Heaven or hell? The small-town paradox


Heaven or hell? The small-town paradox

As Fokofpolisiekar mark two decades of shenanigans, FRED DE VRIES remembers the thrill of seeing them for the first time and listens to an anniversary release of their ultimate subversive song.


I’M not sure whether to begin this story with Cape Town rockers Fokofpolisiekar or American country star Jason Aldean. Let’s start with Aldean and see if it works.

In May, the singer born in Macon, Georgia, released a little ditty called Try That In A Small Town. Initially, it barely dented the country charts. But then, last month, Aldean added a video to the song. And lo, it truly exploded — way beyond the regular country market. In fact, it reached number 1 in the Billboard Hot 100, which for a country song is highly unusual in a world where hip hop and Taylor Swift rule the waves.

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The video is quite a spectacle, and a pretty grim one. It added, to put it mildly, spice to the lyrics about how great and wonderful life is in a small town where people don’t take shit from wokes, lefties and liberals. Lines like ‘Cuss out a cop, spit in his face/ Stomp on the flag and light it up/ Yeah, ya think you’re tough’, were now accompanied by violent images, some of them shot during the Black Lives Matter protests after the killing of George Floyd.

Aldean, 46, wears a leather jacket and a black cowboy hat. He looks mean and determined when he belts out the chorus: “Well, try that in a small town/ See how far ya make it down the road/ Around here, we take care of our own/ You cross that line, it won't take long/ For you to find out, I recommend you don’t try that in a small town."

In the background we see a government building, decorated with the US flag. This is the Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tennessee. Now that may not mean much to us, but it was here in 1927 that a black teenager accused of assaulting a white girl was dragged from jail by a white mob. They pulled him behind a car and hanged him from the courthouse. Nearly 20 years later, this same place was the scene of serious race riots.

Quite a statement from Aldean, who defended his song on Twitter by saying: “There is not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it. Try That In A Small Town, for me, refers to the feeling of a community that I had growing up, where we took care of our neighbours, regardless of differences of background or belief.”


The eye-for-an-eye sentiments and the glorification of small-town life can easily be applied to our current situation. Just think of JP Smith’s threat of impounding 25 taxis for every burnt bus. Or AfriForum promoting so-called anker stede to prevent crime and decay. And of course the controversial video and lyrics also bring to mind Bok van Blerk and his 2007 megahit De la Rey.

But they particularly reminded me of Fokofpolisiekar’s ultimate song, Hemel Op Die Platteland, which punches holes in the connection between the Afrikaner and the land, the idolised and idealised pact between identity, nation and nature. And it so happens that we can listen to that song again in all its furious glory, because on the occasion of the band's 20th birthday Permanent Record has released a bright red 10-inch vinyl reissue of its debut EP As Jy Met Vuur Speel Sal Sy Brand, which gave us Hemel Op Die Platteland.

Jason Aldean
Jason Aldean

Now let’s jump back in time. The year is 2004, and me and my friend Sonja Loots decided to go and see Fokofpolisiekar in a Joburg dive called Back2Basics. There had been a lot of hype. What with the name and the sticker bombing in Cape Town before a single note had been recorded. I must confess, I was a bit blasé. I mean, having seen anyone from the Rolling Stones, Uriah Heep, Ramones and David Bowie to The Clash, Sex Pistols, Oasis, Blur and Nirvana, I was pretty sure nothing could impress me any more. So we stood near the bar, arms folded, as one does to seem cool and detached.

The boys climbed on to the low stage. Five guys from Bellville, with mullets, nogal. They plugged in, maybe they said “Hallo Johannesburg, ons is die fokofs". Maybe they just burst into the first song and let it rip. I can’t remember. But what I can remember is that I looked at Sonja and Sonja looked at me, and we both said, “Holy fuck!”

The bass player jumped around like a kangaroo on steroids, and the blond singer shouted the lyrics into the microphone as if he was desperate to lose his tonsils. Meanwhile, the two guitarists acted like determined fly-halves, weaving loud chord patterns into surprisingly intricate melodies. And the drummer? He must have been the love child of The Who’s Keith Moon and The Damned’s Rat Scabies, arms flailing, thundering rhythms. This was mayhem, absolute mayhem.

They ended with their signature song, Fokofpolisiekar, and we all sang along to the chorus: “Fokof, fokof polisiekar, fok jou, fok jou polisieman." And then it was done. I wiped the sweat from my brow and stumbled to the bar for another drink, feeling like I had witnessed something that would change my life forever.

Of course, it hasn’t. Or maybe it has. It rekindled my faith in the power of rock ’n’ roll, and in the power of language. Because the lyrics were good! Apart from the shouty, somewhat juvenile Fokofpolisiekar, they showed great flair and sensitivity.

After that night in Westdene, I saw them a few more times, mainly in Joburg but also in Cape Town. They were invariably good. The energy was there but it was more measured, less explosive. They had become a rock band instead of a punk band, in the same way The Clash developed from a garage band into a well-oiled outfit that could play reggae, rockabilly and hip hop. And like The Clash and The Strokes, the Fokofs acted as if they were “the last gang in town".

