Maverick Life

BOOK REVIEW

The Beatles, Jesus and a Calvinist conundrum in an apartheid state

The Beatles, Jesus and a Calvinist conundrum in an apartheid state
Image: Jonathan Ball Publishers / Supplied

In the second volume of his recently published trilogy exploring the historical terrain of Calvinist South Africa and Catholic Mozambique, Charles van Onselen has produced a melodic account of broadcasting and its role in culture and liberation wars in 20th-century southern Africa. Along the way it sheds light on a farcical chapter in the social and political history of rock 'n' roll.

In late 1966, John Lennon famously suggested that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”. At this point in what in many ways was the defining cultural decade of the 20th century – African liberation movements were on the march and America’s highly politicised culture wars since have largely been a reaction to or defence of the progressive advances of the 1960s – Lennon’s comment went down like a blazing lead zeppelin among the stern Calvinists of South Africa’s National Party.

The upshot was that the SABC board banned The Beatles from its airwaves. And it did not stop there, with guidance no doubt provided by prayers over koeksisters.

“The following year, in yet another gesture to those withdrawing into the laager of white civilisation in what felt like the coming of the Black Death, the SABC extended the ban to what it could not define but nevertheless termed all ‘hippy music’,” Charles van Onselen writes in Through the Turnstiles of the Mind: White South Africans and the Freedoms of Mozambique, circa 1914-1975.

The ban on “hippy music”, however poorly defined, was music to the ears of the Johannesburg firm of Davenport & Meyer (D&M) and the upstart station it provided marketing and PR services for, Lourenço Marques Radio, or LMR, which had been broadcasting from across the border since the mid-1930s.

“… in the office of D&M and LMR studios, teams of surgeons could not remove the knowing grins that followed instantly,” Van Onselen writes. It is a tale that, decades later, can still trigger a grin and guffaws. It certainly gave this reviewer an LOL moment and is a reminder that great history is both serious and fun.

From its subtropical base in Lusophone, Catholic Mozambique, LMR’s musical offering appealed to a younger generation of (mostly white) South Africans who were more urbanised and affluent than their parents and grandparents, and thus less tethered to their outlook – a reflection of wider currents up north.

The SABC, by Calvinist contrast, had a dull offering, especially on Sundays – when listeners were allegedly supposed to be focused on the sacred and the Sabbath – allowing LM’s flagship show the LM Hit Parade to fill the gap. This would have featured the front-runners to “hippy music”, artists who at that time would not have dared to publicly compare themselves to Christ while still raising a flap among a faithful flock.   

By 1949, when the SABC was preparing to launch its first commercial initiative, Springbok Radio, LMR was already ruling the airwaves – and that was while “hippy music” 1960s style still lay on the horizon.

“By 1949… A survey revealed that some point or another on any day of the week, 45% of South Africans were tuning into LMR, and by Sunday evening, when a church-state induced stupor made even the chronically idle yearn for the coming of Monday, the figure rose to 48%,” Van Onselen notes.

So, almost two decades later, when the SABC made its move against “hippy music” to shield the youth from its diabolical influence, LMR and D&M could hardly believe their good fortune.  

“The state broadcaster,” Van Onselen acidly notes, “supposedly set on maintaining its niche in the marketplace via Springbok Radio had, yet again, executed the old nose-and-face trick to largely muted applause.”

This Protestant panic over “hippy music” is one of many telling tales that pepper this concise and highly readable narrative – gems of insight that cast a glittering light along the wide path of the longue durée – a “long-term” approach to history linked to the Annales school of thought and scholars such as Fernand Braudel that Van Onselen raises in the first volume of this trilogy.

Calvinist and Catholic seeds planted in the soil of 17th-century southern Africa would ultimately give rise to an Anglophone/Protestant state on one hand that rapidly urbanised and industrialised after the discovery of vast diamond and gold deposits. On the other a Lusophone, Catholic, commercial and rural entity would emerge, often in the shade of its counterpart while providing a ray of light for a white settler population seeking escape from the darkness of its mostly self-imposed Calvinist canopy.

Such seeds would germinate three centuries later into, among other things, a ban on hippy music.

From these roots a thorn-studded tree of ruthless exploitation would also grow, branching out into the migrant labour system that built the largest gold industry in history from the withered foliage of a brutalised black workforce that was for decades drawn from Mozambique and South Africa’s bantustans. This would provide the bark that became apartheid’s bitter bite.

