In a country still reeling from divisive rule, a new counter-culture is burning. It’s raw. It’s punk. It doesn’t give a fuck. And it’s writing its own history.
South Africa is still reeling from decades of divisive rule. Students are protesting against colonialist remnants of the past and communities still exist within borders. But in Soweto, the township-turned-city that first triggered the fight for civil rights, a new counter-culture is burning. It’s raw. It’s punk. It doesn’t give a fuck. And it’s writing its own history.
Getting every member of Soweto-based punk band TCIYF in one place isn’t exactly easy. Since no one in their crew owns a car, you’ve got to pick them up from the rundown suburban house where one of them lives, give them a ride to wherever they want to do the interview, and then shuttle them between drop-off points.
The band (full name: ‘The Cum In Your Face’) are part of a countercultural movement that’s taken root in Soweto over the last decade or so, bringing together metal and punk acts from across greater Johannesburg and, although the band hates the thought, bringing together the city’s disparate identities, too.
When they do finally assemble, it’s at the parking lot of a local mall in Dobsonville: one of the group’s regular skate spots, where a small crowd has gathered, phones drawn to take pictures. An old man has assumed the informal role of marshal, letting the crew know when cars are coming so no one gets hit.
The band has been filming the entire day – possibly for use in one of their music videos – and now that the light’s gone, Thula, their lead guitarist and most vocal member, comes over to talk. He’s a scrawny guy with a shaved head, his eyes constantly fixed on anything but me, always aware of himself.
“Wherever we go,” he says, referring to the crowd in front of us. “We become the life of that place. We become the place to go.”
“The reason we started this is to inspire kids from the ’hood to get into the arts and shit,” says his housemate Sechaba. “Skateboarding. Photography. Cinematography.”
Sechaba is the founder of the group’s larger crew, Skate Society Soweto or ‘SSS’, an informal support structure that includes members of other bands from the neighbourhood. He isn’t actually in the band. He’s not even into punk.
But you wouldn’t know that from talking to him. Sechaba’s developed a string of ticks and mannerisms that most of the group seems to share: speaking deliberately, sometimes contradicting himself, but always intent on delivering as positive a spin on the band as possible.
[At one point he tells me they’re doing this to offer kids an alternative lifestyle to what’s out there in Soweto – “so they’re not into drugs” – while members of the band do drugs around him.]
“Look at how many people are out here, they’ve got their cellphones out,” he says. “When you go home, you’re gonna ask yourself if these guys do this every day, and if you can do it too. You don’t have to go on a Saturday to play soccer. Every fucking kid in Soweto can play soccer. Why aren’t people trying to fly helicopters and shit?”
Thula starts impersonating a football scout, maligning the way the sport is offered up as a “way out” for poor black kids: “Become a rockstar in the hood! Best soccer player in the hood!” he says. “And maybe you are the best soccer player in the hood… but there’s a thousand best soccer players in the hood, and they only need one.” He laughs. “They don’t even take the both of you, man.”
That last line seems to come out a little more impassioned than he’d intended, like the thought of how limited opportunities are in contemporary South Africa genuinely breaks him.
South Africans spend a lot of time unpacking the consequences of our past. Just two decades ago, we lived under a crumbling fascist Apartheid regime, subject to the whims of a delusional minority government.
Entire communities lived apart, segregated into townships according to their race. Soweto, where the band is from, is a vast collection of neighbourhoods meant to house the majority of the city’s black population.
And although we’ve moved beyond having laws that force anyone to live anywhere, the democratic freedom inherited by the band’s generation hasn’t necessarily translated into the instantaneous equality that many of us had been sold.
The socioeconomic borders put in place by the Apartheid government are still there: a lingering byproduct from decades of brainwashing.
“Nobody’s actually free,” says Thula. “The white kids are paranoid half the time. You got all the money but you can’t drive freely. You can’t do whatever you want.”
Rolling a joint at a beaten-down desk, the 28-year-old guitarist describes himself as more focused on developing his mind – a subtle contrast to the street smarts of TCIYF’s other members.
“They know how to get the girls faster, where to get the beers cheaper, where to get the best weed,” he says of Pule, the band’s lead singer, and Jazz, their drummer. But not him, and not their bassist Tox, who Thula calls “the zen master, the Yoda”.
