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The cosmic lives and afterlives of Zebulon Dread

by
Achal Prabhala

Swami Sitarama Dasa by Ingrid Masondo

Part 1: Elliot Josephs

Elliot Josephs was born in 1958 to an ordinarily dysfunctional family in Kensington, a working-class coloured neighbourhood between Maitland and Goodwood in Cape Town. When he was four, his parents, who worked as labourers in the city, were allotted a home in Bonteheuwel, in the Cape Flats, to which they gratefully moved – a home in which he continues to live till this day.

The Cape Flats, a mid-twentieth century creation of the apartheid government of South Africa, served as a segregated dumping ground for Cape Town’s coloured and black people.

The young Josephs was a sickly child. When he turned six, instead of sending him to primary school, his mother kept him home another two years to recover from a strong rash, as a result of which he spent his entire education being older than all his fellow students.

“Growing up among coloured people, I quickly realised these were not a people who were going anywhere. So I became from a very early age in my life, an outsider. I was never one of them. When I was in school, my teachers discovered I could read. I would sit in the front, and I was the pampered one. My teachers would say oh please read for the class. No one could read in my class, and I would get irritated. The teachers would say Elliot – read please! I spent my entire scholastic life being irritated with these stupid children. And so my teachers, my mother, all these lazy people assisted in the formulation of my personality.”

School was Spes Bona in nearby Athlone, among the most prestigious boys’ schools in the area at the time. He was class monitor every year of his schooling life, and later a Prefect – and could have gone on to university, except for his marks, which were terrible. He had a D average. (Now and then, he runs into old classmates, though he would prefer not to. “They’re inane, mediocre half-wits.”)

“In Standard 7 one of my teachers wanted to beat me for challenging him. He brought out a hose pipe. There I was, with this monster at school, a monster father at home, monster violence everywhere around me, and I just cracked. I picked up a chisel that was lying in a corner of the classroom and said, you hit me and I’ll stab you with this.”

He knew he would get out one day. His mother would take him to the neighbourhood cinema – they called it Die Oubaas (The Old Man) – “a bloody gangster cinema”, where they would have to sit in the bottom floor, but under the protruding bit of the top floor, because if they sat out front, they would be pissed on by drunk patrons from above. One particularly miserable day at Die Oubaas, he had enough, and completely broke down, calling upon the “great powers of this existence” to deliver him from his fate – which is to say, his family, his neighbours, his township and, well, his whole life.

“I lived in two worlds. I read. I read profusely. I was reading Dostoyevsky, I was reading Sartre. I read Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf in 1977 and it had such a big impact on me, I had to go and see the school psychiatrist after that – because I could understand that Steppenwolf, that outsider, was me. I was the madman living inside the insanity of humanity.”

He wanted to go to drama school, but he couldn’t afford it. He was fond of Shakespeare – he played Macbeth and Othello in school. He thinks his love for acting might have originated from going to the movies with his mother.

“I knew I could act. My greatest disappointment in school was when they staged Cinderella. Bastards. I went to my teacher and said I want to audition for Prince Charming. You know what the bastard teacher did? He laughed at me. He was an ugly bushman. He was what we call a physically low-class person, with nappy little hair. I had exactly the same features. We’ll never be the Prince Charmings of this world, he said, laughing. Can you imagine what it is for a teacher to tell you that? And I had to enter as a dancer in the court palace or something. And the dickhead who played Prince Charming was nice and straight-haired and fair-skinned and all that, you know, but dumb as a donkey’s penis.”

After matric, he worked at the Cape Performing Arts Board a state-funded theatre organisation, and later, at the People’s Space Theatre, a fringe organisation. Then he joined the Hare Krishnas. A few years later, after his first brush with organised spirituality, he entered the job market again, first at the Natal Performing Arts Company in Durban, then in Johannesburg, working for “Jew-boys who made B-grade films for the international market” – many of which he acted in as an extra.

