"No easy rave to freedom" - The South African Youth Revolution

By David Dei and Jesse Stagg

Documented for the first time. The story behind the South African Rave Revolution. The music, the drugs, the ordinary struggles of the kids who inherited the twisted cultural landscape of South Africa, Apartheid-central. How a maniacal conspiracy of racial segregation was overcome not just by the efforts of those in the liberation movement but also by the new generation of South African youth who had finally had enough of the deceit of their parents. Who through sheer force of will beat the odds and set in motion a new revolution, a revolution of the heart. This was Africa's new vibe tribe, a new generation who had set out to club the generations before them conscious...

This is also a story about a music revolution as intense as anything experienced by nineties America. It is the story about how the ideals of peace, love and understanding can be promoted by a music reality. How cultural transformation is really about getting smart and having a good time. That this can be accomplished in a crumbling fascist state under effective military rule. That nothing is more threatening to the habits of the status quo than a generation of kids who have wised up to the lies of the past.

South Africa was a dull place by any cultural measure during the 70s and early 80s. A total international boycott of contact had effectively ended the influence of the outside world turning every South African into a pariah. Nationwide boycotts of black gutter education, filled the streets with angry youth. Murder and mindlessness was on the menu and everyone was just plain scared. The thought police were carrying out their raids against the schools, universities and individuals that dared to teach an alternative vision. Tattooing a political slogan on your body could get you life imprisonment and the cities were curiously free of graffiti, a thermometer of fear perhaps. Overt resistance was literally impossible. Pink Floyd had been banned, and the official censors were scanning everything for signs of political content.

Cut to the feelgood scenes of voting euphoria and the determined entry of a new political order. Defeating our expectations of an African Bosnia, millions of South Africans delivered a laboured election that disappointed the sensation hunting networks. The vultures had arrived at the scene of a simple pregnancy, mistaking the birth pangs of a nation for something more diabolical. These cynical mediasaurs were unable to arouse enough viewer interest in this intimate familial affair and instead turned to the more grisly delights of a dead American president and the Garasde Massacre. Mother Africa was sent a couple of Token Cigars and a 300 year episode became merely a footnote to the nineties. Maybe we missed something?.

South Africa is a land of vast beauty, and a land of subtle terror. Enormous wealth and immense poverty have painted contradiction into its very fabric. Johannesburg its largest city has more in common with Los Angeles than any southern hemisphere city. The misfortune of having vast mineral wealth, 50% of the worlds gold supply, 95% of Titanium resources, has held it in the grip of many unholy alliances. First the empire seeking British who stole the tip of Africa in their quest for wealth. (South Africa was a commonwealth colony until the 1950s.) Then the complexities of cold war politics which allowed the NATO alliance to tolerate a new anti-communist and strongly Nationalist white government. The Cape sea corridor was of prime importance to Western shipping that might be diverted around the southern edge of Africa in the event of a closure of the Suez Canal.

The National Party's avowed aim was to carry the political aspirations of the Afrikaner people, a nation distilled from the puritan Dutch settlers who had colonized the area before the English. A quick historical gloss will show the paradox of racism that infected their plans . The majority of Afrikaner families could also claim the aboriginal Khoisan people of the Cape in their lineage. A fact that would have added comedy to their search for racial purity if it had not caused such tragic consequences. And for those who bore the brunt of segregation because of their black decent the "divide and rule tactics" of the National government which pitted tribal affiliations and fears against each other would serve to remind everyone of the bloody tribal wars of the last century caused by the "Mfecane" or "total war" policy of the Zulu people in the North-eastern province of Natal. Apartheid's main success therefore would be to ensure that no one could lay claim to the high ground, that everyone was ensnared in a relationship of dependency and blanket denial, not a dysfunctional family but a dysfunctional country.

Now for those of you who believe the sanitized international media, South Africa was just an extreme example of racism, Black versus White like some modern-day cowboy movie gone bad. Then all of a sudden things changed overnight, a happy ending in the sunset montage of a Mandela and De Klerk Nobel Peace Prize. You got it wrong. Lets rewind history to a little known fact, the greatest slipup the ruling Nationalist Party and their more radical cousins could have made in their paraNazi career was to ignore the changing attitudes of the new Vibe Tribe and the effect of a new soundwave that back in 1988 was beginning to sweep the country. A 120bpm sound of love that had begun to infiltrate the country via the very children of Apartheid. Many white kids lucky enough to get a vacation in London experienced the dancefloor revelation for the first time. The lovebeat exposed years of indoctrination and would provide an irresistible attraction and a new more dynamic and less easily censored music form.

