Representation of the Zef Culture by Die Antwoord

A culture resulting from the post-apartheid in South Africa

16 minutes to read
Lisa Wijvekate

Die Antwoord is a South African hip hop group that represents the South African Zef culture. This paper deals with the semiotics used by Die Antwoord in one particular song, called ‘Fatty Boom Boom’. The main objective is to provide more insight into Zef culture and how different signs, symbols and cultural references are used to represent it.

Who is most 'real'?

Increased digital globalisation is a concept that is indirectly related to many modern things in life and influences anything it touches. As defined by Jan Blommaert (2010), globalisation refers to highly complex forms of mobility of capital, goods, people, images and discourses around the globe. With the emphasis on media and communication technologies, such flows are driven by technological innovations. As a result of this increased digital globalisation, it is inevitable that music cultures and identities have become more mobilised and diverse as well. Different music styles are mixing with one another, leading to a very complex web of sounds, lyrics and instruments.

Hip hop is one of these musical genres that have spread around the globe. As this global culture was originally founded by African-Americans, some suggest that this music belongs to Afro-American minorities and that this is the only real form of hip hop (Pennycook, 2007). However, over the years this particular genre has spread on a global level, which has led to locally adapted branches. For example, in China there has been spoken about a hip hop flow and how its rebellious characteristics in terms of linguistics and visual semiotics are appealing to many youngsters as they seek to identify themselves with these artists (Barret, 2012). Another example is a Dutch movement called Nederhop, a combination of the word Nederland (Dutch for The Netherlands) and hip hop, with which the local community attempts to differentiate itself from the global hip hop culture (Krims, 2000). What these local movements have in common, is that they seek authenticity. The need for authenticity and how to ‘keep it real’ in a global hip hop culture seems like a challenge, of which the African-American branch say that they already are the most real for being the ones who invented hip hop (Pennycook, 2007).

Another local hip hop culture that wants to distinguish itself as ‘real’, is the South African Zef movement. Zef refers to a culture that resulted from the political situation after the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994 and the social consequences for ‘white people’. Some white musicians responded to the policies of creating ‘race-solidarity’ in a sarcastic way by creating satire, as a way of giving their opinion. Today's most famous South African Zef group is Die Antwoord. Die Antwoord is a hip hop group consisting of three members: Ninja, Yo-Landi and DJ Hi-Tek. This group is known for being arrogant, expressive and freaky, while at the same time clearly making a statement that they are the ultimate authentic Zef people (Krueger, 2012). As there has not been much research about this specific topic yet, it is relevant to ask the question how the members of Die Antwoord express Zef culture in their music. Which visual and linguistic aspects in their music and videos can be related to this culture and how can they be recognised? In this paper, I will analyse which semiotics are used by Die Antwoord to represent the Zef culture and how it relates to the origins of the movement.

History of Zef culture

There are several ways to define the term Zef. The Urban Dictionary has collected most definitions and they tend to overlap in some aspects. Zef is the name of a movement that rose to prominence as a response to the political situation in South Africa that followed after the apartheid, also known as post-apartheid. The origins of this term lie in the 1960s. During this period, the Ford Zephyr was the favourite car of a group of white South African people. They were considered common, kitsch or of low-class social status and the term Zef – short for Zephyr – was used by others to describe them. Nowadays, the term is used to describe someone’s style of fashion. Some say it is also meant to be insulting, like the American word ‘redneck’. Others say that Zef is the ultimate style of white individuals in South Africa (Urban Dictionary, 2017). Within Zef culture, the term ‘dwankie’ is often used to describe things that are stupid, lame or retarded (Urban Dictionary, 2017). In this paper, all these definitions are taken into account.

The original Ford Zephyr

The movement called Zef is created as a response to the political changes after the post-apartheid, during which the government decided on national policies that were supposed to create equality and solidarity between the different ethnicities in South Africa. Central to these policies were the consequences for ‘white people’, specifically on a social level. Christopher Ballantine, who wrote a paper on this subject in 2004, explained this response to the political changes by clarifying that some local musicians expressed “the need for self-reinvention in music that is ironic, unpredictable and transgressive.” (Ballantine, 2004). Zef is the counter-political culture in which white musicians attempt to express the sense of disgrace that was experienced by many white people from South Africa after the period of the apartheid. It is a sense of shame that Zef is trying to present as something dark, but which can also be interpreted in a sarcastic and funny way (Krueger, 2012). The analysis will focus on the expression of this ironic or sarcastic language, either in the lyrics or the visuals.