“I was a Rasta, and we had a group of us who were called the Dread Warriors. I was the guru. The local boys used to come over, and we smoked up and talked philosophy – all that time, we were searching for something. One day, I went with them to Gugulethu. The township was at war. We were in the thick of the struggle, there were helicopters, soldiers, policemen everywhere. Guns firing everywhere! Chaos! We were walking, on our way from that township to this township. I saw some police cars passing by. I was carrying a huge bag of drugs on me. I suggested we split, and I took my cargo and put it in a bush, and hid there. The police passed – they did not see me. But some young township gangsters – and remember now, I’m pitch black – they saw me hide my stash. They drew knives, they took everything I had. I pleaded with them, I said, we’re on the same side of the struggle. But they did not see me as black. That day, I lost interest in the struggle. The next day, I gave all my remaining marijuana to my mother, gave her 500 rands – all the money I had – and told her that some of my friends would come over, and asked her to sell them the drugs and make some money. I left with 5 rands. I had read the Bhagavad Gita and I went in search of the Hare Krishnas.”

Marijuana is pronounced with a soft ‘j’ – giving the word an exotic, foreign aura. He spent a considerable portion of the 1980s fighting for it to become legal, a thwarted cause, given that a considerable portion of South Africans were concurrently fighting for the right to become legal human beings.

“All my life, the police never left me alone. They were so attracted to me. I spent my youth fighting for my identity through Rastafari, through Hare Krishna. Somewhere in the 1980s, I even went across the border to Maseru, in Lesotho, to join the anti-apartheid struggle. I stood at the gates of the compound – I stood there for an hour. It was a big decision: once I crossed that threshold there was no looking back. You know what changed my mind? I saw the policemen. The Lesotho policemen had brown uniforms and the South African policemen had blue uniforms. And I had an epiphany. It doesn’t matter who wins the war in South Africa. We would all become just like the white guy. The policemen would always be the same fascist bastards that policemen are everywhere in the world. And immediately upon that realisation I turned back and walked across the border.”

He hasn’t felt guilty about the decision. Not once. “Politics are for dumb people.”

In between all these phases, he found Hinduism. The Hare Krishna movement, formally known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON, was founded in 1966, in that long season of youthful western rebellion – and appropriately enough, in New York City. (The Beatles were famously attracted to the philosophy in the 1970s). Starting off with a primarily white support base, ISKCON mushroomed into a full-fledged global movement in a remarkably short space of time, eventually including members from virtually every nationality, including India. Josephs was initiated into the movement at the Hare Krishna temple in Pietermaritzburg, under the care of white American swamis, and among a congregation of local Indians.

He was the only black person there.

 

Part 2: Zebulon Dread

Cape Town cult anti-hero. Fuck American TV. Read my books.

– From a poster advertising Zebulon Dread, written, designed, and photocopied by Zebulon Dread.

In 1988, Josephs answered a job advertisement from a relatively new television network operating out of Bophuthatswana, one of the many homelands in existence then – the areas carved out of apartheid South Africa, supposedly for black people to live freely, which were heavily criticized for being puppet dominions designed as a cover for the government’s brutal race policies. He got the position at BOP TV: they made him a producer.

“Basically, it was a sensuous, debauched life, travelling everywhere and meeting women and so on.”

Of those women he met, one of them managed to win his heart. It was in Mmbatho, the capital of the erstwhile Bantustan of Bophuthatswana (now a suburb of Mafikeng) that he met a charming, soft-spoken young Afrikaaner from Pretoria called Adele van der Walt.

“She was in love with me. I wasn’t in love with her. I told her it’s not going to work.”

He returned to Bonteheuwel to find himself, and to spend time with his parents, who died soon after in quick succession of each other. One night, he had a dream in which he was commanded to marry Adele.

“So anyway, I got married. Marriage was a good responsibility and I had some nice children. We travelled around here and there, here and there, and eventually, as is usual with my life, I got bored. I grew tired of being married and decided I needed the means to feed my family, and that was when I invented Zebulon Dread.”

