Bok van Blerk plays a soldier in the music video of his controversial song De la Rey. When the Johannesburg airport’s name was changed to OR Tambo, an airport sign was vandalised by someone who thought De la Rey International was the way to go. The long-dead South African Anglo-Boer War hero, General Koos de la Rey, has become a new cult figure for many Afrikaners as the result of a song by musician Bok van Blerk.
At Van Blerk’s sold-out concerts, people call for the song De la Rey as he steps on stage. “De la Rey, De la Rey, sal jy die boere kom lei? [De la Rey, will you come to lead the Boers?]” they thunder. Van Blerk’s voice is drowned out by the singing crowd, standing to attention, some with old South African flags.
The award-winning music video is a rousing, emotional tour of the Anglo-Boer War, with recreated footage of women in British concentration camps and battlefield bravery.
Van Blerk’s debut CD, also titled De la Rey, is South Africa’s best ever debut album, with 115 000 sales to date. The song has even prompted a statement by Arts Minister Pallo Jordan: “Sadly, the popular song is in danger of being hijacked by a minority of right-wingers who not only regard De la Rey as a war hero, but also want to mislead sections of Afrikaans-speaking society into thinking that this is a ‘struggle song’ that sends out a ‘call to arms’.”
Theo Venter, a political analyst from the University of North West, said the song tapped into an emotional and “gatvol [fed up]” market, even though De la Rey himself was a peacemaker and reconciler. “The song should have been about bellicose General Christiaan de Wet instead, whose name does not rhyme with lei,” he said.
Other Afrikaans musicians are tapping into the “gatvol” market. Rock band Klopjag sings: “Ek sal nie langer jammer sê nie [I won’t say sorry any more],” in protest against perceived Afrikaner guilt trips about apartheid, while Steve Hofmeyr has become the ultimate Afrikaner-issue activist.
Hofmeyr has been prominent at protest rallies over the proposed change to Pretoria’s name, crime, and for the addition of South African Defence Force members’ names to the Freedom Park memorial.
Venter said Afrikaners were rudderless and that popular musicians who conveyed a message of solidarity and hope filled the leadership void.
“De la Rey fell on fertile ground,” he said. “The Afrikaner is leaderless and feels marginalised. The youth experience a feeling of animosity in the country.”
The Afrikaners’ “power loss syndrome” was typical of a group that ruled the roost for many years. Its symptoms included hostility towards the present government and a compensatory belief that it could do better, said Venter. Afrikaans youth, the so-called “De la Rey generation”, picked up a lot of their parents’ baggage.
Afrikaner alienation was not high on the ANC government’s agenda, he said. “But it would be a pity to ignore them, as they have skills and old money and could make a big difference to the country.”
In an interview, Van Blerk, real name Louis Pepler, said the inspiration for De la Rey was his desire to “do something for the language and culture of Afrikaans people. I am a musician, not a politician.”
But he added that the song’s success stemmed from the fact that it restored Afrikaners’ “proud place” in history. “Young Afrikaners are tired of having the apartheid guilt trip shoved down their throats. This song makes them proud of their heritage.”
Responding to Jordan’s definition of De la Rey as a “struggle song”, he said: “The implication is not that people should take up arms, it’s just music; I can’t help they way people interpret it.”
Van Blerk said he did not endorse the waving of the old flag at his concerts. “It’s baggage,” he said. “The Springboks can’t help it if their supporters bring the flag to stadiums, and the same goes for me.”
On a mountain in the night
we lie in the darkness and wait
In the mud and blood I lie cold, grain bag and rain cling to me
And my house and my farm
burned to ashes,
so that they could catch us
But those flames and that fire
burn now deep, deep within me
De la Rey, De la Rey
Will you come to lead the Boers?
De la Rey, De la Rey
General, General, as one manwe’ll fall in around you
General De la Rey
And the Khakis that laugh, a handful of us against their whole great might,
with the cliffs to our backs, they think it’s all over
But the heart of the Boer lies deeper and wider,
that they’ll still discover
At a gallop he comes, the Lion of the West Transvaal
Because my wife and my child are perishing in a concentration camp,
and the Khakis’ reprisal is poured over a nation that will rise up again
General De la Rey
De la Rey, De la Rey
Will you come for the Boers?
We are ready.
Bok van Blerk
It’s a lot of history for an age group more commonly associated with the apathy and apolitical leanings of the MTV generation
Biko told the youth that the most important thing was for them to keep their culture and know where they’re coming from. And that’s basically my point as well
We wanted to make sure our history was not forgotten because at the moment, in South African schools, there’s four lines in the history books that children get taught at school about the Anglo-Boer War, and I think that’s crazy. It’s like it never happened, like they want to wipe it away.