Perhaps more remarkably, white musicians

have stressed the need for self-reinvention in music that is ironic, unpredictable, transgressive.

Furthermore, John Orman (2008) conducted a very broad study on language diversity in South Africa in 2008, emphasising the effects of the post-apartheid situation. Orman describes how important it has been to foster symbols of a new, national identity in the post-apartheid era. Examples of these symbols are a new national flag, national anthem and sports teams. Such images of the multiracial youth, against a South African scenery, are frequently to be seen on television, in order to promote multiculturalism. However, this is not enough to establish a new national culture, Orman explains. As the South African Broadcasting Corporation has been pushing English forward at the expense of Afrikaans, he suggests the importance of linguistic empowerment of Afrikaans as a national language and how it can support the post-apartheid striving for equality (Orman, 2008).  The combination of Afrikaans and English and the image of multiracialism will be considered in the analysis.

Semiotic analysis

One of the most famous theories on semiotics is the two-part model of Ferdinand de Saussure. This model is generally applied to the relations between linguistic and visual elements in music (Chattah, 2006) and it consists of two entities that compose a linguistic model of a sign: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is that what is directly visible, whereas the signified refers to the concept that is thought of when seeing the sign. The notions of denotation and connotation are closely related to this concept. In general, denotation is defined as the literal meaning of a sign and is frequently used for linguistics and the actual word, whereas the connotation is a meaning more related to socio-cultural aspects (De Saussure, 1988). This model will be used for the analysis by looking at the relation between linguistic and visual objects that are directly visible and what its indirect meaning is with respect to Zef. In doing so, the way in which the visual and linguistic aspects reinforce each other is emphasised.

Although there has been a debate about the clear definition of connotative and denotative meaning in music, in this paper denotation refers to a clear relationship between the signifier and signified and connotation refers to the socio-cultural aspects of the sign (Chattah, 2006). It is important to keep in mind that language is a system that operates during a particular time (Culler, 1997), in this case, the post-apartheid period. This analysis is focused on how current language and visual semiotics are combined to represent the Zef culture.

As the theory suggests, this is likely to be a combination of English and Afrikaans. The languages that are used in the lyrics of this song will be reviewed, in order to see whether they are combined, used interconnectedly or separately. In terms of visual semiotics, the video of the song will be analysed to look for objects that are connected to post-apartheid and the Zef style. The outcomes of both the linguistic and visual analysis will be compared in order to find how they reinforce each other. It is important to see whether one strengthens the other and how they both contribute to the representation of the Zef movement. In the relation between the two it is significant to look for similarities as a way of reinforcing each other.

An analysis of ‘Fatty Boom Boom’

An analysis will be performed on one particular song by Die Antwoord, in which both the lyrics and the video are looked at. This song is called: ‘Fatty Boom Boom’. This particular song was selected based on its content, i.e. this is the one most obviously related to the Zef culture.

The lyrics are retrieved from, and the video from The lyrics on the website include more text than what is sung in the video. In this paper, only the text that is used in both the video and the lyrics will be analysed. The analysis should clarify how the lyrics and visuals are combined.

The text

The song ‘Fatty Boom Boom’ includes 5 choruses 5 and 3 verses.  When taking an overall look at the lyrics of this song, both English and Afrikaans is used. The first part of the chorus does not directly present a clear meaning, but does seem to relate to money. “Fat pocket clinking, dollar eye twinkling” suggests that the song is about earning money, or at least the desire to do so. This may have to do with the idea that the Zef culture is considered low class. The first two lines in the first verse already stand out by including the words ‘murder’ and ‘kill’, which already gives the text a kind of negative, aggressive, and scary feel. From the third until the fifth line the song is not in English, but in Afrikaans. In the lines that follow, the text is about how rappers are not the same as they used to be. Related to the first line: ‘When I’m on the mic it’s like murder’ suggests that Die Antwoord feels that they are different from (or perhaps more real than) other rappers and that their music or text is much stronger than others'. This image of being different from other rappers continues in the second verse. As the text reads ‘I whip my dick out and piss on all this horrible fokken rap’, it emphasises how they do not like other rappers’ music. The verse also mentions ‘taking over America’ and ‘dollar bills’, which again references making money and being a success. After this verse the chorus follows twice.