But for white South Africans who preferred to avert their gaze while plugging their ears and closing their mouths, Mozambique provided a warm and sunny respite from a racist and Calvinist – verging on the outright fascist – cultural closet. Judging from LMR’s success in breaching the door, that closet was rather crowded, and the station’s seaside setting was a draw decades before its “Hit Parade” penetrated it.

“For those single males in Johannesburg with an eye on Lourenço Marques as a holiday possibility in the early 20th century, the communities, as well as the contrasts, between the two cities lent themselves to a potentially rewarding vacation experience,” Van Onselen observes.

“Altitude, climate and position made for stark physical contrasts, while exposure to a different cultural universe made for a tolerable if not altogether welcome change. But it was the last echoes of a frontier town that lived on in Lourenço Marques, providing the familiar social institutions of beer, barmaids and brothels, that offered the cultural continuities sought by many a youthful immigrant miner.”

And it was the white and coloured barmaids drawn from the South African closet over the Komati River who caused the custodians of Calvinism to freak out long before John Lennon crossed the Rubicon.

“… for poorly educated, economically vulnerable white and coloured women placed in social jeopardy by having been forced off the land, or for those locked into mining towns during an unforgiving industrial revolution, the demi-monde of the tourist sector in the Lourenço Marques economy was a site of comparative safety,” Van Onselen observes. “There they independently found, or were set to, work as barmaids and dancers, hostesses in bars or brothels or cafes and casinos.”

But from the birth of the white-ruled South African union in 1910, the city that became Maputo “was both a place of refuge and (italics are the author’s) site of state surveillance. The South African government saw Mozambique as a Catholic enclave, as part of a zone of sexual danger for adventurous or depraved women, that either lured them into the attractions of the tourist demi-monde or offered unwanted sanctuary to irresponsible women fleeing the supposedly legitimate, ultimately patriarchal control of their families or some unwanted spouse.”  

The result was that from the time of the Great Depression and perhaps a decade earlier – the historical records are murky – the South Africa consul and Mozambique’s governor-general, “seemingly without legal sanction”, deported South African women back home on the grounds that they were “in dereliction of their moral obligation”.

At least they could subsequently listen to LMR if they had a radio.

But by the early 1970s, after a convoluted and covert campaign years in the making, the SABC managed in a secret deal to gain control of LMR, and hippy music was not the only threat that needed to be contained.

“In the 1960s and early 1970s, African nationalist wars of liberation spread rapidly through much of the wider region, leaving white South Africa increasingly isolated and with the possibility of LMR one day falling ‘into enemy hands’. The threat of ‘hostile’ broadcasts being beamed into the country from Lourenco Marques, by freedom fighters intent on liberating black South Africans from the heavy burdens of apartheid, was all too real,” Van Onselen writes.

The new Frelimo government in Mozambique, bent on nationalising all media in the former colony, would drive the final nail into LMR’s coffin. Many South Africans had already abandoned the station in its straitjacketed SABC format.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Mozambique’s underdevelopment explained

“At 5am on the morning of 12 October 1975, after nearly four decades of lively broadcasting to cultural agnostics in South Africa, LMR finally went off the air.”

The person behind the drive to gain control of LMR was PJ Meyer, who was chairman of both the SABC and the Broederbond, the secretive and sinister society that was dedicated to the cause of Afrikaner nationalism. And the Calvinist cloth that Brother No. 787 was cut from contained fascist fabric. Van Onselen reports that Meyer in the 1930s made a number of study trips to Germany, where he became acquainted with some prominent Nazis including Hitler’s chief of staff, Rudolf Hess, who taught the South African how to ski. It was a slippery slope from there to the madness that was apartheid and side-sagas such as the war on hippy music.

“Ever since the formation of the Union, in 1910, Calvinist conservatives tried – with mixed success – to ensure that the South African state controlled those turnstiles of the white mind that led to Catholic Mozambique and unwanted, modern ‘liberal’ tendencies,” Van Onselen writes. “Today, it is African nationalists, far more tolerant of cultural differences, who insist on controlling the SABC for party-political reasons. A luta continua.”

One of the advantages of viewing history through the penetrating prism of the longue durée is that distant dots can be connected, allowing us, from our current vantage point, to make some sense of the seemingly senseless. This does not make the past less vile or ugly – quite the contrary – but it helps to explain it, which is the key task of the historian. And Van Onselen has taken on this task in characteristic fashion with both wit and wisdom.

History can often produce a grin, but in southern Africa, more often it evokes a grimace. DM

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