“You’re free to be a doctor and go to university,” Tox says of life in South Africa. “You’re free to get an education but you can’t afford it ’cause your parents don’t have like 60 grand to pay for it every year.”
No one in the band was born after South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994. None of them are part of the generation that’s popularly referred to as ‘Born Frees’, a term that’s become almost ironic in light of how incrementally our country has changed.
Still, for a moment their criticism of the education system seems to capture a sense of what’s facing the current generation of varsity students. Announcements of fee increases at most major universities saw an uprising across the country last year, with student protesters taking to streets and campuses demanding that ‘fees must fall’.
The government’s response was typically dismissive and, many months later, we’ve yet to see their promised report on the subject.
With protests only just barely subsiding, there’s a genuine sense that two decades of ‘freedom’ hasn’t calmed South Africa’s sense of rebellion… only quietened it for a while.
But the members of TCIYF aren’t in university. And instead of current events sparking a creative fire in them, they’ve only become more apathetic about South African politics.
“Politics. SA politics. What are we gonna do? Sing about Zuma?” says Thula, referring to the country’s infamous president, Jacob Zuma: a man better known for the corruption scandals that dog him than his politics. “We’re not gonna be singing about saving the country. Save yourself, nigga.”
Sitting in his house, where the band hangs out and practices, it’s not hard to understand his philosophy. There’s barely any furniture – at one point, Jazz pulls up one of his drums to sit on – and the little they have seems to serve only the most practical situations. In a house populated by punks who repeatedly reiterate how little they care about anything, that probably isn’t much of a problem.
Even so, their political apathy feels surprising. South African punk – once the domain of bands like National Wake – was founded in the spirit of protest. These guys, on the other hand, say they aren’t interested because reading the newspaper is “boring”.
“The media shows you all this fucked-up shit all the time as if nothing great is fucking happening,” Tox says. “You’re probably depressed enough, so I don’t want you to come to my show and leave even more depressed. There’s great things that happen in the world, all of the time.”
Maybe ‘depressed’ isn’t the right word, but Tox has a point. South Africans as a whole seem to suffer from PTSD: we have a way of fixating on things that are going wrong to the point of burning ourselves out. We could all do with a stronger sense of community, to a certain degree, and more focus on the cross-cultural families we’re ostensibly trying to build together.
“Everybody’s got everybody’s back here,” Thula says of the band. “You fight one, you fight all of us. You sponsor one, you sponsor all of us. ’Cause we pretty much had to take care of ourselves. First generation skaters-slash-first generation rockers here in Soweto.”
By now we’ve stepped outside to sit in the unfinished garage. While they pass a joint around, the band waver between cynicism about politics and optimism about their own future.
To them, punk really isn’t just about making your own way, but also finding a support network that can withstand anything.
Thula discovered rock’n’roll by “fiddling with the dials” on his parents’ radio. He’d grown tired of R&B and hip hop, figuring out the formula he detected in every song he heard. Once he was old enough to go out on his own, he found magazines that helped solidify a new way of expressing himself.
“You flip through magazines and you’re like, ‘So that’s Ozzy,’ and ‘This is System Of A Down’,” he says.
One of the many costs of segregation is that it forces communities to homogenise in ways they wouldn’t otherwise, making it that much harder to live outside the margins.
Even small acts of differentiation are perceived as larger acts of rebellion that our families and communities struggle to cope with. But no one provided the guidance to help them cope, so it becomes the burden of a new generation.
“When you go to school in the township with your board, people will call you ‘white boy’,” says Sechaba. “Cats talk ill about something if they don’t understand it. That’s why they’ll call you names and shit.”
He compares his life as a young skater with that of his parents’ – the ‘teenagers of June 16th’ – who, as Sowetan students, took to the streets in 1976 to protest Apartheid-era education laws that would force them to learn in the official language of their oppressor, Afrikaans.
“They were teenagers then. Now you’re going to town, speaking English, skating, getting tattoos. They don’t understand none of this shit,” he says. “I had to show my mom I was going to do my own thing. I’m gonna skate. So we change our parents’ mindsets first, then [other] people’s mindsets.”
