Never Met a Nice South Africanby Brandon Edmonds / 10.08.2009
ln the spirit of understanding our unique South African-ness, and sticking a thumb in the eye of xenophobia, this new daily Mahala series will be taking a good hard look at how we, South Africans, have been represented in film and media, by others.
Let’s begin in the decade of Cyndi Lauper, Mister T and Miami Vice. When gloves were de-fingered like a cockney gravedigger’s in the name of fashion and music was steeped in synth. Once way back then Microdisney, an obscure, totally wonderful, 80s band, spearheaded by the ferociously articulate Cathal Coughlin, released ‘We Hate You South African Bastards’. Coughlin’s lyrics are worth having inked onto your arm by the way. No pop singer ever barked at privilege and pienty with such venom. “There’s nothing wrong/ With young would-be rich/ That a head full of lead would not cure” he sang on ‘United Colours’. He meant yuppie Thatcherite junk bonders but it still holds true for the dumb moneyed youth set associated with Paris Hilton. The only merchandise the band ever sold was a T-shirt that read ‘Microdisney Are Shit’. Imagine the Pussycat Dolls or the Black Eyed Peas having the market-defying grace for that. Anyway the album title was amended, understandably, to ‘We Hate You (White) South African Bastards’ soon after release. The amendment tells us all we need to know about the anxiety of being a white South Africa before 1994. Far more than most local fiction ever did. Whiteness had to be added to ‘South African’ in order to be differentiated from being-South African (which was chiefly seen as struggling oppressed blackness at the time). That quality of not quite fitting, being different, an addendum, grafted on to the host identity, still haunts whites in the supposedly all-embracing Rainbow nation. At least those with time to notice. Like me.
The Microdisney album inspired the Spitting Image song ‘I’ve Never Met a Nice South African’ (1986). Watching it now is probably how Germans feel watching that Fawlty Towers episode when a concussed Basil, thanks to a loose moose, goosesteps through the dining room.
It’s funny and sad in a distant sort of a way. Like hearing about a never-met uncle who died vaulting a sharp fence in the nude. Ouch. What’s abidingly weird about the song is the props paid to minor league ‘albino terrorist’ come art-poet, Breyten Breytenbach. He was jailed ridiculously for marrying black back when it had an act called Immorality attached to it. Hey the heart wants what it wants.
Actually he ought to have been jailed for writing stuff that tends to devolve into a kooky personal symbology that leads, I’d imagine, up his own ass. Breyten was the Highveldt’s answer to Jean Cocteau or Jean Genet without a speck of the genius of either.
What comes across, in these two dated references, though, is the anger, the hate, the shared tide of ill-will towards whites in this country less than thirty years ago. It brings home how profoundly Mandela at liberty has altered perception. We were given the chance to be worldly again. To step back into the stream of contemporary global exchange. But that pool of ill-will and isolation has shaped whiteness forever. We all know the settler mentality forged in Blood River – embattled, under fire, encircled and endangered. It explains the immense local success of Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson’s loner vigilante Death Wish series – him against all Others – in a time of increasing international vilification of the ruling minority. It explains why there are so many hysterical responses to the Spitting Image clip on Youtube. The way others have seen us shows up how we see ourselves. It’s personal and painful. But never less than illuminating. We can embrace those claims, those depictions of us, from abroad, or defy them, or both, simultaneously, or come up, as so many young South Africans do quite naturally every day of their lives, with unimagined/unforseen ways of being-here-now.