The first real signs of Acid House in the South African youthscape came in 1988 after the second English Summer of love '87. This new imported sound from Englands capital cities complete with trippy fractal gear, bandanas and smiley faces, at first aroused only the interest of the elitist, fashion community of the design capital of South Africa, Cape Town. These Initial acid-house music events were held in the basement of a club known then as Rita's, longtime venue of the citiy's downtown disco culture. But all this was merely a hint at what was to come and its impact on club-life although minimal, kept the love-virus bubbling.

At that time the Equity cultural ban against the Apartheid regime was peaking in the United Kingdom and South African's began to reject their European legacy, in favour of the less critical and more forgiving USA. The worlds most aggressive exporter of culture began it's creeping Coca Colonization of yet another country and along with this came a more volatile undercurrent. The militant influence of American Hip Hop culture had arrived in Africa.

Rap hit the ghettoes and suburbs housing Cape Towns so-called "coloured" or mixed race community like the bassline from a 909. Curiously the main site of hip hop expansion was a daylight African-crossover club famed for promoting live music in the city center - The Base. Here Saturday afternoons were filled with rap groups practising and performing to an ever increasing and more diverse crowd. "Fuck tha Police" and "party for your right to fight" were anthems for a seething mass, Africa's Hip Hop Nation.

Alongside this rap expansion came a new and vibrant rap organization, the AFRICAN HIP HOP MOVEMENT. The authorities were pleased that the youth seemed to have something to do instead of hanging out on the streets. Another wrong move. History was beginning to catch up with Apartheid and it would be the new freedom of the information economy that would inflict its biggest blow.

In the early days of South African Rap, artists tried to imitate the American Hip Hop sound in particular the inspired attitude of Public Enemy..The Prophets of the City were at the forefront and were acclaimed for their innovative style, using riffs from SA jazz legends such as Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) and sampled tribal beats from local marimba groups, This fusion of African and American ideas was crucial in formenting the new sound as well as a source of pride, inspiration and a new medium for the message. Ironically the original rhythm and breakbeats that had shaped the Blues, Jazz, Soul and Rock of the USA and the international musical landscape, was now returning to Africa, the source of the riffs in the first place. A study of history would show that the African drum beat was a cultural meme that had infected the Land of the Free by travelling with the slave ships of the South to later inspire a generation of American Soul Merchants. Mother Africa was having her revenge.

Raps major exponents in Cape Town were D.J's and spokesmen; Rozzano Francisco, Shahien Afriefdien, Dion Daniels and Bob Hendrickse who ran the movement out of living rooms or from derelict apartments in Woodstock, an inner-city outpost. Staging concerts all over the Cape. Subsequently companies like Making Music and promoters like Lance Stehr organized concerts nationally and in some cases internationally with performances in France and the Montreaux festival in Switzerland.

As with most tales on the edge of new music, the South African rap movement would also be plagued by lack of financial suss, a result of the novelty of it all. Many of these early groups would later end up being eaten by a market that could not sustain meaningful sales and unable to offer them anything more than advertising campaigns but that is another story. Any homeboy from Watts would have felt at one slamming with the 500-strong crowd that congregated wherever they could in Cape Town, for the rap rush and the freedom that it meant.

At the movements peak rap groups were being formed at an unprecedented rate. Some significant moves in developing the new style were made by; Organised Rhyme, AK47, Black Noise and the MC's from UNCLE. The survivors were the ones who managed to assimilate the local sounds and the anti-apartheid attitude of the hood. This deep pool of angry youth would soon play an important role in inspiring the transition.

In the south of the country the city of Cape Town had always been considered as something alien to the heavily Afrikaner dominated areas of the North, a city very much like San Francisco, a beautiful oasis of relative tranquility where one could almost make-believe that Apartheid was something happening elsewhere. It was here that for the first time the anti-Apartheid forces cohesively joined in a common front with the ordinary people. The working people, recession weary and sanctioned-out, tired of rednecked interference from the thugs up north passionately embraced the new campaign of defiance.

