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Black September by Koos Kombuis

I've always wanted to node this song, despite it's requiring translation and extensive annotation to be comprehensible to anyone except those who understand Afrikaans and know some South African history.

The reason is quite simple: it moves me. Frankie's generation is the 16-bit colour generation, who are nearly a smoothly integrated rainbow nation. I'm older than that, and learned the lessons of monochrome: take sides, fight the power, question authority. We were White Africans. The end was nigh. This was our angst.

My English translation keeps, I hope, the literal meaning, but cannot have any of the rhyme and fluid rhythm of the original.

This is the most serious, and densest work on the album, which is one of the reasons I have written it up. But much of Koos's work is funnier and more upbeat than this lament. Musically it is a simple voice and piano folk-rock number.

From the album Niemandsland (no-man's land), 1987/8
Lyrics from http://www.gipsie.co.za/Lyrics/KoosKombis/swart_september.htm
The translation is by me with help from Frankie and her woordebook

Swart September                                     Black September
Plant vir my 'n Namibsroos, verafgelee Welwitschia  Plant for me a Namib rose, a distant Welwitchia   
hervestig hom in Hillbrow en doop hom Khayelitsha0   Transplant it to Hillbrow and christen it Khayelitsha   
September is die mooiste, mooiste maand             September is the fairest, nicest month
viooltjies in die voorhuis                          Violets in the parlour
en riots oral in die land                           and riots throughout the land  

Die aand was vrolik om die vure,                    This evening it was merry around the fires, 
Gatiep1 was olik by die bure                        the gaffer clowned around with the neighbours
Die tyres het gebrand2                              The tyres were on fire
daar aan Mannenberg se kant                         over in Mannenberg
al die volk was hoenderkop,                         All the people were (as drunk as) headless chickens,
die Caspers3 was vol guns gestop                    the Caspers were packed full of guns 
en die vroue by die draad                           And the women by the wire
het eerste die gedruis gehoor                       were first to hear the rumble
tjank maar Ragel oor jou kind,                      Cry, Raka for your child,
die boere4 het hom doodgemoer5                      the boers have beaten him to death

Groot masjiene oor die land, September '84          Great machines across the land, September '84  
die seisoen wat brand en aanhou brand,              The season that burns and burns on, 
'n  lente bleek en dor                              a spring both bleak and dry 
waar swartes sonder pas                             Where blacks without passbooks 
nog skuifel langs die mure                          still shuffle along the walls  
en Niemandsland se as nog waai                      And  nomansland's ash still blows 
oor Niemandsland se vure                            over nomansland's fires
die swarte sonder pas,                              the blacks without passes, 
ja die swarte sonder pas                            yes the blacks without passes
skuifel langs die mure,                             Scuffle alongside the walls,
verlustig hom in derde klas6                        amuse themselves in third class 

In Langstraat7 waar die cafes nog oop  is           In Long street, where the cafes stay open
tot laat in die angry nag                           until late in the angry night  
het ek my dolla slap tjips8 gaan koop               I went to buy my bag of chips, 
ek moes half an hour staan en wag                   I had to stand and wait for half an hour
Van Tafelbaai tot in Transvaal                      From Table Bay to in Transvaal, 
loop hensoppers9 weer deesdae kaal                  surrenderers walk nakedly once again 
Maar is jy wit, bruin, swart of geel10,             But no matter if you are white, brown, black or yellow, 
kak almal in die symste taal                        we all shit in the samest language  
Sou jy haar nog liefhe, die ongerymde moedertaal    If you still love her, the disagreeable mother tongue   
besef jy sy's met clones en pidgins                 You'll realise she's with clones and pidgins 
landwyd op die paal                                 landwide up the spout.

