Zef is a South African counter-culture movement. Die Antwoord (Afrikaans: ‘The Answer’) is a South African rap-rave group whose style draws from the movement. The word ‘zef’ stems from an Afrikaans word, which roughly translates to the English word ‘common.’ South African rapper and Die Antwoord collaborator Jack Parow, describes the movement as ‘It’s kind of like posh, but the opposite of posh.’
It differs from the Australian term ‘bogan’ (pejorative f0r those from a low-class background) and the related British term ‘chav’ in that it is mostly a positive term used to describe oneself, rather than a derogatory term for someone else. It is also not typical of the poorest classes of the society, but rather a mostly white, lower-middle class subculture, albeit one that glorifies cheap stuff. Yolandi Visser of Die Antwoord is quoted as saying, ‘It’s associated with people who soup their cars up and rock gold and shit. Zef is, you’re poor but you’re fancy. You’re poor but you’re sexy, you’ve got style.’
The word ‘zef’ is a contraction of the name of the Ford Zephyr motorcar that was popular worldwide from the 1950s to the 1970s. In South Africa, these cars were often owned by working-class people, especially from the then-upcoming East and West Rand areas of Johannesburg (due to gold mining activity and the rising price of gold after it was de-coupled from a fixed US Dollar price). The most distinctive and well-known feature of these cars were their hooters (‘horn’ in the US) that made a peculiar and amusing ‘A-hooo-haahhhhh’ sound.
Although Ford had once been seen as a high-quality motorcar to aspire to own, from the early 1980s onwards, the brand name became more and more associated with ‘hairybacks’ and bad build quality. The bulk of Ford Zephyrs were now late into their life cycles and were starting to break down regularly and decay rapidly, at the same time that sanctions were starting to bite in South Africa and the gold boom period of the 70s and early 80s declined.
Jokes circulated about ‘Ford’ being an acronym for ‘Found On Rubbish Dumps’ and ‘Foute Oral, Reparasies Daagliks’ in Afrikaans (loosely translated ‘Faults Everywhere, Repairs Daily’). The follow-up model in the early 80s, the Ford Cortina, did little to break the stereotype. To this day, South Africans joke about the ‘1-2-3 People’ – folks who buy 1 liter of cheap and nasty brandy, 2 liters of Coca-Cola, and a 3-liter Ford Cortina. The average Zephyr driver, while relatively comfortable financially in the 70s, was still generally from a more working-class than elite or highly educated background, so owners of these cars were given the derogatory description of being ‘zef’ by middle-class and more well-to-do South Africans.
Zef has entered into the international lexicon as a result of the music of Die Antwoord and their self-identifying as ‘zef’ in style. Zef is a style of music, performed in English and Afrikaans, rather than the broad category described by the term ‘Afrikaans music.’ Just as the question ‘What is hip-hop?’ can generate heated debate, so can ‘What is zef music?’ The term is evolving in its usage, especially since it is new. What zef meant in 2005 (pre-Die Antwoord) is likely different than what it means in 2010 (post-Die Antwoord). Ninja of Die Antwoord has an optimistic view of what zef music is.
Critics suggested it might just represent white South Africa, Ninja commented that racism is somewhat obsolete and a thing of the past for South Africans. He observes that the cultures ‘have very merged.’ The end of apartheid has led to ‘not a harmonious merging, but fucked into one thing’ of cultures previously kept ‘forceably apart…. It kind of works in a dysfunctional way.’ He suggests for the average South African, the question of his race is moot. He claims this controversy is based in the world’s old perceptions of South Africa. While South Africa has been changing for over thirty years, international perception has not.