How A Tacky, Embarrassing Afrikaaner Subculture Became Cool
Does zef exist? Or did Yolandis and Ninja of Die Antwoord make it all up in a frenzied (and successful) bid to capture international attention a year ago? Does it even matter now? Marlon Bishop traveled to South Africa to discover the "real" zef, and how it's connected to what he describes as "some of the worst music on planet Earth, objectively." Turns out Zef exists, but it might not be what you think it is...
“Crocs are zef. Flat-tops are zef. Wearing a cowboy hat to the club, that’s quite zef,” says Chopper Charlie, a South African blogger and DJ, while munching on a pizza at a seaside Cape Town café. “Ed Hardy prints. Ceramic clowns. Maltese poodles. I once saw a house with a life-size cement giraffe in the front garden. That was zef.”
Where the U.S. has its guidos and Britain has its chavs, South Africa has a little something called zef. The word is a derogatory way to refer to the downscale culture of blue-collar Afrikaaners, the descendants of Dutch homesteaders who have been living in Southern African for almost 500 years. In the popular imagination, somebody who is zef has a ridiculously souped-up car, drinks brandy and coke by the liter, gets into bar fights, watches rugby, and cusses like an ostrich farmer. Allegedly, the term derives from the Ford Zephyr, a cheap car ubiquitous in the 1970s and currently rusting in driveways across the country.
Zef has existed for long while in South Africa, but the word really began to ricochet around the internet around the time that YouTube-sensation-cum-pop-stars Die Antwoord exploded out of Cape Town in early 2010. In their interviews, members Ninja and Yolandi Visser described their music as “zef rave-rap.”
Audiences abroad were both delighted and confused by whole thing. Who were these psychotic-looking, tatted-up, foul mouthed white rappers from Africa, and what twisted subculture did they belong to? And across the blogosphere, the refrain: is Die Antwoord for real?
In South Africa, nobody was asking that question. The answer is no, for the most part. Yes, Ninja’s tattoos are real, and Yolandi really owns 13 white rats. But back at home, everybody realized that what Die Antwoord did was create elaborate, Sacha Baron Cohen-style personas for themselves based on a range of exaggerated South African stereotypes: part Quaalude-smoking trailer trash, part tacky ’90s raver, part Pollsmoor Prison inmate, with a heavy sprinkling of small town ghetto-fabulousness. Besides, locals recognized frontman Ninja as Watkin Tudor Jones, an established member of the music scene, who had previously led a series of conceptual rap projects like Max Normal and The Constructus Corporation
As the story goes, part of Jones’ inspiration for the whole Die Antwoord concept was Wat Kyk Jy?, a blog started in Pretoria by a few Afrikaaner college friends, including Chopper Charlie, in 2000. The site’s name means “What are you looking at?” in Afrikaans (“It’s one of the last things you hear before your head hits the ground,” explains Charlie.) It started started as a way to poke fun at the culture of the rural Afrikaaner towns the authors came from, featuring pictures of rat-tails gone wrong and a “zef slang dictionary.” But then it began to get popular among university kids. “When we started this used to be a bit fringe,” says Chopper Charlie. “But it really evolved. It’s become a bit of a bandwagon thing.”
Just as middle-class American hipster kids circa 2003 adopted the trucker hats and hunting flannels of poor, white America, some South African kids have taken up the trappings of zef – track suits, porny mustaches – and made them into a fashion statement. Which is altogether pretty revolutionary, since Afrikaaners for generations have been instructed by their parents to avoid zef-ness at all costs. “It’s ironic in one sense,” says Donald Swanepoel, another member of the Wat Kyk Jy? team, “But it’s also sincere, because it’s stuff we kind of love and connect with.”
The artist that represents this trend the most is Jack Parow, the only other “zef” rapper out there aside from Die Antwoord. Parow comes from Bellville, a shabby suburb north of Cape Town, and home to a miniature Afrikaans musical renaissance that occured in the last decade, spawning popular punk and rock acts like Fokofpolisiekar and Die Heuwels Fantasties. In his videos, Parow gallivants around run-down burger joints while rocking big chains, board shorts, and shimmering gold hi-tops while rhyming in Afrikaans. Whereas Die Antwoord codes their music with complex ideas about South African society, Jack Parow is all about straight-ahead party rap. Still, Parow avoids labeling himself as a “zef” artist. “I’m an Afrikaans rapper,” says Parow. “I try and stay away from the new hip terms and stuff.”
One of the reasons that young Afrikaaners are rallying behind Jack Parow and Die Antwoord is that traditional Afrikaans pop is some of the worst music on planet Earth, objectively. “That’s the real zef right there, without even trying to be,” says Parow. “They are one of the reasons people used to be embarrassed to say they were Afrikaans. They didn’t want to be connected to those f*#king idiots.”