By Koos Kombuis
I recently flew back home from yet another Afrikaans arts festival in the platteland. As it was the last day of the festival, the flight was full of Afrikaans celebrity performing artists. I remember overhearing one of them saying, as we were boarding: “As hierdie vliegtuig vandag val is die hele Afrikaanse kultuur in sy moer.”
I sat on the plane, surrounded by people I knew from my past, having collaborated with many of them, and knowing a lot of their personal lives. It struck me how almost all of us shared certain traits. We had all struggled to get where we were. Many of us, especially those of us who had set out moving boundaries and setting new trends, were filled with ambivalent feelings about our own culture.
Being an Afrikaner has always implied, to me, to have a love-hate relationship with oneself.
And, speaking of relationships: I realised that day, as I looked at my friends and colleagues from the entertainment industry, what a surprising number of us had had turbulent personal lives. Some had struggled with drugs or alcohol. Some had survived messy divorces.
Apart from the personal problems, there was also lots of hostility bubbling under the surface. Though, on the face of it, we all got along with one another, we all knew about the factions, the petty rivalries, the in-fighting and gossip. Oh, yes, we all smiled at each other, but our smiles were hiding so much hurt, so much resentment, so much personal baggage.
Fortunately, the plane did not crash, and we all arrived at our destination, plus all our luggage AND baggage.
It is the year 2018, and the Afrikaners, as a group, are possibly more isolated from the outside world than ever before. We are isolated from our fellow South Africans, we are isolated from the rest of the planet, and we are isolated from ourselves.
That is a surprising paradox, given the fact that our arts industry is thriving. We are making CDs, writing books, producing films. We are creating new works in great quantity and of great quality.
Yet our paradise has a dark side. We may be doing well for ourselves, but we are in hell. There is something rotten in the state of modern Afrikanerdom, and we are powerless to do anything about it. We somehow cannot break free to make real contact with others, to truly connect with ourselves.
The one ray of light in this dark diagnosis is the fact that, as a group and as a nation, we are not all that unique. Many nations have a dark side. Both the British and the Americans are suffering, collectively, from deep inner divisions, and the fact that they voted for Trump and Brexit tells the sorry story of their schizoid states. The Germans are haunted by the shadows of their own history. South African blacks, of course, have their own demons to fight as they struggle to overcome the cultural and economic wounds inflicted by apartheid.
Few nations, however, are as ignorant of the true causes of their own suffering as the Afrikaner. We all know how we feel, but we are not sure why we feel like this.
This ignorance and denial is mirrored in the selective way many of us have chosen to deal with the historical fact of apartheid.
Take Afri-Forum, for instance. Oh, we all love to hate Afri-Forum. We hate them, because they say out loud what many of us secretly think but are afraid to admit to ourselves. They say things like: “Oh, apartheid wasn’t all that bad. It certainly wasn’t a crime against humanity.” (This same sentiment is often uttered around the ritual braaivleis fires of Afrikanerdom, and often in much less nuanced language.)
I have often thought whether there is a deeper reason for our vehement denial of the pain caused by apartheid. The answer, when it hit me, came from the most unlikely source imaginable.
A few months ago, I happened to meet a prominent counselling psychologist during drinks with friends in a Kalk Bay restaurant. She mentioned that she had just had a book published in America.
“Congratulations! What is the book about?” I asked her.
“It is about survivors of sexual abuse in childhood,” she said.
“What a terrible thing that must be to endure in childhood!” I exclaimed. “I have had a rotten childhood myself, but thank God, I was never sexually molested.”
It was only when I started reading her book, weeks later, that I learnt the terrible truth about my own denial.
In the opening chapters of Working with Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group), psychologist Liezel Anguelova outlines eighteen different types of child sexual abuse and classifies them in three categories: “very severe”, “severe” and “less severe”. Among the “less severe” she lists occurrences such as “touching of clothed breasts or genitals”, “use of child as an emotional partner”, and “use of enemas”. Among the “very severe” she lists “genital sex”, “penetration with an object”, “depiction of sexual acts”, et cetera.
