(I've Never Met) A Nice South African - a Song by Spitting Image Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

(I've Never Met) A Nice South African - a Song by Spitting Image

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In 1986 Apartheid was still firmly in place in South Africa, but the world was beginning to wake up to the horror of the regime and to mobilise against it. Part of this was activity by cultural figures, both in boycotting South Africa as long as the white minority regime was in place, and in attacking it publicly. Other protest songs included 'Free Nelson Mandela' and 'Biko', but none were perhaps quite as blunt as Spitting Image's take on the issue.

The television show Spitting Image was at the height of its success at this time, and decided to put out a single. It was a 'double B side' but went to number one largely on the back of the now legendary 'Chicken Song', about which no more shall be said. On the flip side, however, was the rather more polemical '(I've Never Met) A Nice South African'. The song itself seeks to show how, despite the singer being a terribly experienced traveller who has had lots of unusual experiences, they have never met a nice (white) South African.

The lyrics for 'The Chicken Song' came from Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, who were regular script writers for the Spitting Image series. The pair later went on to create the hugely successful science fiction sitcom Red Dwarf. Rob Grant has apologised for the poultry puerility, describing it as the worst song ever to get to number one. According to the sleeve notes, John Lloyd wrote 'South African' and according to various Internet sources it seems that Peter Brewis wrote the music, with Chris Barrie doing the voice - the sleeve notes credits Spitting Image, featuring The Wet Gits1. The video was just as provocative as the song, as you would expect from the puppet masters in question.

Was the song a bit strong?

There is no doubt that the choruses and the title are very harsh, and paint with a very broad brush. Notably they ignore the fact that some white South Africans opposed the Apartheid regime (with the exception of the reference to Breyten Breytenbach2) as well as excluding black and Asian inhabitants from the title of 'South Africans'. The lyrics can seem particularly inappropriate today, given the vast strides made by South Africa since 1986.

However, as well as the fact that this song was written in specific historical circumstances, there are at least two arguments in favour of the intemperate language contained in the song. Firstly, harsh situations sometimes demand harsh treatment. Some would argue that this kind of approach was necessary to demonstrate to moderate white South Africans that their country was shunned by the rest of the world for its policies. After all, the cultural, economic and sporting boycotts that helped to isolate Apartheid South Africa, deprived all South Africans, not just the racists. Indeed, at the time those who were doing business in SA argued that a withdrawal would create most impact on those who were economically weakest, in other words the black population. The ANC always resisted that argument, and considered that long term gain was worth short term pain. In some ways, this song was a small part of that trend.

Secondly, we need to bear in mind the form of communication. 'I've never met a nice white South African who supports Apartheid' doesn't scan in any way shape or form, which is a problem for a satirical song. This issue is a bit similar to the minor controversy over the re-release of the Band Aid single 'Do They Know It's Christmas'. The line in the song that goes 'where nothing ever grows' is clearly not a very precise description of agricultural productivity in Africa, but it's supposed to be a song, that rhymes and has catchy lyrics - not a policy document.

Certainly 'I've Never Met A Nice South African' is more than a little out of date now, as both Apartheid in South Africa and Spitting Image in the UK have bitten the dust. Still, it is quite revelatory of a certain period in the 1980s, and as such is worthy of a little analysis.

Spitting Image may apparently be coming back in 2005. As for Apartheid, some people would argue that there are still some extant examples...

An analysis of the song

I've travelled this old world of ours from Barnsley to Peru

Barnsley is a good place for anyone to leave, and hence a good point to start a journey. As a former mining town, it provides a link to the penultimate line of the verse. Peru on the other hand is a popular place to travel to, very much on the Backpackers' trail with its Inca ruins, interesting mountains and jungles and cheap food and lodging.

I've had sunshine in the arctic and a swim in Timbuktu

Sunshine in the Arctic is not that tricky as long as you go in the summer. But perhaps the writers were thinking of the long dark nights of winter? Swimming in Tombouctou3 in Mali is also easy enough, as it borders on the mighty river Niger as well as the edge of the Sahara desert. That is why it was such an important trading place for so many years.