The third verse includes text about how Die Antwoord use lyrics and music (referred to with ‘the mic’) to fight others; perhaps the other rappers who were mentioned earlier in the text. At the end of the verse there is another reference to earning money: ‘My pockets are fokken swollen’, followed by looking back at how life was different in South Africa before Die Antwoord was recognised or famous. This is followed by an utterance that directly describes how South African life used to be: to ‘hustle something to eat’. This clearly shows that Die Antwoord had faced a time of poverty in the past. It could also be interpreted as referring to South African people with a lower social-economic status. The term ‘dwankie’ is also used here, referring to the higher class that did not notice how others were poor.

The fourth verse includes much shorter sentences than the others, but again references ‘money’. It includes slang such as ‘Zef side’, ‘dwankies’, ‘baka baka’, which likely relate to the South African counterculture. It emphasises how Die Antwoord is part of this movement and how they are proud of it.

Overall, this song is clearly about being proud of the South African movement, making money and being successful. Die Antwoord considers themselves better, more talented or real than other rappers. The number of lines suggests that the song moves at a high pace, which fits with the whole idea of ‘murder’, ‘kill’ and ‘fight’ and with their fast lyrics and music. In general, the text is relatively vulgar and aggressive towards other rappers.

The image

The video of ‘Fatty Boom Boom’ has a length of 5:42 and has a spoken introduction. It is divided into four parts. In the introduction, Lady Gaga and her two bodyguards are driving around South Africa in a tour bus. Lady Gaga is wearing her famous ‘meat dress’. The bus reads ‘Big Five Tours’, which usually refers to the five animals that can be spotted in nature parks. The tour bus in this video drives through a suburb, in a kind of sketchy or perhaps even underdeveloped area, which makes the ‘Big Five’ tour ironic. During this tour, the bus passes hyenas, a black panther, and a lion. This obviously could not happen in real life and therefore also has an ironic tone. Some of the walls in the ‘concrete jungle’ include icons and signs of Die Antwoord. Afterwards, the bus passes a group of local musicians, which is Die Antwoord. Their faces and bodies are completely painted. At the end of the first part, the tour bus gets mugged and Lady Gaga runs away. She appears to be scared, as she is now alone in the concrete jungle that is South Africa. This could be interpreted as some people, or mainstream musicians in particular, being prejudiced about the country.

Die Antwoord - Fatty Boom Boom 00:12

The main part includes several settings in which Die Antwoord are rapping and dancing. In the first setting we see the three members of Die Antwoord on the streets. Yo-Landi is painted dark brown with a bright yellow dress. She is covered in dollar signs and so are her eyes. Ninja is painted red and white, with the text Chosen 1 on his chest. A third character is wearing a hat that looks like one from the Ku Klux Klan, however his costume reads words like ‘love’, ‘create’, ‘hope’ and ‘respect’, which seems contradicting. In the background, there is a butcher, some colourful music speakers, musical instruments and advertisements for penis enlargements.

Die Antwoord - Fatty Boom Boom 03:18

In the scenes that follow, the members of Die Antwoord and dancers are dressed in an unusual manner and their faces are painted with expressive colours. The dances that are performed look chaotic but also resemble traditional African dances. The combination of clothing, dancing, painted bodies and dark eyes give them a savage look. This savage look could be interpreted as an indication of how other people might be prejudiced about the South African culture. Furthermore, other musicians besides Lady Gaga are being made fun of in a sarcastic way, such as the images of Kanye West and Nicki Minaj with devil’s horns on their heads painted on the wall. This shows that the members of Die Antwoord see themselves as more ‘real’ compared to other musicians.  