It was a heading under the middle section (“severe”), however, that caught my eye: “pornography”.
When I was a very young boy, there was a paperback publication with photographs of scantily-clad women lying around our house. At some stage I picked up the book and glanced at the pictures with interest.
That, however, was not what caused the scar.
It was the day some of my family members brought me the book, forced me to page through it, and stood around laughing at me while I did it, that caused the scar.
It was an incident I had confronted my father with already years before, while he was still alive. I did not realise, at that stage, how much damage he had caused with his age-inappropriate deed. For years, I had thought my problems with relationships, my weakness for voyeurism and my inability to connect the sexual act with emotional intimacy was caused simply by lack of self-control or immaturity.
Once having identified this one incident as the pivotal moment the wound was inflicted, as I read through Anguelova’s book, a pattern emerged and I started connecting the dots. My family’s obsession with purgatory medicines. The numerous enemas. The time, when I was a toddler, my father taunted me by embracing in front of me in a suggestive way, dressed only in his underpants.
After finishing the book – I read every part of it, also these which did not apply to myself, I thought of how the ultra-strict Calvinist dogmas of my youth had actually caused the impact of the pornography incident to be more severe. Sex was depicted as something evil and naughty, and masturbation was considered a sin.
This teaching in itself, according to Anguelova’s system, could be categorised under “less severe” or “psychological” molestation.
Anguelova’s book changed everything. I had thought I had worked through all my youth traumas. I had already forgiven my parents. It was all there in a corner of the room: the cardboard boxes filled with notebooks in which I had worked through the pain.
After reading this book, I filled one more notebook. I put it in the top box, and closed it one final time.
And I was free. Finally free. The truth had set me free.
How many of my fellow Afrikaners, not only those of my generation but also many younger than me, carry the scars of their upbringing with them?
You see it all the time, the horror effects of a patriarchal system based on outdated tribal values. The family killings and suicides. There are too many victims, too many cases like Henri van Breda, too many of my friends who simply cannot fix their damaged relationships with their parents and siblings.
Is this what lies at the heart of our hostility to our fellow South Africans? Because the real cruelty of apartheid was not simply the most obvious incidents of torture, murder and jail. Apartheid was a social engineering tool that separated families, degraded peoples’ self-respect, and, through the homelands system which virtually forced adult males to seek work on the mines, created an entire generation of blacks who had grown up with absent fathers.
It seems preposterous, on the face of it, to link apartheid with sexual abuse, yet I can see it now, I can see it clearly, and it makes me sick and nauseous to even think of it.
After meeting up with Liezel Anguelova, and reading her book, I sent her one email, asking her: “How many people you treat for childhood sexual abuse are Afrikaners?”
And she replied: “Many. Most of them.”
This, I believe, is the real wound. This is the real reason we are still in denial about apartheid. It’s not simply the fact that we cannot face the pain we caused others. More importantly, it’s the fact that we cannot face our own pain.
Of course, there is hope. As the era of the Verwoerds and the Bothas recede further into the past, and as many South Africans from different backgrounds start mingling socially or at the workplace, young Afrikaans-speaking people are developing a different perspective on the world. Both my children have had school crushes on, and friendships with, children who are not white. This is the kind of thing that would have caused an uproar as late as the 1990’s. In the years between 2000 and 2010, it might have been frowned upon. Today, it is hardly noticed.
It will take a long time for the scars to heal. We will not be a completely normal society until they heal. But perhaps we are slowly getting there.
I sit here, staring at those closed cardboard boxes in the corner of my study, and I think: there, buried inside those boxes, lies my old agonised and bitter self. It is finally dead and dying, like apartheid, even as a new me is being born, a new me who will hopefully find his feet in a new country, finally freed from the hurt and the hell of the four decades after 1948.