I've seen unicorns in Burma and a Yeti in Nepal

Unicorns are mythical beasts, apparently severely endangered these days, perhaps due to hunting for their horn. It's not clear why the team thought that you would find one in Burma, but in any case Burma has since changed name, becoming Myanmar. Ironically for a protest song about one evil regime, Myanmar has also become sadly famous for its repression of democracy, use of slave labour, and generally tyrannical policies. Nepal has also had its issues, with long term conflict between Maoist rebels and the army, and recent retaking of direct control by the reigning monarch. As for the yeti (another name for the legendary Abominable Snowman), Nepal and Tibet are where there have been the most sightings, but so far nothing that stands up to scientific scrutiny.

And I've danced with ten foot pygmies in a Montezuma hall

The team have got their geography seriously confused here. Montezuma was the last ruler of the Aztecs, who occupied a large chunk of the present day territory of Mexico. The pygmies are more associated with the rain forests of Africa and Asia. Ten foot is a good size for a pygmy, so maybe the narrator had met their basketball team? The 'Montezuma hall' also refers to a quotation from The Marines' Hymn: 'From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli, We fight our country's battles, On the land as on the sea'.

I've met the King of China and a working Yorkshire miner

The Chinese have traditionally gone in for emperors, although there have been kingdoms on occasions. See this article on the history of China for the full story. In any case, China is now a People's Republic and anyone claiming to be any type of royalty is no longer official. The People's Republic of South Yorkshire has a Queen and a Duke, but for a period in 1984 one of the most influential men in Yorkshire was Arthur Scargill, as the miners' strike pitted his union against Margaret Thatcher and the government of the day. The majority of Yorkshire miners were on strike for the entire period and the ones that were working were keeping a low profile, hence the difficulty alluded to in the song.

But I've never met a nice South African
No he's never met a nice South African
And that's not bloody surprising man
Cause we're a bunch of arrogant b***tards
Who hate black people

Now we get to the heart of the song. The chorus notes the faults of the South Africa of the time in a colourful and descriptive way. The arrogance and racism of the Apartheid regime are singled out for criticism. When the song was written, Apartheid was still extremely rigourous. Only white people could vote, travel around the country freely, and use certain facilities. A structured system of laws was created to advantage a small minority of the population on the basis of the colour of their skin.

Second verse

I once got served in Woolies after less than four week's wait

Woolworths, commonly known as Woolies, is a popular name for a shop found on the British high street. It is unknown whether the queues are actually worse than any other shop of its kind, but perhaps one of the writers had had a bad experience?

I had lunch with Rowan Atkinson when he paid and wasn't late

Rowan Atkinson is a British comedian who had appeared in a number of successful shows - Not The Nine O'Clock News to start with, followed by Blackadder and Mr Bean. Many British comic writers and actors were involved with Spitting Image at one time or another, so maybe the writers of the song had personal knowledge of Mr Atkinson and his alleged parsimony and tardiness.

I know a public swimming bath where they don't piss in the pool

No-one has actually calculated what percentage of a public swimming pool is made up of urine, but it can be reasonably assumed to be an ever present, even if fairly diluted. The possibility of putting a tracer chemical in the pool may be the only hope of putting an end to this practice amongst children and antisocial adults.

I know a guy who got a job straight after leaving school

The 1980s was a time of high unemployment. Three million people were out of work, and things were not looking good. As befits a spin-off from a political satire show, this can only be construed as a dig at the Conservative government of the time.

I've met a normal merman and a fairly modest German

It's not known how they intend to distinguish a normal merman from an abnormal one, as the sample size is so small. For a start, it would seem that in classical mythology, the mermaid is a lot more common than the merman. It seems we will have to take the word of the narrator here. In relating his encounter with a modest German, the team falls back on a staple of British comedy, making fun of our Teutonic near neighbours. At that time, the German economy was the powerhouse of Europe, driving growth forward across the continent. So perhaps they had something to boast about.

But I've never met a nice South African
No he's never met a nice South African
And that's not bloody surprising man
'Cause we're a bunch of talentless murderers
Who smell like baboons

Back to the undoubted iniquities of the Apartheid regime. The murders were real enough - thousands of people were shot in the streets or tortured to death in police custody over the period of white rule. One of the worst examples was the Sharpesville Massacre in 1960. The last line is a bit harsh on the baboons though. They spend a lot of time grooming (it helps establish hierarchy in the group) and don't generally smell that bad.