August 1989 would be a turning point for all South Africans because it was then that the politicians began to show signs that they were not unassailable. A defiantly small group of individuals took to the street in an attempt to defy a ban on political parades. Reaction was swift and their plans were thwarted by armed Stormtroopers who sprayed the ragtag group with a purple die. This was the purple rain march The resultant graffiti "the purple shall govern" would appear on a wall later that day. The significance of this event would be realized just one week later when the government itself was forced to back down over its inability to prevent a larger peace march that included the cities mayor. The extent of the groundswell had unnerved the State. An entire city had shown that it had no care for the politics of segregation. The level of support was unprecedented, a direct result of the genuine desire for the peaceful change that had infected a diverse cross section of citizens. South Africans had began to sense that if they pushed, the once impenetrable granite facade of Apartheid would move, that something was beginning to give way.

The effect on the general mood of the city was immense. A feeling of optimism prevaileds spilling onto the dancefloor and giving dramatic import to a wave of new ideas, of freedom of association and expression. Surfing this wave was media rebel David Dei founder of the city's then only alternative ideas magazine promoting earthlove and smartculture, its name Kagenna a resurrection of the Mantisheaded god of the original inhabitants of Cape Town, the Kung San people. Its launch at the Base Club served to add to the buoyancy that would serve to refocus and inspire a new generation of alternative media forays.

Hindsight would indicate that the biggest moment in the modern history of South Africa had almost arrived. Although most South Africans had no way of knowing this then, after forty years of coercion. The only thing carrying the momentum onto further cultural attacks was the hope that things might change. But the sheer pace of change unleashed by a countrywide uprising of the turned-on and vibed-in youth was staggering. On the evening of February 2, 1990 a simple announcement. The major political movements illegal for the past forty years had been unbanned. The state had finally admitted defeat and with that their intention to release political leaders including Nelson Mandela.

What few people realized then was that this was the date that Apartheid for all intents and purposes was finally dead. What we would see afterwards was merely its long and drawn out funeral arrangements and the inevitable fight over its legacy. The slow and arduous mopping up operations had begun. An entire country began to ready itself for a place in the international community and for its return into a global culture market.

During the build up to South African president, F.W De Klerks Feb 2 announcement, the youth, intuitively it seems, were already beginning to celebrate change. Rap was taking an inclusive part in the ordinary struggles of the people. No political gathering of note could be complete without it. Groups such as Black Noise found their way onto nearly every open air political meeting in the city. A generation of black schoolkids were finding that becoming performers was liberating when all you needed was a ghetto blaster.

But while rap was intimately linked to the political community the other new dance forms were really only on the periphery. The club scene was still isolated from day-to-day issues. Beer drinking Mindlessness was still a way of life and the scene was characterized as much by its lack of cohesion as by its whiteness. This was the time of disco-house clubs like Idols, and the psychedelia parties at the gothic UK influenced Playground.

And yet amidst the mind-numbness an undercurrent, a groundswell of one nighters and elaborate house parties that continued to infect the white youth with an alternative agenda. The children of the architects of apartheid were creating their own reality. Some realized the importance of this and the validity of their contribution to a new global youthculture proving that information wanted to be free and nothing was going to stop it. Not even in South Africa.

Then along came UFO a small culture attack force formed by Jesse Stagg and Carl Mason who had achieved sporadic success with a one month flash of a club named The Front, where the potential for cultural escapades was demonstrated with a display of Ratiep, a group of 35 indigenous Malayan ritualists piercing their bodies with skewers, swords and chisels.

LSD was making a resurgence back into the dance scene at this time. A trip could be had for as little as $15 offering powerful head medicine on a budget as opposed to the rarer Ecstasy at $60. John Dunlop member of the MC's from UNCLE - comments on the scene. "Everyone was getting off on how weird it was - more people were freaking out than dancing". The natural synergy of the drugs, the stimulants and the new stimulus created by these pockets of energy amid a previously stratified dance scene was becoming visible. White kids were beginning to venture out to the dance clubs in the taboo territory of the Black townships - clubs like the Galaxy and Space Odyssey. Black and White clubs began exchanging DJs and punters, curing the social fractures. The rave underground was becoming bolder, with numerous mystery bus tours and bacchanalian beach parties. A significant catalyst in the emerging underground then was Danny Schreiber, a low key New Age shamen stimulating gigs and initiating raves worldwide.

