I took the film out to hang in the dryer: Kerkorrel superimposed over a kerkorrel.
I was devastated. It was a mistake, and Obie told me I was a fuck-up for being slapgat with my film. That was the way we all worked. Chance played no role in photography. That all changed with me over the years, but at that time, that’s the way I was. I liked the fact that it was Kerkorrel over a kerkorrel, but it hadn’t been intentional. It wasn’t precise. I printed only one or two shots from those gigs, and carried on my photographic journey, which was at the time not a documentary one. I only looked at those shots again many years later. After the Voëlvry book came out.
The year after Voëlvry, my digs-mates and I got a call responding to an ad we placed in the Mail and Guardian, offering accommodation during the festival. It was from some guy in Stellenbosch called Louis and he was bringing some bands to Grahamstown. The bands were Koos and Valiant Swart’s bands.
So I am one of the clever God-despising liberal students Koos writes about in Short Drive to Freedom. I am the one who went pale when I saw the pile of dagga Acid Alex was contemplating, and disappeared for the remainder of the festival. It makes for a good story, but the truth is more mundane. I did indeed go pale, because our house often got raided by the cops, as there were NUSAS people living there. But I had my first exhibition at the festival, so I had to sit at the venue every day. And I also had a job as assistant to the exhibitions manager for the festival. Besides, in those days I didn’t despise God at all. I was too shy to say boo or bah to anyone, let alone God. That was Jimmy Roth and Mark Stein, who would go on about how they’d like to fuck God up the bum, but Koos only got to know them the following year, and I only got to know Koos the following year too, when he returned to live on the property for about 6 months. I think he liked Grahamstown, ‘cos none of us treated him like a big star. I think what Koos has done is blend me, Jimmy and a few others into one persona. But it made for a good story, and a good story it is.
Those 12 days with the Swart Kombuis living in our house were completely insane. Especially to our landlord, who nearly had a baby when he saw the wreck they left. He threw his toys. Breach of contract, this that and the next thing. Fortunately Jimmy got most of the blame, because he was an economics student and “should have known better.”
On the last day the plumbing collapsed, flooding the bathroom and passage. They never used the dustbin. Acid Alex did most of the cooking. Potato peels, chicken carcasses, leftover rice and all the rest were simply thrown in the corner of the kitchen in a pile that got very large. Their manager, this Broodryk fellow, seemed to operate at an extremely high frequency. You never saw him at the house. But you’d see him all over town in his kombi putting up posters, handing out flyers, constantly on a mission. I began to wonder where he found the time to even take a shit.
My question was answered by Irene, the lover of my friend Vos Van der Merwe. They had come to stay for a few days and one day she was taking a bath. Suddenly the door burst open and the volcanic eruption of energy that was Louis marched past her to the toilet, stating, more than asking: “Mind if I have a shit?” and simply pulled down his pants and took a dump with Irene still sitting in the bath.
Another friend from PE called Gary came to stay for a few days, but only lasted one night. He was straight out of school and the Swart Kombuis was all just too much for him. When he came across one of the groupies taking a piss standing over the toilet, with the door wide open, he fled.
Various people made the lounge their home, and if I or one of my friends woke up in the night, it was easier to go take a piss in the garden than to negotiate one’s way through the lounge past all the bodies, some sleeping, some passed out in post-coital slumber and some still copulating.
Both the lounge door and my bedroom door opened onto the veranda, and one night, on hearing a knocking, I opened the door on a small very dishevelled man. He looked like he had been in a fight and he had scabs on him. He reminds me a bit, now that I think back, of Conrad Botes the time I met him in Cape Town, when he had just, a few days before, fallen off his motorbike. Come to think of it maybe it was Conrad Botes. He was often in Grahamstown those years, selling Bitterkomix.
“Excuse me I’m looking for the Black Kitchen.” Rubbing sleep from my eyes, it took me a second or two to register. “Oh, right… Swart Kombuis. Go through this door alongside here.”
One night I walked into my room tired, and probably a bit drunk, to find a thin figure, probably a girl, asleep on the floor, with a blanket thrown over her. I went to Koos and asked “Who’s that girl asleep in my room?” to which he replied “No, that’s your friend Ric.“ Ric was a sculptor from PE who I never ever saw eat anything. He just drank lots of whisky and took loads of drugs. He’d spent his first night at the festival sleeping in the autobank room on campus.
And so it was that the only documentation of that time I have access to is Ric’s sketchbook, where he wrote down snippets of conversation and did little drawings. He hung out with them every day, and from him I gathered they had a routine. They would wake up around midday, long after I’d gone off to work, or to my exhibition. Then they would drink and smoke. They rarely left the house. A multitude of people would drift in and out. They never saw any shows or exhibitions or anything. Then at about 10pm Louis would arrive in the kombi and load them all up to take them to their show in a basement at PJ Olivier Hoërskool. I went to one of their shows with Ric and Vos but all I recall is that it was very loud, and extremely hot and smoky.
It is my greatest photographic regret that I did not photograph what went down in that house. My approach then was to construct images, not photograph life as it unfolded. Dumb, but it’s where I was at the time. And anyway, I was too shy. I think Koos took that shyness as some kind of aloofness, or even rudeness, because after a few days he came to me and said, “Hey listen we been living in your house since, like, last week, and we don’t know you. Come have a drink with us.”
