ABLE TO MIX gravelly hard-hitting rock with the poetry you feel in your belly and as your skin breaks into goose bumps, Piet Botha, the lead singer and founder of South African rock band Jack Hammer had a curious and entangled relationship with the Afrikaans language. He always knew that the music was within him and had to find its way out. Unequivocally an icon in his own time, he died on June 2 2019, having been diagnosed three months earlier with pancreatic cancer. He was 63.
Founded in 1984, Jack Hammer was always more than just a band. It was a whirligig, a roundabout of contemporary musicians with something to say. It had grown out of the energy Botha gleaned from a stint of busking in Los Angeles in the mid 1980s, and a meeting with American actor/musician Billy Bob Thornton in 1985. First featuring the contribution of Rupert Mellor on keyboard and kwaito master Gabi Le Roux, the band was born at Slowfarm, on the Old Warmbaths road, in Limpopo.
But the roots of Jack Hammer reached deeper. Botha was the son of politician Pik Botha who died in 2018. His mother Helena Susanna Bosman, died 22 years earlier. Born on July 18, 1955, he grew up in Pretoria North, and was a wild child, with his own perspectives on moral rectitude from the get-go. He was expelled from high school for painting a peace sign against the Magaliesberg. His first professional gig was when he was in his late teens in an acoustic duo with Abner Smith at Pretoria University.
Ten years later, he was dabbling with blues and rock, and with Boet Faber, Jan Maloney and Eric Birckenstock, Botha grew Jack Hammer, and its unique sound. In the 1990s, they opened for the likes of Deep Purple and Uriah Heep on their “Masters of Rock” world tour, and while on paper, such an invitation feels enormous, the band’s subsequent achievements were even more important.
The gentle and sometimes searing lyrics in song such as Suitcase vol Winter, Goeienag Generaal and his 2018 album Die Middernagtrein among others, speak of the importance in his heart for Afrikaans language and culture in a world where so much had become muddied and soiled. Botha, armed with his acoustic guitar and his mouth organ, was a thinking man with a great sense of gentleness and bravery in the face of possibility.
Acknowledged in the South African Rock Hall of Fame in 2002, Botha received a lifetime achievement award from the South African Music Association in 2006, and a prestige award in the same year from the FAK for his contribution to the Afrikaans language. In April 2019, two months before his death, he received a Ghoema award for best Afrikaans rock album (Middernagtrein).
Piet Botha leaves three daughters: Robynne, Jessica and Piya, his brother Roelof and sisters Anna Hertzog and Lien Botha, as well as a firmly established and devastated coterie of thousands of fans.