Third verse

I've had a close encounter of the twenty-second kind
That's when an alien spaceship disappears up your behind

This is a clear reference to the Spielberg film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Being 'probed' by aliens through one orifice or another is actually a surprisingly common element of the experiences recounted by those who claim to be abducted by Extra-terrestrials.

I got directory enquiries after less than forty rings

This was back in the days when there was one directory enquiries. Nowadays, they may pick up the phone quicker but you need to ring directory enquiries to get the full list of directory enquiries services...4

I've even heard a decent song by Paul McCartney's Wings

This was viewed as very unlikely indeed. Paul McCartney and his Wings were widely considered to be a significant step down from the Beatles, but then in 1986 they hadn't heard the recent solo albums...

I've seen a flying pig in a quite convincing wig

Is it possible to run the two lines together and take this as a rather mean reference to a common joke circulating at that time?5 It could also just be a way to make a link to the saying 'when pigs fly', expression used to denote a rather rare or improbable event.

But I've never met a nice South African
No he's never met a nice South African
And that's not bloody surprising man
'Cause we're a bunch of ignorant loudmouths
With no sense of humour - ha ha

The portraying of South Africans as loudmouths is possibly pre-apartheid, and links in with a wider English view of 'colonial types' that can also be found in descriptions of Australians. The absence of humour, although undoubtedly true for such charming specimens as Malan and PW Botha6, could also have been applied to some of the original Boers, who weren't exactly a barrel of laughs either.

Fourth verse

I've met the Loch Ness monster and he looks like Fred Astaire
At the BBC in London he's the chief commissionaire

The Loch Ness Monster is another hard to find mythological beastie. Having said that, if Nessie was indeed disguised as Fred Astaire and working for the BBC in London, that would explain the lack of sightings at that point as the Nessie hunters are clearly looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place. Fred Astaire is now dead so the disguise would be less cunning these days. A chief Commissionaire is a glorified doorman.

I know a place in Glasgow which is rife with daffodillies

Not entirely impossible in the spring, as Glasgow has its fair range of public parks and green spaces, despite its reputation for pollution and misery.

I met a man in Kathmandu who claimed to have two willies

Back to Nepal again. In the sixties, Kathmandu was famous for its hippies who would hang out at a spot called 'Freak Street' and smoke pot. Too much pot can lead to hallucinations of the type described above. Alternatively, this could be a reference to another famous institution of Kathmandu, the sadhus or Hindu holy men. Some of these gentlemen are known to hang weights from their genitalia. Too much of this could lead to a splitting of the male member, thus giving the impression of having 'two willies'.

I've had a nice Pot Noodle but I've never had a poodle

Pot Noodle is a popular snack for students, single males, and other people who have been drinking. A poodle is a popular snack in some Asian countries, and a popular pet in other areas of the world.

And I've never met a nice South African
No he's never met a nice South African
And that's not bloody surprising man
Because we've never met one either
Except for Breyten Breytenbach and he's emigrated to Paris.
(farts)
Yes he's quite a nice South African
And he's hardly ever killed anyone
And he's not smelly at all
That's why they put him prison

The song finishes with a reference to Breyten Breytenbach, the well known anti-apartheid activist, painter and poet. He was imprisoned for having illegally returned to South Africa after his marriage to a French lady of Vietnamese origin, in violation of the apartheid law prohibiting mixed marriages. He was later released. Breyten Breytenbach can be seen as a symbolic acknowledgement that there were white South Africans who opposed apartheid and sought to overthrow it one way or another. Perhaps they picked him as his name represented a particular challenge to get it into the tune?

1A reference to the first verse of The Chicken Song.2Noted Afrikaans poet, author of 'Confessions of an Albino Terrorist', an account of his imprisonment following his marriage to a Vietnamese woman, prohibited under South Africa's racial laws. Other noted white opponents to Apartheid included the entire Slovo family, Albie Sacks, JM Cootzee, André Brink, Athol Fugard, Nadine Gordimer, Helen Suzman...3There are much better sites on Tombouctou available in French.4Or you could look them up on the Internet of course.5What do you call a pig with wings - Linda McCartney.6Prime Ministers of South Africa and architects of white minority rule.

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