Even though he’s never got into punk rock himself, in many ways he’s responsible for what the band calls the ‘Soweto Rock Revolution’. He was the first skater Thula had ever seen in the neighbourhood, and his own dedication to DIY inspired the band. When they couldn’t find an audience in their community, they created one.
“We made our own gigs,” says Thula. “Even my girlfriend got her own gigs booking shows in the city. We started doing our own shit and the American dudes noticed. The Thrasher dudes.”
TCIYF toured with Thrasher Magazine last year, playing shows outside of Jo’burg for the first time. They’d already been making their own music videos, but now they started producing their own merchandise and were being invited to play Oppikoppi, the country’s longest-running rock music festival.
They even met a new producer, allowing them to record their latest album, Buddha’s Calm – their second, technically, although the first one hasn’t dropped yet.
“We usually do our things first-take,” says Thula, laughing. “The homie we went to yesterday for the second album, he couldn’t believe that shit. We told him, ‘Dude, we just need an hour with you.’ He thought we were full of ourselves but we done it. Basslines. Guitar. Quick shit. Everybody just went first go.”
He gets more excited when we talk about the music, letting his usual focused malaise slip for a second. Unguarded, he resembles the same guy who punches anyone that tries to grab his guitar while on stage.
Maybe it’s that gonzo rawness which makes TCIYF sound unlike anyone else, not even their peers in the punk scene.
“It all sounds the same. They all sound alike to each other. Generic and they whine a lot,” says Tox.
“Listen to the bands, let me say, ‘from the ’burbs’ and then listen to us. It doesn’t sound the same,” says Thula. “We know the theory, man. We know it should go from one to four to five when it’s major and all that shit. You think you know the scale, you know the song, but you’re not gonna play it the way we play it. ’Cause we find a way to play it wrong. But then it sounds right.”
It’s not because they don’t care, he says. Punk is all about caring, about family, about bringing people together. And in Soweto, it’s about providing an alternative that might not have seemed possible even a decade ago.
“We’re more about putting Soweto on the map – especially the more forward-thinking Soweto,” says Thula. “There’s a bunch of smart people here doing a bunch of dope things, but most of them aren’t confident because they’re first-timers, just like us. We’re [tying to] make homies confident of their own shit, so all these other movements can come out as well.”
The band’s skate crew includes black metal band Reeburth and, through Thula’s own ingenuity, the band has organised gigs alongside bands from outside Soweto. Their first show together, Punk Fuck, brought a mix of white punks from the suburbs on a rare visit to the township, an effort that local papers lauded for “bringing the nation together” – a notion the band bristles at.
As far as they’re concerned, nothing they’ve done has anything to do with bringing white people and black people together, or opening the imagined boundaries around Soweto to anyone. Their focus has always been about developing themselves and building their own community.
“What I’ve learned is that your chances of surviving are better if you take responsibility for whatever happens in your life,” he says.
“So if there’s no skateboarding but you like skateboarding, start a skate team. People might not think it’s not cool for now but when all your friends are rockstars on TV, then playing punk, skating or drawing is the thing to do. So that’s what we’re trying to do, you know? Make creativity a cool thing.”
“Sechaba always says he wants to see homies in the hood – homies he doesn’t even know – who skate good,” Thula says. “I wanna go out and see some punks, not just twerkers.”
In the house that Thula rents with Sechaba, the two of them have constructed a concrete skate ramp right at the entrance to the garage. When their landlady complained, they did what they could to placate her.
Thula says that when she sees him on TV one day, she’ll leave them alone, because it’s easier for people to understand things once they’ve seen that they’re popular.
He says it almost apathetically, but there’s something to that. There’s a glimmer in his eye that suggests an ambition he doesn’t want anyone to suspect.
He’s sitting there, talking about how disinterested he is in anything but the band, anything but skating, but you get the sense that he’ll do whatever it takes to make things happen.
He’d do whatever it takes to keep the revolution going. And it doesn’t have to be my revolution, or the whole country’s, but it’ll be one that matters to him. And I guess that’s the whole point of freedom.
“We’re not gonna let somebody else be responsible for our future,” he says. “I don’t think they even know what we’re doing. We don’t even know what we’re doing, you know? It’s pretty new.
“So, if what we’re doing is nonsense and it one day takes us to hell, [we’d] rather steer ourselves there.”