The last time I saw them was as the support act of The Cure in Kenilworth in 2019. It was a cold and windy day, the sound was bad, and we had to watch from afar because we didn’t have tickets for the golden circle. Me and the band didn’t gel that evening. It all seemed a bit lacklustre, a bit corporate.

But who cares. They have given us so much, and they’ve been through a lot. What about the time they were beaten up by ’n klompie boere in small-town Nelspruit? And who can forget the night when drummer Jaco “Snakehead" Venter decided to jump out of a moving van and broke his arm in five places, as well as his pelvis. Of course he was drunk. As singer Francois van Coke later told me: “He broke our only rule: don’t fuck up, and don’t fuck yourself up."  Guitarist Hunter Kennedy explained: “He dresses like Hunter S Thompson and reads Led Zeppelin biographies. He was being a nihilist."

But the biggest scandal happened on the night of February 11, 2006, in small-town Witbank. The boys had had their fair share of alcohol. Or in the words of bassist Wynand Myburgh, “we were really pissed". Anyway, Wynand had been making fun of two guys in the audience, teasing them about their religious beliefs. “Joking you know, like, have a drink with me even though you're a Christian." Then one of the guys, Afrikaans singer Bobby van Jaarsveld, gave Wynand his wallet. And Wynand thought it would be great fun if he wrote “Fok God" on the wallet. “He ran outside crying and showed his mum his wallet. He was very upset," he recalled.

Mum didn’t see the joke, didn’t take this lightly and decided to cause kak. She sent a chain e-mail to her Christian friends, asking them to forward it to their friends, saying they should pray for those five wayward boys from Bellville. Then the papers got onto it, and what started as a drunken prank became a huge thing. Gigs in Kimberley, Centurion and Pretoria were cancelled. There were protests outside the venue in Krugersdorp, and endless debates on websites such as LitNet. Small-town people didn’t like Fokofpolisiekar.

When I asked Wynand how this affected them, he said: “Look, when we started the band there was this heavy resistance against the whole vibe. Afrikaners are weird; only one thing works for them. They’re brought up that way. We were different. And they were very against us. It took about three years."

Reminiscing about small towns, platteland and die hemel, I also remembered that they were all brought up religiously. Francois, the son of Ned Geref Kerk dominee Theo Badenhorst, had even been a worship leader. Later they joined a charismatic church, Focal Point, which they described as an “underground Christian punk church". The recruiters focused on outcasts: skaters, punks, bikers, metal fans, dopeheads and boozers in and around Bellville — confused kids who loved loud music and were looking for meaning in life. “We’d speak in tongues and fall on the floor," said Hunter.

Jaco was the first to join. The others, except guitarist Johnny de Ridder, followed. Focal Point felt like home. Hunter described it as a “safe haven for friendships". It was, he said, “incredibly emotional", adding that it felt like a sect, not unlike Jim Jones and his People’s Temple in Waco, Texas. “You had to share your feelings, as if this was a support group. And if you had given your heart to God, you had to cry long and hard. But it was lekker, and a lot of those punky skateboard kids were Christians."

Eventually, when the inconsistencies and restrictions became too much, they left Focal Point. The fact that you were allowed to listen only to Christian music, that you weren’t allowed to wear T-shirts of secular bands, that you couldn’t have a relationship with a girl without the consent of the leaders, that people started praying to get you back on the right track, it all became a bit much. “Eventually you see that it’s a big pile of crap," said Hunter. But he did acknowledge that those four years of intense religiosity probably saved him from the dead-end route of alcohol and drugs. The discipline and the constant performances (there was a lot of music) also prepared them for what was to come: Fokofpolisiekar.


So now I’m spinning that red 10-inch vinyl of As Jy Met Vuur Speel Sal Jy Brand on my turntable. The cover is the same as the original CD: a big white square with a black stripe at the bottom that leads into the name of the album and the band. On top of that, in the bottom right corner, is a small black drawing by Willem Samuel, depicting one person chasing another with a knife. Unfortunately, the vinyl doesn’t have the lyrics, nor the various other scary drawings (teenager in school uniform, waiting with a knife in his hand) that Samuel made for the EP. But it does have two extra tracks, Fokofpolisiekar and Blades.

I skip the first three tracks and play the next one, Hemel Op Die Platteland, the first Afrikaans song that made the official 5FM playlist. I watch the video on YouTube. Fok, they had power. Francois sings about not wanting to conform: “Reguleer my/ Roetineer my/ Plaas my in ’n boks en merk dit veilig/ Stuur my dan waarheen al die dose gaan/ Stuur my hemel toe/ Ek dink dis in die platteland."

In his book Pruimtwak & Skaduboksers Danie Marais called the song a “subversive blend of distress call, self-ironising bravado, and futile rebellion".  Well put. But do we really need words? The video is enough. It shows an explosive band, interchanged with images of a car (a hearse?) driving through the lonely, empty South African platteland beneath low-hanging clouds, dark and ominous. A single house goes up in flames. The end of a dream? Certainly the perfect antidote to Jason Aldean’s glorification of guns and small towns.

♦ VWB ♦

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