However, the next move by UFO was a stroke of genius - the introduction of really smart rave culture to Cape town via a massive public event. What followed was the first 36 hour drug induced rave frenzy in a warehouse on the reclaimed land bordering the Cape Town oceanfront called Paarden Island. The event, known as the World Peace Party. held in September 1991 attracted more than 5000 people from a wide cross-section of the cities youth tribes amidst a concerted backlash from a rightwing Christian grouping who objected to the Peace sign because of it's "Satanic" derivation. In a country notorious for violence and despite a big gang presence Not one incident of violence marred the event. Coincidentally the news headline of the following morning would drive the significance of the achievement home: " PEACE " heralding the governments first National Congress on Peace. Ironically another headline in the not too distant future would offer contrary evidence from the Washington Bureau of Statistics "Cape Town Murder Capital of the World".

The obvious success of UFO was in bringing together a diversity of people not seen together under one roof. An entirely mixed collection of hip-hoppers, Cape Flats clubbers, and downtown ravers. Amidst all this possibly the first public mention in the South African media of a new love drug of choice - ecstasy. The event was unprecedented with not a political commissar in sight. The spinoff nightclub Eden became a haven for the new ecstasy and LSD set. 4 floors of stroboscopic industrial dance chambers, blue rooms with Acid Jazz and Rare Grooves, Aquarius bar, Ambient Chill out den and open-airium, and outside launchpad for bands and movies. attracting mostly a dedicated core of followers and bemusing the straight press, who didn't quite know what to make of the ever increasing midnight mass. before closing at the end of summer 92 a victim of too many partners and a seasonal youth migration, a spring break mentality plaguing most clubs in Cape Town.

Eden however, changed the rules in Cape Town Clubland, replacing seediness with a positive energy. Physically evident in the bright, colorful environment which became synonymous with the new intelligent sound. Now any of you readers used to the relative ease and variety of clubbing in the USA rid your doubts as to the difficulty experienced by someone aiming to break the barriers that had been placed by Apartheid geography and the bare facts of a forty year past of segregation. To put it bluntly: Think of pulling off a party in Tianenman Square, you get the picture?

The success of the Cape Town scene led to more technically advanced raves in South Africa's largest city, Johannesburg -population 7 million and the administrative Capital of Apartheid-Pretoria In March 1992, Mike Aldridge Fetish freak coaxed his Damn New Thing Magazine launch into possibly the first big Johannesburg rave - a cyberbondage event at an infamous old fort and ex- prison. This was followed in August 92 by The Evolution rave, held at a defunct ice rink, famed for being the first such event to recieve extensive coverage in the local press.

Nationally the scene was peaking and had matured enough to move in different directions namely the deep, progressive house groove and it's hardcore sibling, the 140 BPM drone of techno and breakbeat. Johannesburg was ripe for ex Soul 11 Soul designer Preston van Wyk and Eric Kirsten to open the cities first dedicated house club, Fourth World featuring decor by counter-culture artist and hero Bodine Hallelujah and a rooftop movie theatre by avante garde film maker Roger Young as well as smart bars.

Although by now there were accusations that it was all just mindless drug-induced escapism, Preston van Wyk responds "I don't see it as a form of escapism I see it rather as a way of coming to terms with reality, its something very positive. It makes perfect sense to me as a young white South African living in a third world country, that rather than reject Africa, I can embrace it. and that is where the marriage and fusion of First and Third worlds come together to actually form Fourth World culture."

By the time the all-race elections had arrived on the 27th of April 1994, the Vibe Tribe had been partying for three solid weeks and were beginning to develop the physical stresses and mental discomforts of prolonged inebriation. The almost nihilistic desire to party was a sure reaction to the general hysteria and anxiety that racked the entire country, what with the Zulu-based Inkatha Party threatening a civil war and Rightwingers promising to stop the election at all costs, nothing short of a miracle could save South Africa. To everyones surprise, election day dawned like a dream and there was no- way you could get away from the simple fact illustrated by the smiles that seemed to have been plastered on the faces of an entire nation. Something truly remarkable had occurred and nothing would ever be the same. A massive amount of goodwill and exhuberance had entered the country and now threatened to give the world an example of what democracy was really about.

So what did we really achieve? Jesse Stagg has this to say: "The point is, these brothers and sisters in the global groove union were waging a war of alternative lifestyle, but you see the reality they grew out of is not rosy with the Righteousness of your American founding fathers constitution, theirs is not the land of the free and the home of the brave. The reality they chose was light years away from the dogma of the powers that be. For this generation, It was always about the empowerment of the individual, It was about youths that said fuckit and just did it". South Africa is proof enough that 120bpm can dissolve barriers, that opening our hearts to the love groove will ultimately allow the planet to heal itself. That fascism dissolves before the resistance of the rave generation.