Starting in May 1997, for a whole ten years, Zebulon Dread stalked South African culture with a brash, beautiful, in-your-face magazine called Hei Voetsek! The title literally translates as Hey, go away, but in colloquial usage, it stands for Up yours! He sold his magazine through the simplest possible distribution channel: himself. If you ever visited a café in Observatory, Cape Town, in the years that he plied his trade, you would have likely encountered him – a heavyset man in striking clothes, carrying a bundle of magazines under one arm, the other thrusting a copy into your face as you sat sipping your Sauvignon blanc. His sales pitch was equally direct, and often consisted of two words, delivered in a gruff, plaintive tone – “Buy this”.

“I eavesdropped on an advertising guy once, and he was saying – about me – this guy is the most amazing long-term marketing strategist I’ve ever seen. For ten years, I did exactly as I pleased. I never begged.”

Hei Voetsek! was a sensation right from the start, but it was about as welcome in the establishment as a boil on the face of a beauty queen. Zebulon Dread was a project to upend the genteel South African literary firmament; to hold a mirror to its relentlessly unthreatening, undemanding and smarmy self; to pull the rug out from under its insufferable smugness.

“My playing field was never among the higher echelons. My humour was just too abrasive. Those people, they were all affronted by my brazenness. They were unsettled by it. But that earned me a grudging respect. The fancy people wouldn’t buy the magazine initially. Five years down the line, I would meet them and say, you know what, I’ve been here for five years – and you haven’t bought anything. Then they would buy. I cracked them.”

Despite Zebulon Dread’s persuasive skills, the going was never easy. Respectable printers would look at his work and refuse to print it. Not to mention the money it took to get issue after issue out, which he rarely had.

“I started Hei Voetsek! by going to a small business development corporation for a loan. I had no money, no house, no nothing. I took all my scripts and threw them on the table and said, look, if I was a carpenter and I had all these plans, you would give me the money because you would consider it a legitimate business. Why, as a writer, when I show you my books, my work, does it not matter? So the guy said you know what, your argument is so convincing, even though I know I won’t get it back, I have to give you the money.”

 

Reading Hei Voetsek! is like embarking on an extended acid trip. Every word is incendiary, every image, hallucinatory, and every page, an art installation in itself. Even the advertisements – each one handcrafted by the sole author / editor / publisher – are off the wall. The back cover of the only special edition of the magazine (titled Poe$$!! – for poes – or cunt) features a cross-dresser in minimal leather-gear with massively extended, pierced genitals – an advertisement for the Wildfire body piercing clinic.

Here, for example, is a fairly random selection of article titles from the magazine:

Rugby: Ruggerbuggers Uniting Genitals By Yoking!!

Special Advert – Membership for the Jo Ma Se Poes Society is now open. (Jo ma se poes translates as your mother’s cunt).

Ai Ai Robert, Bob Moogaybee, don’t be cruel, don’t be funny, cum home and cuddle your very own honey, your very own queer queer bunny.

Memoirs of a malvark bushy hitchhiking through the anal rainbow nation.

Artist: Arseholes Resisting The Inevitably Sad Tales

Wa-BMW, Wa-Benzi, Wa-bullshit.

Saartjie Naartman and the politically correct historical anus breaths who disturbed her in the name of rectifying the past en all dai kak.

Zebulane: Non-anal honorary Cape Town lesbian.

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And the magazines were only a part of his prodigious literary output. There were the numerous posters for numerous events (Darkie on the prowl: have you the balls, the clit or the anus to read this madman?), there were the novels, the collected essays, a book of poetry, and even a partial autobiography, Memoirs of a Closet Guerilla, written, it would seem, as one long, joyous, stream-of-consciousness rant.

Interestingly, not one of his magazines or the books has a date – no day, no month, no year – thereby giving them a floating, timeless feel.

Add to this a once-steady string of media articles, all of them gushing – Dread’s stand up routine is brazenly honest/ Brace yourself for Judge Dread/ Loose cannon or cultural crusader?/ New take on the gutter press/ Shaka-spier on acid – and you almost get the sense that he had become a major cultural phenomenon.

