Documentary maker Bryan Little shows how five suburban punks revitalised the Afrikaans community
In 2003, five youngsters from a conservative, Christian suburb outside Cape Town rejected their upbringing and formed a band. Singing unapologetically in Afrikaans, the band set about reclaiming a culture shunned by the rest of the new South Africa. White Afrikaners had been reviled as the architects of apartheid, but a younger generation now sought to free themselves from the burden of their horrific history. Fokofpolisiekar shocked the Afrikaans establishment with their music and lifestyle, becoming the country’s biggest rock act even as they received death threats and a barrage of media condemnation. As featured in the June South Africa special of Dazed, this is an extended interview with Bryan Little, the 29-year-old director of an award-winning documentary about the band, where he explains how five suburban punks first shocked then revitalised an entire community.
Dazed Digital: Is this film as much about Afrikaans identity as it is about a band?
Bryan Little: For me, there are two separate storylines interwoven. One is about a new generation of Afrikaans people questioning the culture that brought about something as horrible as Apartheid; and within that is the story of five young dudes just trying to make a living from music – a very difficult thing to do in South Africa.
DD: How did people react to this band?
Bryan Little: For months there were a lot of flyers saying that this Afrikaans punk band was coming called Fokofpolisiekar. It means ‘fuck off police car’, which is a pretty heavy statement in South Africa. Young Afrikaaners were really excited because up to that point Afrikaans music had been terrible – like square-dancing shit.
DD: Did they change Afrikaaners’ attitude?
Bryan Little: If I went to the Shack, which is a little club down the road ya, everyone was speaking English. Six years later, those same people are speaking Afrikaans openly and relishing their culture and their language. That’s something Fokof managed to do – but a lot of people were freaking out, calling them Satanists and all sorts of shit.
DD: Did the Afrikaans establishment see them as a genuine threat?
Bryan Little: Yeah, the conservative, religious community freaked out completely. In one of their first songs, there’s a line that says, ‘Can someone phone up God and tell him we don’t need him any more?’ That was a heavy thing for them.
DD: How was Afrikaans youth expressing itself before them?
Bryan Little: It wasn’t.
DD: Well, then there must have been a lot of pent-up emotion?
Bryan Little: Yeah, there were a lot of really angry and confused young people around. A lot of kids were brought up in this heavily oppressive Christian society that was telling them that everything they were doing was wrong. That was manifested in a lot of different ways. These kids were really, really off the rails, but still bottling it up. And suddenly this band came along – Hunter Kennedy’s lyrics were so powerful, but also ambiguous. The establishment never really knew what he was trying to say, but the kids did and they grabbed onto it.
DD: Afrikaans is supposedly a pretty hardcore culture because of its history. Do you think this youth rebellion was more extreme than in other cultures?
Bryan Little: I’m not Afrikaans, and in many ways I had a big problem making this film in the beginning, but it gave me a distance to see things for what they were. Afrikaans people are generally fucking tough. If you think about what they’ve been through – the Great Trek and the Anglo-Boer war – there are some insanely hard, hard people is their heritage. It’s not even that long ago, just 100 years. Their history is that of pioneers, and Afrikaans people are generally known for being quite violent and aggressive. If you go to somewhere like Pretoria then you’ll see a lot of bar fights, but weirdly enough I’ve never seen a fight at a Fokof show.
DD: Did theband ever attract an element they hadn’t intended?
Bryan Little: Yeah, of course they have and they always will. There’s a side that will obviously gravitate towards them, like an old-school nationalist Afrikaans mentality, who almost wish that apartheid never ended. The band always made it very clear that if someone like that was in the crowd then they would be asked to leave. If they saw old South African flags or shit like that.
DD: What was the reaction outside the Afrikaans community?
Bryan Little: I think Afrikaans is almost a shunned culture. The black South Africans couldn’t give a shit what these Afrikaans bands were doing.
DD: Has that changed at all?
Bryan Little: If you go to one of their shows now, you’ll see half Afrikaans, half English. We’ve also shown this film to a lot of black audiences and they all really engaged with it. There’s a lot of dialogue missing in this country. It’s 15 years after apartheid and I still think we don’t know how to talk to each other. It’s like political correctness to the point of sterility; people are so scared of offending each other. It’s a bubble that’s got to burst and I think it’s going to soon. All this shit boils away under the surface.
DD: The band have been going six or seven years now – have they inspired a new generation?
Bryan Little: Since Fokofpolieskar there’s been a complete explosion of Afrikaans bands, and really good ones as well. Afrikaans peoples are not ashamed of being Afrikaans any more – they’re doing incredible things, from photography to design. From my point of view, a lot of South African culture is being driven by Afrikaaners now. They’ve definitely given a platform to people wanting to express themselves and do whatever they want to do. It’s proven to a lot of people that you can go just go for it. I think that’s an invaluable thing in this country.
DD: Do you think that this is a story that people outside the Afrikaans community can engage with?
Bryan Little: We’ve had people from other parts of Africa watching it, black Kenyans watching it and they’ve all thoroughly loved it. I think it’s a story that anybody living in a community or culture going through some sort of identity struggle can relate to. I guess that happens everywhere. Germany has shown a lot of interest, because of their particular history.
DD: What’s your favourite Fokofpolisiekar memory?
Bryan Little: I was at their first show ever. I ended up with a bleeding head, I was naked, and it was chaos. I remember hearing one song and going, “Yeah, this is proper, they’ve got something to say here. This isn’t just rad punk music, it’s powerful.”
Stills from Fokofpolisiekar: Forgive them for they know not what they do (2009)
The June South Africa special of Dazed & Confused is on sale now, featuring Soweto style and the Smarteez, Die Antwoord, BLK JKS and much more...