The Human Factor

I find it peculiar that most of what my generation knows of apartheid is the legacy it left behind. Yet, we live in its wake. The term post-apartheid aptly captures this: we do not live in a ‘new South Africa’ but in apartheid’s continuum, with no expected end. How does a South Africa look outside of the legacy imposed by colonialism and apartheid? Marvel Comics’ Wakanda? The long-lost ancient Tswana city that was found in the unspoilt Suikerbosrand hills, south of Johannesburg?

I am a white, 25-year-old Afrikaans-speaking South African queer. I was born in the year 1994, only a couple of months after South Africa held its first democratic elections. People of my age are referred to as the ‘born-free’ generation, having come to life into a new South Africa. The ‘rainbow nation’ had, at last, become free from the shackles of apartheid and colonialism. Or had it?

My parents, grandparents and their ancestors benefitted from, and voted for, the system of racial segregation known as apartheid. In South Africa, where rampant inequality is all-pervading, I continue to benefit from the injustices of the past – because I am white and come from a privileged background.

I come from a community that wanted me to propagate its racism, homophobia and patriarchy. However, I chose to follow a different path. My rejection of judgment and self-repression caused me to confront the wrath of Afrikaner nationalism, bound up with religious fundamentalism.

But, to start at the beginning.

I had a sheltered childhood in Ontdekkerspark, a residential area in Roodepoort in Johannesburg’s western suburbs. White picket fences gave way to 3m high walls, topped with electric fencing, two German Shepherds and armed response monitoring. All of this served to keep safe from the outside world what was inside: a fundamentally Christian, Afrikaner home.

I am the eldest of two children. My sister was born seven years after me; our parents were born in the late 1960s. The origin of the maternal side of my family is that of the Boers (Afrikaner farmers). On the paternal side, it is Afrikaner people descended from Polish Jews, who converted to Christianity in Amsterdam in the early 1800s. They arrived in South Africa as academics and preachers.

I attended two Afrikaans, Christian and predominantly white Model C state schools and received a good education. I was the editor of the high-school newspaper, with an office and expenditure budget – educational luxuries for a public school in South Africa.

These schools weren’t the only form of education I received, though. A Calvinist education was central to my upbringing. Apart from being in schools that followed Christian values and practices, I was baptised a Dopper into the Gereformeerde Kerk, or Reformed Church – one of the most conservative of the Afrikaans church denominations. After 12 years of being catechised through Sunday school (katkisasie), it was time to confess my faith by Confirmation.

Some years earlier, I had raised doubts with my parents and dominees (ministers). I was not comfortable with what the doctrines taught – one of these was unconditional election, which held that only the elect people receive salvation. The rest are subject to eternal damnation. Even as a young child, I did not understand why some people would have been created just to be damned. The answer was always the same: “It is God’s will”, with the reassurance that I shouldn’t worry because I was elected to go to heaven. I was growing up in a South Africa and world that seemed out of kilter with the community in which I was deeply embedded, prompting me to ask why.

Through the church’s teachings, it was made clear that there is a separation between “us” and “them” – playing into a godly conception of politics. “They” were destined to eternal damnation – the Other mostly being homosexual, black, liberal or unrepentant about other hideous “sins” against God’s will. “We” – being white and Afrikaans – were direct descendants of God’s chosen people. The same thinking went into the conception of apartheid.

I was sceptical of the church preaching non-judgement, yet being exclusionary and consistently reminding us of eternal damnation at the same time. Once, while I was arguing with my parents about their prejudices against black South Africans, my dad remarked bluntly, almost regretfully, about having voted “Yes” – a reference to the 1992 South African apartheid referendum that asked white South African voters whether or not they supported negotiated reforms to end apartheid. Universal suffrage was introduced two years later. It was almost as if my dad felt disappointed by the promises of a new, democratic South Africa, which had manifested in his son.

It was around 2am one morning when my father shook me awake in bed for an urgent discussion about my religious doubts. A few days prior, I had told them that I did not want to go ahead with Confirmation: I did not believe in the church’s dogma, and did not want to swear otherwise. My mother told me that I would no longer be welcome in the house if I didn’t go ahead with confirming my faith. In the final meeting with the priest and church council to determine my fitness for Confirmation, I gave all the right answers.

But eventually, the “right” answers ran out. I had to speak the truth. It happened in a space replete with family history. My great-great-grandfather Jan Lion Cachet was a founding member and the rector of the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education, which sprouted from a seminary for the Reformed Church of South Africa. My paternal grandfather was also a professor in theology at the same institution. In 2004, through a merger, it became known as North-West University (NWU). I went on to enrol for an LLB – it wasn’t my calling to become a priest, as my family would have liked – at its Potchefstroom campus.

During my time at university, I started to become aware of whiteness, which manifests as privilege. I went into a deep state of depression due to being white, asking how one could confront whiteness and go about dismantling white privilege. I read and listened to the perspectives of black South Africans and others who were engaging with this topic, as I believed it was time for white people to sit down and listen to their fellow South Africans. This was not something that was taught substantively in law school, although through befriending like-minded individuals – including some professors and other academics outside of the classroom – and following the work of some people online (Aryan Kaganof, especially) I came to understand what whiteness is: the structures, systems, knowledge, skills and attitudes designed to advance the interests of white people while oppressing the Other.