 

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Well, almost. Despite the cult status, Zebulon Dread was really something of a curiosity; a permanent outsider, a pavement poet, a writer whose magazines you could buy, but never had to read – as if all those thousands of finely crafted words, with their rat-a-tat rhythm and furious style, and their real, substantive commentary on the state of South Africa and the world, were a mere trifle. (For all the country’s progress since 1994, the mainstream South African literary industry remains a kind of impenetrable fortress within which people lock themselves up and shut out anything that makes them even slightly uncomfortable.) He played the game all right – there was never a more honourable or lovable literary hustler – but his rigid individuality meant that his place would remain firmly outdoors.

“There was some South African journalist who once called me an emotional psychopath. I laughed when she coined that term for me. I think she was right.”

Now and then, he would get one foot inside the door. Some years ago, the Dutch Embassy funded a book of his essays, The Angst Quadrilogy. In return, he dedicated the book to them:

“I salute the bravery of the Dutch cultural desk who made it possible for me to produce this book. I salute my great-great grandfathers. It was Jan Van Riebeeck and his kind who fucked my Hottentot forefathers and mothers. They gave birth to my rebellious slave blood. I toil no more as a slave but as a self-employed creature, iconoclast, who pisses from Table Mountain onto the mediocrity that is Cape Town. Salute!”

In 2001, he experienced what was perhaps one of the most confounding moments of his career. It came, quite appropriately, at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees, an annual Afrikaans arts festival that is held in the town of Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape province. Officially, the festival goes by the abbreviation KKNK; naturally, Zebulon Dread refers to it as the KKK. (Remarkably, there is a festival of classical music held in the same town that bears these unfortunate initials – the Klein Karoo Klassique).

This is what happened. Zebulon Dread had been attending the KKNK for five years running. In 2001, he showed up with the latest copy of Hei Voetsek! whose cover bore a picture of himself, “a giant, superimposed, black, dreadlocked man stepping over Table Mountain with a humongous penis being upheld by military helicopters.” He strolled past the assorted families present, trying to interest them in his magazine. Along the way, some bought, others recoiled, and he came away feeling disgruntled, vowing to never attend again.

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The issue of Hei Voetsek! that sent God-fearing families scurrying at the KK(N)K, 2001

He wrote about his experiences in the Mail & Guardian newspaper. He didn’t hold back.

“I wanted to make them laugh by using their own language with such succinct and lyrical nuance that they would stand awed by this kaffir who spoke Afrikaans better than most of them could ever dream of. They stood, awed and amazed, by this obese, flatulent and bombastic Hotnot who did not mind telling them that from now on they were to call him baaskaffir or else he would use his spear, carried along for all to see, to pierce their thick-skinned buffalo hides. They fled with their children when I, with demonstrative verbosity, used the Cape lingua franca to the extreme by telling them that they were naaiers (fuckers), fokken dom konte (fucking stupid cunts), varkvretende (pig-eating) honkies and a bunch of deluded idiots for thinking that Brother Jesus even took the time to listen to meat-eating beasts who cared more for their pit bull terriers than they did for their fellow black humans.”

He was just getting started. He questioned himself for being there, and slammed the festival for its provincialism and archaic focus. “As for being a national arts festival, please, think again before using that term so loosely. It is an Afrikaner Boerfest, a tannie and oompie affair at best. Breyten Breytenbach summed it up very succinctly when he said that the festival is “die bont begrafnis van die Afrikaner” (the motley graveyard of the Afrikaner).”

The article unleased a storm of protest. Official complaints were lodged, the editor of the Mail & Guardian apologised and withdrew the piece, and ten years after the fact, Zebulon Dread was still nonplussed as to what the fuss was all about.

“I speak impeccable Afrikaans. My article was satirical. Only arseholes took it seriously. My command over the language is astonishing. People who listen to me – at Grahamstown or wherever – are floored. I speak better Afrikaans than 90% of people who speak it. At the festival, an old gentleman called his children over to say, listen, you must hear how to speak your language from this man, meaning me. So I thought, you motherfucker, I’m going to teach you a lesson. I whipped out my vocabulary and swore and shouted, and he grabbed his two children and he ran. And I shouted after him, you bitch, you don’t come here and use me as an example for your bloody colonising language. But you know, I’m an icon for Afrikaners. They are by far the most surprising customers I have ever had.”

