Writer revisits 1970s South Africa through book

Erich Rautenbach, South African author – Photo courtesy of Erich Rautenbach

Erich Rautenbach, South African author – Photo courtesy of Erich Rautenbach

When one thinks of apartheid-era South Africa, one tends to think of the end of the story: major grassroots riots, solidarity concerts led by ‘80s music icons, Nelson Mandela being released from prison, etc.

But for writer Erich Rautenbach, his South Africa was a very different experience with mandatory army service, arrests and prison time – not to mention a healthy dollop of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.

He has lived in the Lower Mainland since the early 1980s, and has written a book about his experiences, called The Unexploded Boer. It’s published by Zebra Press, a South African imprint of Random House Struik.

1970s South Africa 

“I describe it [the book] as being about a dysfunctional kid, from a dysfunctional family, in a dysfunctional country, trying to do the right thing, and trying to figure out what the right thing is,” says Rautenbach.

In South Africa at the time, all white men were faced with a choice after high school: university, or the army. Rautenbach chose neither.

“Trying to stay out of the army was my goal, and trying to not fight and kill fellow citizens who just wanted to vote,” says Rautenbach.

That decision proved to be a fateful one, and took him on a raucous years-long “lost weekend” in Capetown, full of tragically colourful characters that could have only lived in that place, and in that time. It also landed him in prison, and then in a mental institution.

While the book is on the surface a memoir of Rautenbach’s experiences in 1970s South Africa, it’s in some ways an apocryphal one, and one that doesn’t rely so much on facts as it does on its author’s unique interpretation of memory and history.

“It was written as a bit of a fantasy. Did that really happen to me? The idea that all that happened to me is pretty far-fetched,” says Rautenbach, adding that for him, the actual events described in the book aren’t as important as his manipulation of words.

“What it’s about is really an excuse [to write]. It just happened that I had this little story that I could use.” He says that for him, writing is about playing with words, as opposed to imparting facts.

“I’m spinning poetry, without any real meaning.”

The Return

Unexploded BoerRautenbach recently returned to South Africa, where he spent several months on a promotional tour supporting Boer. He hasn’t lived there since 1981, and apart from a brief trip in 1996, hasn’t been back. He says that the changes in that time have been huge, though in some ways superficial.

“Nowadays, South Africa is utterly different from what it was before, except for the fact that there’s still a lot of wealthy white people with British, German, and Swiss accents living in mansions, and the majority of the people still live in little tin shacks outside the city proper.”

Still, Rautenbach says that the changes are welcome.

“Now, Johannesburg looks like Africa, rather than just a hot New Zealand,” he explains. “When I left there were lots of nice clean buildings with a few white people strolling around and lots of space between them in the streets; but when Africa comes to town, there is no space, there’s just lots of Africa. There’s now lots of people, and the sidewalks are crowded, full of people that were just hidden away before.”

Life Since

Rautenbach has spent the decades since creating a life for himself in the Lower Mainland. Throughout the 1980s, he played in dozens of independent rock and punk bands of variable fame, and has continued his involvement with the music industry by launching a music copywriting and promotions business from his home. But his main priority these days is raising his three sons with his partner, Mary Anne. In fact, he cites his kids as being a prime motivation for writing Boer.

“I went through a near-death thing [a serious bout with leukemia] last winter, and if these stories weren’t written down, my kids wouldn’t know about them,” he says.

“Hopefully, this provides them some sort of link that connects them to my path”.