The Remarkable Story of South Africa’s First Multiracial Punk Band

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This Is National Wake, 2022
This Is National Wake, 2022(Film still)

Mirissa Neff’s new documentary This Is National Wake tells the story of a revolutionary punk band that emerged during a time of intense racism and oppression

“This was a system that was to be denied,” says Ivan Kadey, guitarist and vocalist with National Wake, reflecting on making music in apartheid-era South Africa. “That was basic to our existence. We lived a life in opposition to government policy. The music was meant to be protest music. It was ‘fuck you’ music.” 

The history of punk is often a story that is rehashed with the same predictable crew of Anglo-American, largely white, bands. But Mirissa Neff’s new documentary This Is National Wake looks to reshape the narrative by telling the story of South Africa’s first-ever multiracial punk band. National Wake had a short but incendiary existence, between 1978 and 1982, playing a mix of punk, funk and reggae, driven by rhythms that flitted between choppy ska and African grooves. “Shake your arse music,” as Kadey describes it. 

Despite the backdrop of South Africa at the time being one of intense oppression, racism and bloodshed, the film zooms in on some of the joy, harmony and connectedness that existed in underground circles during this time, as well as the battles they faced in celebrating that. “Depicting Black joy is extremely important to me as a human and a Black filmmaker,” says Neff, who discovered the band via the 2012 documentary Punk in Africa

“It was definitely intentional to highlight the hope that existed because I was completely unaware of it,” she says. “I was aware of how bad the South African government was and white nationalism, so in my mind there was complete separation, Black and white did not mix at all. But of course, in practice, that’s not possible. You can’t separate people like that. There has to be interaction, and that interaction might lead to something as beautiful as National Wake.” 

The other members of the band were brothers Gary and Punka Khoza, along with Steve Moni. The band were a visual demonstration of the multiracial world they wished to see reflected back at them in South Africa. They had a small but impassioned following, although getting their voices heard on a wider scale in the country was hugely difficult. “Just getting up together and playing on stage was already a political statement,” says Kadey. “An act of defiance.” This sometimes meant that little of their music would even get heard; they would be thrown off stage or prevented from playing once it became clear who made up the band. “There were clubs where the manager would book us and we’d arrive and the owner would see this was a mixed-race band and go ballistic,” recalls Kadey. “At one club the guy threatened to shoot us if we got on stage but we did it anyway. When we would travel, we were always open to danger. It could be a journey across enemy territory.” 

They released a self-titled album in 1981, which only sold in the hundreds and was soon withdrawn, with Kadey believing government and police put pressure on the record label and effectively wiped the album out. Police harassment grew intense and inescapable. They lived together in a house where they were visited up to three times a day by police, looking for any excuse to harass or arrest them. “Every year there would be a graduation of the police academy and as a treat for these guys they would bring them to the National Wake house,” Kadey recalls. “We would get these young cops, like 50 of them, coming through the house, going through our stuff, just to see the people living there and to get a sense of what they had to control.”

It became an untenable situation for the band, with tensions and stresses mounting. “We were all blown apart and exhausted,” Kadey says. “Day to day, we were always dealing with the next crisis.” Once they lost their shared house, a crucial safe space despite police interference, that created an even greater split in the band and they soon called it a day. 

Unbeknown to them, John Peel was a fan and had been playing their songs enthusiastically on the radio, while also rightly pointing out the relative ease of life UK punk bands had in comparison. “My only regret now is if I’d actually heard that John Peel was looking forward to hearing more from us then I probably would have done more,” says Kadey. Things took an even more tragic turn over the years since the band broke up, with Gary suffering from schizophrenia and taking his own life, while his brother Punka died of an Aids-related illness. 

However, with the documentary completed and reissues of their music released by Light in the Attic records, the story has taken on a more positive spin for Kadey. “It was bad and it was difficult but it was so much fun,” he says. “There was nothing more exhilarating than being on stage with that band. You’re in the middle of this throbbing vibration that is putting out energy. I remember one gig where the bass and drums were propelling with such a force that I felt us floating. That’s an exhilarating place to be and it made everything worth fighting for. To actually occupy that space and to be free in that space.” 

This Is National Wake tours the UK with Doc’n Roll Film Festival, October 28-November 11, 2022.