Did he have trouble separating the character he created from the person he was at home?

“People enjoyed that hardcore side of Zebulon Dread. He was hardcore. But if he got to know you, he was very sweet. Listen man, sometimes I forgot to take off the cap when I got home. My middle daughter was a few years old, we were living in a village in the countryside. We walked out one evening to get an ice-cream, and a man was staring at her. She looked at him and shouted jo ma se poes – and this man, he looked at her, terrified. I think she was four years old. She must have learnt that from me.”

And did his brand of humour connect equally with women as with men?

“Let me tell you, the homosexuals and women loved me. Every Thursday night at Café Manhattan was women’s night. No men were allowed. When I came around, they’d say – butch dyke at the door! They’d say, come on in, you’re one of us – they understood that I didn’t buy into this politics of gender. It was wonderful. It was one of those things that allowed me to get a real sense of their pleasure. They welcomed me. Not all of them though. Some of them were a bit disgusted.”

 

Part 3: Swami Sitarama Dasa

“India makes me weep. India makes me weep.”

In July 2010, I attended the Cape Town Book Fair, a major annual event where book launches and discussions happen, and professional exhibitors – usually publishers – buy stalls and put out their wares. As I walked through the main hall, I noticed a pile of papers messily arranged in a corner, surrounded by a bunch of used clothes and assorted paraphernalia. It appeared to be a stall, or, more precisely, the slum version of a stall. An Indian priest squatted near the papers, looking fairly disinterested. I was intrigued. The book fair was being held in one of the better five-star hotels in town, stalls had been sold to publishers for a fairly high price, and I wondered who the mendicant who crashed this party might be.

The mendicant, it turned out, was Swami Sitarama Dasa, who in turn, was, of course, the person formerly known as Zebulon Dread, his voluminous dreadlocks shaved off, a small ponytail in their place. (In his previous avatar, I had only met him once, as one of the several customers he sold magazines to one evening at Café Ganesh in Observatory – and therefore, I couldn’t recognise him by face right away). This time around, I managed to have a conversation. He was pleased to hear I was from India; he had just returned from the country, after spending three years in Ujjain, a small town in the north. Swami Sitarama Dasa was selling copies of the magazine his previous avatar published – urging me to buy them all as “collector’s editions” for their possible future rarity, which I promptly did.

How had he got in to the book fair? He had hustled his way through, and the organisers had allowed him to squat, figuring it was easier than getting him to leave. That day, at the book fair, he told me he was headed to Mthatha to preach the gospel of vegetarianism, leading a friend of mine, who had overheard our conversation, to dryly remark that the Swami might just become the first black man to be deported from the Eastern Cape.

This was his second stint with the Hare Krishnas. In the first, in the 1980s, he had started out in Cape Town, moved with the movement to the English Midlands, and finished up at a temple in Soho, London. In the second, he moved with his entire family – his wife and three daughters – aided by a helpful senior, Bhakti Charu Swami, who presided over the ISKCON temple in Ujjain, and in whom he had found a lifelong mentor. (Following his lead, his whole family has now taken on Hindu names, and wears north Indian clothes quite frequently).

What prompted the move? It had probably been in the making for years. He knew and liked the Hare Krishnas; he was sure he would go back one day. After a decade in publishing and working the Zebulon Dread persona, he was tired, and needed a change. When the time came, his Guru was able to make the arrangements he required to move to India, both for him and his family. Like other people whose extraordinary acuity and intelligence becomes an impediment towards living easily, spirituality – and a kind of submission to the cosmos – was increasingly becoming less of a choice. It wasn’t a hard decision.

