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Fred de Vries

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Interview with Koos Kombuis

Koos Kombuis, Wimbledon Walkabout


Last year Koos Kombuis recorded an album of furious protest songs called Bloedrivier. It contained fist-in-the-air rock anthems such as Die Fokol Song and Reconciliation Day about the murder of his friend Taliep Pietersen.

The album was conceived during those gloomy pre-Polokwane days. As Kombuis recalls: “The songs were written when Mbeki started propping up Mugabe and going for third term of leadership of ANC. I was starting to think: oooh, this is looking very dark. I began to feel quite racist. Every time I saw blacks on the street I thought: why can’t you vote for someone else, dammit.”

He touched a raw nerve; Bloedrivier with its loud guitars and thundering choruses became the best selling album of his career, which spans more than twenty years. “I got pretty big cheques and we paid off our house loan, almost all of it,” he says, grinning at the paradox of turning rebellion into money.

This house, where he lives with his wife, two kids and dog Griet, stands on the outskirts of Sommerset West. Or as he explains in an email with directions: “The very last street of the very last suburb where the very last Voëlvry survivor lives…” He goes on to describe the house as “a mock Tuscan double-storey, and you might get barked at by a very stupid but perfectly pedigreed Boxer dog who sometimes responds to the name of Griet.” The mail ends with: “Welcome to my world!”

The world of Koos Kombuis is a very peculiar one. His history as an Afrikaans icon is long and winding, and includes school rebellion, drugs, soul searching, journalism, more drugs, girlfriends, more soul searching, electro shock therapy and a stay in Ward 6 of the Weskoppies mental hospital.

But interesting enough, it was his stint in the army that was his real epiphany. It opened his eyes to a different world, one beyond suffocating Calvinism and dysfunctional families. “Suddenly I would sleep next to a bed with a Portuguese guy and then a soutie and then someone else, rich and poor, all together. I loved that. I thrived on that deurmekaarigheid. I thought: this is how it should be.”

In the 80s he started strumming his guitar, learned a few chords and composed touching, often satiric songs such as Boer in beton which appeared on the 1987 cassette Ver van die ou Kalahari. Not much later he met like minded musicians Ralph Rabie (Johannes Kerkorrel) and James Phillips (Bernoldus Niemand). Together they embarked on the seminal Voëlvry tour in 1989. When the whole thing imploded due to conflicting ego’s, debauchery and exhaustion Koos became an endearing alternative Afrikaner troubadour, a true bohemian with a pocketful of songs and a sweetheart in every town.

For a long time it seemed he would be the first of the Voëlvry guys to collapse under the self-destructive lifestyle. Instead, James Phillips died in 1995 in a car crash and Kerkorrel committed suicide in 2002. Koos, meanwhile, cleaned up his act, found a caring wife and made fame as a folkie, a gifted writer and a sharp columnist, finally finding solace in suburbia.

Well over fifty, he was tired of kombies, drugs and dirty socks. He had paid his dues. And then, all of sudden there was this return to angry rock. First he and his band played Oppikoppi and drew a bigger crowd than the Violent Femmes. Next he received a loan from his friend Dutch singer Stef Bos to record the album. He got his old buddy bassist/arranger Schalk Joubert in, and the process began.

“We went to the studio and all sorts of people just phoned and said: I heard you’re doing a CD, can I be part of it, I’ll do it for free or for very cheep. Next moment all these huge names in the studio, even Anton Goosen.”

The title raised a few eyebrows. Bloedrivier… Was Koos, the affable vagabond going the same nationalist route as Bok van Blerk with De La Rey or Deon Opperman with his play Ons vir jou, appealing to the Afrikaner laager mentality? “I was terrified of that,” he says. So what he did was make a distinctly multi-racial video for Reconciliation Day and start an on-line war with Deon Opperman. “I thought: this is the ideal opportunity, let’s stage a fight with this guy. Because in the public eye they will see me as separate from him. It was perfect. The right wingers didn’t go for it.”