A catchy rock song that urges young Afrikaners to feel proud of their cultural identity is engaging passions across the country
Dressed in plain jeans and a lime-green golf shirt, sporting a small patch of tightly trimmed hair under his bottom lip, Bok van Blerk exudes boyish charm. Sitting backstage at the Firkin Pub in Centurion near Pretoria, his youthfulness and excitement before a show are obvious.
Out beyond the red curtains, a packed audience of people in their 20s and 30s clearly share this Afrikaans musician’s excitement. Of course this is nothing unusual for music venues anywhere in the country, but what is peculiar about this scene is that the crowd’s great enthusiasm and Bok’s own quick rise in popularity are closely connected to an Afrikaner general born 160 years ago.
That’s a lot of history for an age group more commonly associated with the apathy and apolitical leanings of the MTV generation.
But that’s the truth. Bok’s hit song, “De la Rey”, a rhyme about Anglo-Boer War General Jacobus de la Rey, has been receiving copious airtime on radio stations.
It has also led to sold-out shows like the one in Centurion where fans waited in line outside the pub long after the music had started, hoping they still might just get in. When the song is played, across the country the audience stands, link arms and sway to the call for a resurgent pride in their culture.
Bok himself has had a little trouble understanding his sudden popularity, but has come up with a few ideas. “When I sat down and wrote the song (“De la Rey”), it was how I felt at that stage,” he told Sunday Times Online.
“It’s being proud of who you are and knowing where you come from. To have a backbone and know where you’re going.”
Delving deeper into the politics of the song, the Pretoria-born musician refers to a speech Steve Biko once made: “He told the youth that the most important thing was for them to keep their culture and know where they’re coming from. And that’s basically my point as well”.
Since its release last year, reception to Bok van Blerk and his song “De la Rey” has been varied. Some have simply dismissed him as right-wing nut harking back to the Afrikaner glory days while others have been surprised by the depth of his music.
“Some people interpret the song totally wrong,” says Bok. “They think I’m asking for a new leader but I’m just telling a story.”
And it’s a story, he says, that is quickly being eclipsed in post-apartheid South Africa.
“We wanted to make sure our history was not forgotten because at the moment, in South African schools, there’s four lines in the history books that children get taught at school about the Anglo-Boer War, and I think that’s crazy. It’s like it never happened, like they want to wipe it away.”
And so it is through songs like “De la Rey” that Bok hopes young South Africans might be able find out more about the Anglo-Boer War and Afrikaner history in general.
Bok’s choice of General is also interesting. Rather than supporting Paul Kruger’s hawkish attitudes against the British in the 1880s, General de la Rey was actually against conflict with Britain. Nonetheless, when the fighting began he did his duty and received recognition for a number of victories. He was known as the general who was last to join the battlefield, but also the last to leave it.
“The white youth of South Africa grew up with this guilt of apartheid, it’s not something you can be proud of,” Bok explains. “And I think going back to one of the generals of the Boer War that stood for the right things—he stood for freedom and not going to war—is what the people need and that’s what they’re getting with the song.”
Bok’s musical ambitions were not always quite so lofty. He said his career had somewhat more mundane beginnings.
“I was always playing around campfires for my friends, entertaining family and working in the construction industry,” says the 28-year-old construction manager who’s real name is Louis Pepler.
Only after he was approached by a record company “out of the blue” did he begin taking his career seriously.
“We released the first CD in March 2006 and that’s where it all started from,” he said. “When we re-released, in three months, we went double platinum, so that speaks for itself.”
Bok adds that all his bookings for 2007 are now completely full, with six gigs a week. He’s also about to start working on a DVD. “I’m obviously not working in the construction industry anymore, I’m full-time now.”
The band is also heading overseas in March to play a few gigs in London. After that, Bok says he is planning a longer tour, in August, to destinations as far-flung as USA, Canada, The Netherlands and Australia.
And then there’s the offer he’s received for a gig in Baghdad. “Someone phoned me last night, they want me in Iraq, in Baghdad,” he says, laughing. “They told me that they play the De la Rey song there in the UN.” Apparently it’s also a big hit with the US soldiers on tour there.
Naturally, though, his biggest fans are Afrikaners here in South Africa. Bok says he’s often overwhelmed by the reception his music has received.
“People say thanks for what you’re doing for Afrikaans music and that you’re pulling our people together again.
“And you can see it in their eyes when I sing De la Rey, you can see the people are proud and they’re standing there with their fists to their hearts and some people are crying. It fulfills something they were in need of.”