So I sat with them in the room with the fireplace, and drank. Then I smoked a joint, which made me much, much more shy. It was a no-win situation. I do recall though that Acid Alex was the joint-roller. He had a huge pile of zol in front of him and for the two or three hours I sat there with them all he did was roll joints. Enormous joints. As soon as he had finished one, he would fire it up and pass it on. Then he would immediately begin work on the next one. I’d never seen anything quite like it.
Apart and aside from all this mayhem (although in no way aloof or anything) seemed Valiant. He lived in one of the outside rooms, and it was him that I gelled with the easiest. We spent a great deal of time discussing the music of Van Morrison. We thought the same albums to be his best ones. My friends from that time will laugh when they read this, and say, “Well that’s pretty much all you could talk about back then.” They wouldn’t be far wrong.
The following year Koos returned to stay on the property, and I got to know him better. I photographed him and his companion, a drama student whom I knew called Laurien Myles. I took them into the studio and set up lights and all that. I thought that was the way we were supposed to do portraits. I kinda regret not doing snaps of all the lazy days sitting in our lounge talking kak and laughing, but I guess I sensed that neither Koos nor I would have been comfortable doing that. He liked the anonymousness Grahamstown gave him.
After that first sojourn, he had left a small book of his poems at the house, handwritten. It was in one those cheap little Oom Dik books. I had no idea how to contact him, this being pre-cellphone era and Koos being somewhat… nomadic. So I hung onto it, knowing I would run into him again, which I did.
But in the interim I returned to my parent’s house in PE for the December vacation. One day I left it on the coffee table in the lounge after I had been reading the poems again. My dad found it and called me to the lounge.
“Who does this belong to?” he asked.
I went sort of cold and began trying to remember how many if any of the poems had made reference to illegal substances, or goening, or anything like that.
“Oh, uh, it belongs to this guy called Koos who stayed in our house… Why?”
“These are the most beautiful poems I have ever read in Afrikaans,” he said.
Years later, when listening to Koos (which I did a lot: Niemandsland became one of the seminal albums of my life, and for some reason we always played it loudly in our digs when we cleaned the house on Sundays. It seemed the right album to play while sweeping out the shit) I often reflected on that. And on the incredible genius of Koos, who, with a few poems, could break through all those barriers of age (my father is old, he fought in WWII) and tribe (he loathed the Nats with a passion). But I guess I kind of lost sight of the fact that my old man had never loathed Afrikaners in general. How could he? He married a kind-of-Afrikaner.
Did Voëlvry change my life? Absolutely. I sought out, from then, only musicians who sang about us here now. I became very close friends with the first two white songwriters in PE to start doing this: Anton Calitz and Dave Goldblum. Their music helped me make sense of my identity as a white boy in PE at the end of Apartheid. I designed all their posters for them. Later I discovered the music of Chris Letcher and Matthew van der Want and became a huge fan of theirs.
And, more importantly to me, six months after Koos and Valiant stayed in the house, I picked up a guitar myself. And the first two songs I ever performed publicly (at a really dodgy biker bar in PE in 2004, with Merrisa Du Plooy), the songs that helped me find my voice, were Onder in my Whiskey Glas and Famous Blue Raincoat. Because Koos Kombuis and Leonard Cohen are in the same league to me.
It also made me see my own tribe quite differently, and realise that I’m not really part of that tribe. My tribe now is not English-speaking white South Africans, but musicians and artists and writers and photographers of various colours and language groups. And outside of this little tribe I feel quite foreign.
Voëlvry never did for us souties in general what it did for many Afrikaners. If it did I wouldn’t find myself thinking about James Phillips and crying while I drive that little road to Riebeek East. Few of us gave a fuck about him.
And when people come up to me and say, after I write a funny slang song in the vein of David Kramer, “Hey Tim, you should write more songs like that. Stop all that depressing stuff about how we’ve lost our way,” I think, yeah. And be like James Phillips: bleeding in a ditch with the knowledge that people only saw him as a joke. Fuck that shit. I’d rather make a living building decks and kitchen cupboards. Which is what I do in PE.
I know there are some younger people who diss the Voëlvry guys. And academics who downplay what that whole thing did. But I’ve seen on the Voëlvry documentary what those gigs on the Afrikaans campuses did. I was there when the show passed through Grahamstown. The effect was not the same. On campuses like Stellenbosch it was "a helluva thing,” to quote Willem Moller.
To me, the most poignant moment of that Voëlvry documentary is when Koos tells the story of Ryk Hattingh, who comes right up to the front of the stage while Koos is playing, and crying like a baby, begs him:
“Vat dit weg! Vat dit weg!”
(“Take it away! Take it away!”)
“Hy’t nie bedoel, “Vat ons weg” nie,“ said Koos. "Hy’t bedoel Vat dit weg. Vat hierdie ding weg. Julle kan dit doen. ”
(“He didn’t mean take us away,” said Koos. “He meant take it away. Take this thing away. You can do it.”)
And although us souties on the whole never experienced that, for me, the Voëlvry movement helped me to begin to embrace my inner Afrikaner, and leave some of the musical baggage of my tribe behind in the process.
- Photographs by Tim Hopwood