Still, the title is rather ambiguous. He nods. “I’m not an Afrikaner, but I am Afrikaans speaking, and the history of the Afrikaner is my history. But obviously I see what happened at Bloedrivier in a very different way. I see it as a lot of violence and I see it as a misunderstanding between Dingaan and Retief. A big tragedy. I don’t see it as God making us win and all that crap. But it’s part of the history and a powerful symbol. I saw it as about the water being dirty, the pollution, the violence and all the crime. It was a perfect metaphor. But it was dangerous because I didn’t want it to be: grrr, fok julle, ons is blankes. So I picked the fight with Opperman, and it worked: intelligent people bought the CD.”

Afrikaners and Afrikaanses. Two years ago Koos wrote a column for Rapport in which he gave up his Afrikanerdom. “So many people hated me for that. I betrayed die volk. But I found it hard to live with the word Afrikaner. I don’t like the fact that when you speak a certain language you should have all this cultural baggage. I know that for traditional Afrikaners it’s not just speaking Afrikaans: you’re white, you like rugby and you go to this church and you abuse your children in some way, hahaha. I love the language. I have spoken it all my life. But when I think of who my real friends are, they’re people like Taliep, people outside the fold, urbanised people. The fact that I’m white or Afrikaans is very low on my list of priorities.”

Even though much of the anger he felt last year has evaporated (“The other day I almost bought an ANC T-shirt, coz I really like and trust some of these new guys.”), the making of the album, the fulmination against ANC’s arrogance, has had a cleansing effect on Kombuis. He got rid of the guilt and the liberal knee-jerk of “I’m so sorry I’m white”.

“You mustn’t put black people on a pedestal. Because then, when they disappoint you, you become more racist than you would’ve been. And for a while this was happening in my head, even while I was doing this recording, trying to understand my anger. Afterwards it sort of righted itself, and I realized it’s not an issue anymore. Before I used to overcompensate. I’ve stopped doing that. Which is a relief.”

An example? “Like there’s a black beggar who comes at my door. I’ve been helping him to get a job. At one stage I caught him lying to me. I got him a job and he never pitched. I was so angry at him. I scolded him. And I felt so relieved. Hier die ou is ’n doos. When I was shouting at him I told him: ek is nie ’n fokken racist nie, maar jy het my teleurgestel, don’t come back. And it was like: ha, I’m free. It became just a guy, not a black or white guy.”


1954 Born in Cape Town as André le Roux du Toit

1958 First manuscript rejected

1959 Expelled from nursery school

1960 Sabbatical

1961 Starts school

1964 Discovers the Beatles

1971 Conversion to Christianity

1973 Conscripted

1974 Wanders around Joburg, doing odd jobs

1977 Sent to Weskoppies mental hospital

1978 Looses virginity

1979 Conversion to spiritualism

1980 Conversion to Judaism, rejected by synagogue

1981 Starts writing career (short stories for Huisgenoot) from Long Street brothel

1982 Publishes Suburbia

1987 Releases Ver van die ou Kalahari as André Letoit

1989 Voëlvry Tour

1990 Releases Niemandsland as Koos Kombuis

1990 Conversion to Rastafarianism

1993 Gives up hard drugs

1997 Falls in love, settles down

2000 First child born (not counting those out of wedlock)

2000 Publishes autobiography Seks & drugs & boeremusiek

2002 Second child born

2004 Conversion to humanism

2008 Releases Bloedrivier


Johannes Kerkorrel, because he was the reluctant Messiah of Afrikaans rock; Jesus, because unlike Zuma, he never sued anybody; Hugh Hefner (Playboy editor-in-chief), who has shown immense courage by trying to live with three blonde women simultaneously. No sane man would attempt such a feat; My wife, Kannetjie. She is my inspiration, my best friend and my life coach. And she got me out of jail last November.

The editor of Huisgenoot (Esmaré Weideman) -she is nice person with a great sense of humour, but she is also tough as nails… Steve [Hofmeyr] certainly made the biggest mistake of his life when he took her on (he threw a cup of tea in her face).

Photo courtesy Christine van der Merwe


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