Wall of musicians

Halfway into the video, Lady Gaga comes back into the screen again as she visits a gynaecologist. The office does not look very clean, as there are blood smears and dirt on the walls, the cabinet and the floor. There are also some body parts lying around, which makes the office and the doctor look untrustworthy and sketchy. Lady Gaga needs to get something removed from between her legs, which appears to be a large insect. This could be a metaphor for how ‘mainstream musicians’ are infected by something, perhaps with being too commercial, and how this can be resolved by visiting the ‘real’ South Africa. In the final part of the video, Lady Gaga gets eaten by the lion. This could mean that she would not survive in the South African concrete jungle.

Overall, the image could be interpreted as scary, chaotic and overwhelming. This atmosphere is created with the way the persons in the video look and act. The video also seems to show Die Antwoord’s interpretation of the Zef culture in South Africa and perhaps the way others see the country. In this case, Lady Gaga could be a metaphor for regular pop music or mainstream artists.

The interrelation

When combining the text with the images, the analysis becomes complete. Remarkably, the first and third part (including Lady Gaga) seem like a short story, as the song ‘Fatty Boom Boom’ is only played in the second and fourth part. This was not clear from the text up front, but when viewing the video it becomes clearer that the short story enforces the potential meaning of the song.

As the text is about being successful and earning money, and at the same time dissing other rappers, Lady Gaga (and the other musicians painted on the wall) could be an icon representing those mainstream musicians whose music is not as good or as real as that of Die Antwoord. The fact that Lady Gaga is taking a ‘Big Five Tour’ through the concrete jungle suggests that she views South Africa as nothing more than a tourist attraction. Other musicians are also being made fun of. The image combined with the text enforces this notion.

In the second and fourth part, when the song is played, the image fits with the text and music. The members of Die Antwoord act in an aggressive, chaotic and savage manner. For example, when the text reads ‘murder’ and ‘kill’, their faces look angry and scary. This also holds for the attempt to show the South African identity, both in the text and image. The text reads ‘Wat se Suid Afrika’ (‘That’s South Africa’) while the image shows colourful people and objects. Furthermore, the lyrics about money are also strengthened by the image. In one particular setting Yo-landi is wearing a dress with dollar signs, and even her eyes are covered with dollar signs, so this obviously relates to the ability of making money or being successful.

In conclusion, Die Antwoord shows its South African identity and Zef culture, and how they are more talented and real than other musicians or rappers. Both the linguistic and visual aspects contribute to that representation.

Yo-Landi dancing

Life used to be too dwankie, but now anything is possible

This analysis of ‘Fatty Boom Boom’ has looked into the linguistic and visual semiotics that Die Antwoord use to represent the meaning of Zef culture in South Africa. One way of doing so, is showing that Die Antwoord have been dreaming about making money and being successful. By creating a contrast between the low-class life that is experienced by some of the white people in South Africa and dreams of becoming successful, by rapping about it and showing icons like dollar signs, the group is showing how life used to be bad but that anything is still possible. Die Antwoord is representing the South African culture by showing images of a local neighbourhood, by rapping about how they represent the South African culture and showing how colourful South Africa can be. This colourfulness embodies the multiculturalism that is present. When relating all of the above to Zef, it becomes clear how Die Antwoord represents the culture. By often mentioning Zef in the lyrics and by visually reinforcing the values of Zef, they make use of the known semiotics to create a clear representation.

A limitation of this analysis is that it presents only one possible interpretation. If the analysis would have been performed by a person from South Africa (or from another country), the results might have been different as it largely relies on personal interpretation and background knowledge. Furthermore, an in-depth analysis could involve analysing more songs and videos by Die Antwoord, and other musicians from South Africa who claim to represent Zef. Therefore, in future research it would be interesting to compare the semiotics used by different musicians.

The representation of Zef culture by using music that is being spread across the globe is a clear example of how globalisation has an influence on cultural diversity expressed in music. With the help of today’s technology, Die Antwoord is a rap group that has been in contact with, in their eyes, mainstream musicians. The result is that they are able to be critical towards these musicians and create satire to make fun of them. In doing so, they show Zef culture as being more real. This, in turn, can be spread around the world and be visible to many people. Perhaps that is the underlying message of this song: to create an exaggerated image of South Africa being savage and underdeveloped, while showing that Zef musicians are successful nonetheless. Even if life sometimes is too ‘dwankie’, you still have a chance of being successful. Anything is possible.


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