Oooe, die hart is bitterkos,                        Oh, the heart is bitter food, 
oooe, met pap en wors11                             Oh with porridge and sausage
dat liefde so tot haat kon gis,                     that love could so turn to hate, 
dat reforms so kon afwas12                          that reforms could just wash off 
Gonna, AIDS en sifillis                             Gonhorreah, AIDS and Siphylis 
groei wild waar eens beloftes was                   grow wild where first were promises
groot masjiene oor die land, September '84          Great machines across the land, September '84 
wat oorkook in 'n noodtoestand13                    that boils over into a state of emergency  
'n lente bleek en dor                               a spring both pale and parched  
waar swartes sonder pas                             Where blacks without passes  
nog skuifel langs die mure                          still scuffle alongside the walls
en Niemandsland se as nog waai                      And  no-man's-land's ash still blows 
oor Niemandsland se vure                            over no-man's land's fires

Uit die blou van ons twee skole                     Out of the blue of our two ideologies
Uit die diepte van ons huimwe                       Out of the depths of our heritage
Uit ons ver-verlate homelands                       from our long-forgotten homelands 
Vaar die tsotsies14 andwoorde gee                   where the tsotsies give the answers
Oor ons afgebrande skole                            Over our burned-out schools 
Met die kreun van honger kinders                    With the whimper of hungry children 
ruis die stem van all die squaters                  Rises the call of all the squatters  
Van ons land, Azania15:                             Of our land, Azania: 
Ons sal trangas, ons sal Treurnicht16               We'll be teargassed, but we won't cry
Ons sal klipgooi17 as jy vra                        We'll throw stones if you just ask  
Ons sal dobbel in Sun City18                        We'll gamble in Sun City 
Ons vir you, Suid Afrika                            Just for you, South Africa. 

Epic poems and vegetation myths:

When the divine order is out of whack, when the king is wounded or not righteous, the land will suffer. When there is drought, the king must have done wrong. See also Andre Brink's novel A Dry White Season.

The first poem alluded to the The Waste Land, the poem from which many of us first learned about vegetation myths. The plant Welwitschia Mirabilis, mentioned in the first few lines is legendary for it's hardiness in desert conditions, and it's longevity. It is indigenous to the Namib desert in the north-western parts of South Africa, and the southern part of Namibia.

April, northern hemisphere spring, is the cruelest month. In the southern hemisphere, the corresponding month is September.

The line Die aand was vrolik om die vure is lifted verbatim from N.P. van Wyk Louw's epic poem, Raka. This poem was regularly inflicted on schoolchildren doing their compulsory Afrikaans lessons. Raka concerns an African jungle tribe who are confronted with a powerful supernatural ape-being. It is "allegorical of the struggle between good and bad, culture and nature, human and animal". Just what point it makes, no-one is sure. The lines that follow are a biting contrast with the poem.

The lines starting 'en die vroue by die draad' are again a parody of Raka. Substitute 'river' for 'wire' in the original. A reference to urbanisation, and again the unexpected shock of the real.

The last long poem alluded to, and the most forceful and sustained parody is The call of South Africa, The National Anthem from the line 'Out of the blue...' to the end of the song. Each line begins as the corresponding line in the anthem, and subverts the expected ending. This is as shocking as burning the flag, considering the subversive content. It's not often that a poet can stir so much shit with a few words. And yet Koos's version is a far more accurate description of reality.


A second theme is land in a more prosaic sense: ownership of ground. Urbanisation, and its inextricable travelling companions: the Grand Apartheid of pass laws, the Group Areas Act, homelands and squatter camps. At this time, most blacks were designated as citizens of a 'homeland' and needed a pass in order to be in the metropolitan areas of South Africa.

A black person in a major city without a passbook could be deported back to their tribal 'homeland'. At the time, the rural poor were immigrating to the cities in search of a better life, even though the city planners resisted. They came anyway. Hence squatter camps, illegal settlements, land invasions, grey areas and other black holes in the rigid urban planning of Apartheid.

Forced removals were a regular feature of apartheid - deciding where people were or were not allowed to live.

The question is raised: whose land is it really? Who is the squatter, and who the rightful owner? Who is the immigrant?

There is a strong sense of place in the poem, from Cape Town location like Table Bay, Long Street and the ghettos of Khayelitsha and Mannenburg, to the other side of the country, Transvaal and it's inner city district of Hillbrow, and even the Namib Desert. The word Land is often used in various contexts. In Afrikaans Land has a broader meaning, it refers to country or nation more readily than in English

Language as subject

If Afrikaans just could dance
  - Koos Kombuis

It is not exactly surprising that Koos Kombuis will talk about the Afrikaans language - after all the pseudonym Kombuis means Kitchen, a reference to Kitchen Dutch. What first got my attention about his music was the fact that, darn it, he somehow does get his Afrikaans to dance. this is due in part, the the impurity of his methods - he includes slang and English words with abandon, and thus has a larger pool of vocabulary to draw on to make his rhymes and meter. Koos is a master wordsmith in his own idiolect.

