National Wake: the multiracial South African punk band that rebelled against apartheid

Guitarist and songwriter Ivan Kadey didn’t set out to form South Africa’s first multiracial punk band, but from the moment he met brothers Gary and Punka Khoza it was clear what a potent combination they would make. In the late Seventies, under the apartheid system of institutionalised racial oppression that kept white and Black South Africans apart, the group’s very existence would prove explosive. “Just standing up and making music together was a political statement,” explains Kadey, now 70, speaking over video call from his current home in Los Angeles. “We were for a non-racial, peaceful South Africa and just by getting up and performing we stood for that. On many levels, it was a f*** you to the system.”

He already had the perfect name for this band of outlaws: National Wake. At the time the country was under the rule of the right-wing National Party, so by calling themselves National Wake they were both urging their country to wake up from the nightmare of segregation and promising to celebrate its demise. “We were saying: ‘Let’s dance on the corpse of apartheid,’” explains Kadey. “The name was a pure agitprop statement, as was the very composition of the band.”

Formed in 1979, National Wake recorded just one album before splitting under the pressure of police harassment in 1982. Now the story of their brief, turbulent existence is being told in a new documentary, This Is National Wake, which has its world premiere this week at Sheffield DocFest. Director Mirissa Neff believes the band’s story remains powerfully resonant. “One of the major themes of this film is about how we experience history,” says Neff. “This band came from a particular moment in time, a police state where these godawful, inhumane things were happening, and they converted that into something beautiful. These were people who were not even supposed to be together, yet they formed for the love of music across race lines when it was illegal to do so. I think that’s so admirable.”

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