“As I established Zebulon Dread, I’m now establishing Sitarama Dasa and the future of my work, and life, as a black guru. Zebulon Dread was the guru of irreverent, satirical humour whereas His Grace Sitarama Dasa is an orthodox Vedic Brahmana, preparing to launch himself into the public sphere as the first black guru representing the science of India, the Bhagavad Dharma, and taking on the hypocritically devout religionists who have raped the African mind of its original spiritual consciousness. Everything I’ve done – including Zebulon Dread – was meant to lead me to this point in my existence.”

He talks of his daughters. At the time I meet him, relations with his wife are not good. His daughters, all of whom are kind, gentle young girls – much like their mother – polite to a fault, and heartbreakingly well-mannered, are being home-schooled. He doesn’t believe in exposing them to “modern, western culture” though you can never be sure what this means, since they have, after all, been exposed to him all their lives. He is sure about his own trajectory and the road ahead: he doesn’t want to write any longer, and is convinced that his daughters – all of them in their teens – could be great writers one day. (I don’t know about that, but given their unusual journey, from Bonteheuwel to Ujjain and back, and on the basis of growing up as the daughters of Zebulon Dread, I’d say they certainly have some raw material).

After a lifetime of searching, the Swami Sitarama Dasa persona seems like the real thing; a good fit. Unlike other people who find religion or spirituality late, save his physical appearance, he hasn’t changed much. He was always motivated by a radical, individual, spiritual pursuit, right from his teenage years. He still swears profusely; he still hates just about everyone on the planet, and especially everyone in Cape Town and his immediate environment. He’s still absolutely, totally, crazy. As we talk, he sits in a room separated from his home, bare-chested, and under an enormous psychedelic wall-hanging of the Sanskrit letter Om – it would be impossible to tell he wasn’t Indian-born and -bred. And yet, regardless of his obvious and genuine love for Hinduism, and his comfort with this new avatar, every so often, he lets slip that there are aspects of his previous avatar he’s not quite done with.

“At this moment, I am in the capsule, preparing for the relaunch of Zebulon Dread,” he says one day, completely out of the blue. We have just finished discussing how he’s done with his writing career and his past life. “I’m in the capsule, preparing that. I’ve written some new books: Deep-kak Chopra (for Deepak Chopra, the ubiquitous new-age prophet of wellness) , a book called The Messiah Was Here, and the un-authorised version of the Bhagavad Gita. I’m trying to write it out again in a funky, original way.”

To place the scale of this last ambition in context, it should be noted that the Bhagavad Gita is a two thousand five hundred year old text that appears in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, and is considered by over a billion Hindus to be among the most complex and important philosophical lessons that their faith has offered them in the last two millennia.

He shifts uneasily, sitting on a fairly cold floor in a cold township in a very cold city – wracked, as Cape Town can be, with strong winds. He lifts his dhoti up, tucks it in, and leans back against the wall. “I can only think of one thing now: the rise of the black guru.”

“In the future,” he says, settling back into his usual italicised tone, in which nothing is calm or paced, and everything is deathly urgent and pretty much epochal, “I want to start a war. A war that singes and burns the consciousness of all Africans.”

 

 

broadsheet cover

 

This article features in the latest edition of the Chronic.

To read it along with a special 8-page insert: the lost issue of Hei Voetsek!: a reawakening of Zebulon Dread‘s cult, handcrafted periodical, re-imagined by Cape Town’s art collective, Burning Museum, order a copy (in print or as a PDF), from our online store. Print copies coming to your nearest fokken dealer now-now.

Preview the first dose of DREAD anal-isis: 11 YRS OF DEMONCRAZY!!!

Buy the Chronic

 

 

 

 

If you would like to know more about Zebulon Dread, we have plenty:

Ingrid Masondo’s photographs of Swami Sitarama Dasa at home

Holiday Planning with Zebulon Dread from Chimurenga’s PowerMoneySex Reader

Hei Voetsek! at the Chimurenga Library

The Vetseun archive of Zebulon Dread and Hei Voetsek!

Aryan Kaganof on Zebulon Dread and his ritual suicide

and Lerato Maduna’s photographs of Swami Sitarama Dasa at the Chronic launch.

 

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