The construction 'in die symste taal' is particularly interesting - 'symste' is neither an English word nor an Afrikaans one. It is the English word 'same' spelt as it would be if it was an Afrikaans word of that pronunciation, and then given an Afrikaans suffix. The word it will be understood, even if it will irritate grammatical purists.

Other notes

0) a black squatter camp on the outskirts of Cape Town. The name is in Xhosa, and means our new home.
1) Gatiep is a common Cape Coloured man's name.
2) Burning tyres were often used in the riots of the 1980's, either as roadblocks, or as a method of execution. See Necklacing. Mannenberg is a coloured area of Cape Town, and was the site of much violence during the struggle.
3) A Caspir is a kind of South African Military armoured vehicle, used to quell riots.
4) In this context boers means equally Afrikaaners, the police, the army, the state, but not farmer.
5) 'moer' means to fuck up or beat up.
6) Third class train carriages were segregated for blacks.
7) Long street is the heart of Cape Town's entertainment district. It is most likely the area where Koos would live and play on a visit to Cape Town.
8) slap tjips are French fries, but not little ones like McDonalds serves - i.e. English Fish and Chips without the fish. Cheap and heavy food to soak up the aftermath of a night out.
9) Durning the later phases of the Boer war (or if you are a boer, Die engelse oorlog The English war or Vryheids Ooorlog, war of Liberation) when it became clear that the British were going to defeat the Afrikaaners, not by superior skill, but by sheer force of numbers and brutality of tactics, there were two factions. The Hensoppers (hand-uppers) were in favour of surrender, and the bittereiders (bitter-enders) were not. Naked implies openly. The implication is that surrender is being openly discussed again.
10) the four racial categories admitted by Apartheid Were White, Black, coloured (mixed race) and Asian.
11) pap en wors or Porridge and sausage is a traditional cheap South African dish for Afrikaners and Zulus.
12) It is a well-known phenomenon that when a repressive state begins to reform and loosen it's grip, and the efforts of revolutionaries are intensified, not subdued, and it is a sign that the end is drawing near. Hence a return to repression. The National Party's reforms in the 1980s, prior to the declaration of the national state of emergency are no exception to this.
13) The national State of emergency was declared in June 1986 in order to try to quell growing political unrest. It lasted until October 1990, by which time the new National party leader FW De Klerk was defusing the situation by negotiation. During this time, the military and security police had virtually a free hand in arrest and detaining anyone, and the press was censored. It was no understatement that the people in Europe knew more of what was happening down the road from me than I did. I remember that for a while the newspapers would, in protest, print large blank spaces on their front pages where reports of violent clashes had been censored. Then this practice was itself censored, and we weren't allowed to know how much we didn't know. One of the benefits of the internet era is that this pervasive censorship is far, far harder to achieve.
14) tsotsi: a 'flashily dressed African street thug' or 'black hooligan'. They also had an intricate patois called tsotsi-taal
15) Only extreme left wing African nationalist splinter groups referred to the country as Azania.
16) Treurnicht was the name of an ultra-conservative white Afrikaner politician. The word could also mean cry-not.
17) Thrown stones were a common feature of riots. They remain a favourite weapon of the dispossessed.
18) Gambling was prohibited as immoral in the conservative old South Africa. However Sun City, a few hours drive from Johannesburg, was a pleasure resort located in the 'homeland' of Bophutatswana, which was notionally not part of South Africa. Here the rich could gamble and support grand apartheid at the same time. the 'we' who gamble is not the same 'we' who throw stones.

Mad props to Frankie and to DejaMorgana for all their help in making this write-up possible

My apologies to those of you viewing this in 800x600 or lower resolution, for whom the preformatted text no doubt makes E2 far too wide. Sorry, but that was the compromise I made in order to make this work.

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