Alongside a growing political awareness, and increasing distance between myself and the Church, I realised that I was gay. His name was Kevin, a few years my senior, and editor of the Wapad student newspaper where I worked as a journalist. To cut a long story short, we came out together and ended up dating for two years.

It was in Betty’s Bay on Christmas Day 2014 that the schism between my family and I erupted. Upon being confronted and confirming that I was dating a boy, an irrevocable line was drawn. My parents told me that I was no longer welcome in their house. They were worried that I had contracted HIV/ Aids. I was urged to suspend my studies, and to go and work for the church. In exchange for continued financial support, I was to break ties with all non-Christian friends, change my appearance, change my liberal political outlook, and engage only in activities that would be acceptable to the church and my parents. A submission to authority.

Communication had broken down, so I escaped on an Intercape bus that broadcast the gospel through its PA system throughout the trip back to Potchefstroom. Back at university, I moved off campus and into a bohemian student commune. I sustained the remainder of my studies by working as a waiter, and cancelled my attestaat (membership) of the church.

Although I was studying law, it was through art and culture that I was most exposed to different perspectives and perceptions of the world – which also aided substantively in my becoming aware of whiteness. In a NWU library and archive building, which emanated Afrikanerdom and also housed the NWU Gallery, I was exposed to many striking exhibitions that explored issues related to race and identity. These included shows by Mary Sibande, Richardt Strydom, Usha Seejarim, Hasan and Husain Essop, Mohau Modisakeng, Katlego Tlabela, the Voices of Women Museum from Durban, as well as the deeply affecting spoken word poetry by Lebo Mashile and others from the WordNSound company. I was mesmerised by MBE Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 14.00 hours’, spending hours before this magnificent photograph.

At the beginning of my postgraduate studies, I was employed at the NWU Gallery, where I worked on art exhibitions and other projects that sought to counter the pervading culture at NWU, creating a safe space for LGBTIQ+, black students and all those who needed a refuge.

It took me a few years to deconstruct my identity from the shame and hurt that had deeply affected me after being ostracised. After some time, I concluded that what happened to me did not determine what I am, but that I had a choice in deciding how it influences who I become. I had to liberate myself from the conditioned hold – both physical and mental – of my past. This personal truth can be seen as my identity crisis that led to my identity formation.

It is almost impossible to isolate religion from race and culture when speaking about matters of Afrikaner identity, encouraging an intersectional approach. Afrikaner identity is enveloped with its own brand of Calvinism, nationalism and patriarchy. Many Afrikaner people have changed; I come from a community that has not. Racism and homophobia, as well as religious dogma, continue to inform the outlook of many Afrikaners to varying degrees. From a generational perspective, using my family as a singular case study, it can be said that things are turning for the good, but a lot still needs to change.

Being queer, and part of the Other has sensitised me to the struggle of the marginalised and oppressed. Still, many of my challenges were lessened due to the privilege I possess as part of being white. My position means that my voice is heard, even if it is somewhat marginalised. This is a peculiar position for the descendant of former oppressors to be in. I am not unique, and my story is one of millions more. It’s a reminder of the made-up English word ‘sonder’: the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

I used to try and break away from the identity label of ‘Afrikaner’. I was ashamed and preferred to be referred to as Afrikaans. I later came to realise that reclaiming the name from those who seek to give Afrikaners a bad name is vital. Afrikaans, with all its historical baggage, continues to play an integral part of the identity formation of millions of South Africans across a broad demographic of race, region and creed.

As part of a search for an identity free of oppression, I have sought to explore how Afrikaans is used and represented. In 1896, my great-great-grandfather Jan Lion Cachet, one of the first writers in Afrikaans, was among the founding members of the very first Afrikaans magazine Ons Klyntji. It aimed to foster a literary culture and to shape Afrikaner identity. Its name, spelt in an early form of Afrikaans, translates to ‘our little one’.

In the 2014, I began the online version of the magazine, Klyntji (klyntji.com), of which I am the editor. The non-commercial online journal engages with current-day topics related to cultural identity. Klyntji is informed by academic research on race, language, gender, sexuality and how it is conveyed by contemporary arts and culture across the globe.

The publication uses Afrikaans as a language among languages to transcend cultural boundaries through the telling of alternative narratives, challenging exclusion and oppression. It does this by promoting diverse arts and culture that progress towards a more equal, accepting and inclusive Global South.

In this way, I am creating a marker for myself and others of my generation. South Africa has plenty of other markers, of course; one of the most prominent of these is the country’s Constitutional Court.

I work for the Constitutional Court Trust as assistant curator of the Constitutional Court Art Collection. The building and the art collection symbolise and give identity to South Africa’s constitutional democracy – a political dispensation that has in recent years entered adulthood.

Our Constitution stipulates the normative principles on which our society is based, although it is not a certain ideology. Many would say that Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s idea of a ‘rainbow nation’, based on the principle of non-racialism, has failed.

Race permeates almost all aspects of South African life. Nothing about our society is non-racial. Instead, we look towards diversity rather than oneness. It is a complex situation. I guess what South Africa needs is a roadmap; the Constitution shows the way, but we still have a long journey ahead.

Many things hamper freedom, dignity and equality in South Africa. Life in the Anthropocene, with capitalism as the driving force, is causing irreparable environmental damage and rising inequality. That being said, it is through the transformative power of compassion for all living things that we can work towards a better future.

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If you do not create change, change will create you.