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I Started a Punk Zine in Racist Rural South Africa

As a teenager, I felt that I—a poor, English-speaking white South African—had absolutely no voice in my province, which was paradoxically named the Free State. Which is probably why I soon became fascinated with the British and American punks from a...

by Murray Stassen
Oct 24 2013, 7:00am

All images are scans from The Obscenely Loud. Click to enlarge.

Growing up in the shadow of apartheid in rural South Africa was complicated. Even by the time I turned 18, in 2006, an ignorant concept of the "other" was still deeply rooted in the psyches of a lot of people, which made life pretty difficult. As an English speaker in a predominantly Afrikaans agricultural region, I was often made to feel like a foreigner in my hometown, despite being born on the same soil as everybody else.

The African National Congress, the country's ruling political party, had—and still has—failed to create an equal-opportunity society nearly 20 years after apartheid ended. Corruption plagues the ruling system and poverty is widespread, while crime and unemployment levels are high, and social mobility is near to impossible for most people. As a teenager, I felt that I—a poor, English-speaking white South African—had absolutely no voice in my province, which was paradoxically named the Free State.

While trying to figure out my place in the society I'd been born into, I realized that I lacked a cultural identity and any tangible economic prospects. Which is probably why I soon became fascinated with the British and American punks from a generation before me who were writing and singing about racism, unemployment, poverty, and other social issues.

Luckily, I found some solidarity with like-minded individuals in the Bloemfontein punk scene between 2006 and 2007, which mostly consisted of skateboarders, artists, musicians, and liberal thinkers from a range of different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. I'd moved to the city from my tiny, conservative hometown two hours away, where there were only a few kids into skating and punk rock.

The alternative culture in the Free State was much less developed than in the bigger cities, like Durban, Cape Town, and Johannesburg. The skateboarding magazines I read in my early teens often seemed to overlook the agricultural province, and I can understand why. The only skate park in Bloemfontein at the time was a decaying old mess, with rusting metal ramps and cracks in the concrete—a far cry from the plush, Tony Hawk-designed park 400 miles away in Durban.

Bored with our surroundings and lacking a platform to express ourselves, my friend Ruan and I decided to create a zine to cover the city’s growing alternative scene, which we called The Obscenely Loud (TOL). We wanted to inform people about what was happening locally, and to provide people who made it to the shows and skate events with something they could take away and share, with the hope that a few more people might show up at the next ones.

Sharing content through social media wasn't quite a thing by this point—most houses in the region didn't have broadband—so, in retrospect, it was the perfect time to launch a zine, just before websites like issuu were introduced and anyone with a DLSR started throwing up online street-style zines or flip-through Pinterest boards. And I like to think that the fact our zine was a cut-and-paste job distributed for free at our favorite record stores and music venues might have helped build up some drive around the local scene; at the pinnacle of TOL, there were more bands and a lot more people going to shows, which probably had something to do with the fact that the music was generally getting a lot better.

The inaugural issue was kind of bare. We had an interview with a local band, articles about the local skate scene, and the "Word from the Curb" section, where we had our news and gig listings. After the first issue, we started to get an idea of what we were actually doing, printing around 200 copies each time, and including stuff like gig reviews, opinion pieces, and short stories.

The zine could have been used to express our political views, but we didn’t do that. Instead, we tried to be funny and talk about everything we did in our day-to-day lives: music, skating, and fucking around. Complaining about the political situation in a fanzine realistically wouldn’t have solved anything, so all we could really do was try to laugh at our surroundings.

In a short amount of time, the editorial team grew, contributors increased, and TOL started to get enough attention for it to carry advertising from local companies to fund the printing costs. After two issues, we decided to throw a launch party for the zine, and with the support of the Jo’burg punk and metal scene we booked enough performers from both cities for the launch party to be morphed into a one-night camping festival called Obscenefest.

The festival was as DIY and ramshackle as the zine itself. We found someone with some land on the outskirts of the city who was willing to let us host the event there, and with the help of a lot of our friends we prepared the area for a music festival. But it all went surprisingly well, given the fact we'd sourced the equipment and built the stage ourselves.

And there weren’t just punks and metal heads there, either. A lot of people from the city came, many of whom we hadn’t met before. Obscenefest helped lift the city’s underground scene out of obscurity, and in spite of working with almost no budget and a complete lack of experience, that small, initial idea helped promote a shared sense of cultural identity and a voice for the voiceless.

Although the zine was wrapped up in 2008 after several issues, the TOL crew ended up putting on a larger Obscenefest the next year, with an even more varied lineup than the first, which was a big deal in a city like Bloemfontein. Sadly, a lack of economic opportunity in the Free State means that a lot of people leave for larger cities or abroad, and the scene that I was part of gradually faded.

But my involvement with the community that TOL covered gave me the sense of cultural identity I'd been lacking. And while the punk scene in the city might have disintegrated, there's a far more diverse alternative culture there now compared to the jock mentality that seemed to dominate things when I first arrived. I get the sense that the ignorant views of old South Africa are starting to be pushed out of the mainstream to the periphery.   

Follow Murray on Twitter: @murrayonly

More stories from South Africa:

Trained to Hate

A Convicted South African Terrorist Discusses the Future of His Country

Interviewing South African Rape Victims Isn't Easy When You're Disfigured

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The Obscenely Loud
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