Monday 28 November 2016

My favourite passage in A Taste of Bitter Almonds

Excelsior, Free State, November 2007 

For me, the great untold story of South Africa is how we are, despite three-and-a-half centuries of  segregation, almost all interrelated. I’ll never forget a coloured girlfriend of mine, tall, svelte and graceful, though she lived in a gangland ghetto, telling me how in her youth, if anyone in her family bore a child that was fair of skin and eye, the baby would be passed on to the white side of the family because they knew that as a ‘white’ the child stood a greater chance of leading a privileged life. What stands out for me in her tale is not only the emotional sacrifice of parents willing to surrender their child in the hope of giving it a better future, but that as late as the 1970s, some interracial families still maintained links – no doubt very clandestine – between their differently-toned wings, despite anti miscegenation laws aggressively enforced by  the police. These linkages, which connect the South African population across all its hues by bloodline, is are more often obscured and ignored than admitted, let alone celebrated. Those who crossed the race line were treated as ‘race- traitors,’, their audacity carrying an indelible stain of shame which endures to this day. 
Though as an anarchist I am no fan of bourgeois democracy, one has to recognise the good when one sees it, and giving credit where it is due, and James Selfe, an MP of the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA), has submitted to Parliament what I think is a brilliant Private Member’s Bill: under the rules, individual Members of Parliament are allowed to submit such Bills  if given the green light by the Speaker. Selfe’s Bill, if passed into law, would see all convictions under apartheid laws that would be unconstitutional today expunged from the records. The positive effects of such an Act are easy to underestimate. Not only will it affect prominent figures such as hugely respected veteran journalist Max du Preez, who would have his ‘terrorism’ conviction for merely writing articles expunged, allowing him at long last to travel to countries such as the United States, but I imagine that literally thousands of poor blacks, coloureds, Indians and indigenous people whose careers have been stymied by their ‘criminal’ pass law violations back under apartheid, would be able to breath a sigh of relief. 
But of all the iniquitous laws on the apartheid books, none was quite as pernicious and as sure to injure the human heart as the Immorality Amendment Act of 1950. Designed to achieve the government’s aim of maintaining white race- purity, it tore families apart and nipped great love affairs in the bud. I well remember my former Sunday Times Durban Bureau colleague George Mahabeer,who had given up the his rock ‘n roller lifestyle as guitarist for The Flames to settle down with Lily and raise their girls, telling me tragic tales of storieshe’d covered for the old Golden City Post about Immorality Act trials, of Security Branch raids on people’s bedrooms in their most intimate moments, of the callous display of underwear as evidence of ‘immorality’ in the courts – stories of heartbreak and suicide.
Sadly, and for reasons I fail to fathom, the Speaker of Parliament, an ANC member,  did not allow Selfe’s Bill to be debated and possibly passed into law. It is a huge missed opportunity and as the ‘crime’ that cut closest to the human condition, of lovers pitted against the state, I wanted to investigate Immorality Act violations up close and personal. And yet, when I trawled through the newspaper archives, I found precious few reported cases, for convictions visited ras-skande, race- shame, not only on the lovers, but on the state which convicted them as well, for it showed the permeability of apartheid’s social walls, and the failure of the racial state to contain the power of love. Yet the trials were so traumatic and personal, that unlike political trials, where the accused had the support of a movement fighting for democracy and where those convicted of ‘crimes’ wore their convictions as badges of pride, the star-crossed lovers had had their hearts torn off their sleeves, and few cared to speak of the pain.
The one landmark case that I do find in the archives, one that has made it into the displays at the Apartheid Museum too, is the one which cost the country some of its top talent when world-renowned anthropologist Professor John Blacking, classified white, of Johannesburg was convicted in 1969 of having an affair with a young Dr Zurena Desai, classified Indian. A photograph taken outside the court shows a handsome couple in tailored winter coats, but their eyes are averted. Blacking and Desai emigrated to Britain to escape the torment, but their love did not survive the trauma of the race stigma and of exile. Blacking excelled in his field, yet Desai dropped off the radar and I am not sure where to begin searching for her. 
But there is another way into the story, and it lies in the small Free State town of Excelsior. In those dark times – ‘evil days with stupid laws’, as one white town official from that era potently recalls it for me on the phone – the dorp of Excelsior, in what was then called the Orange Free State, with a white population of only 7, 000 and a tiny township of about 150 homes, became the most infamous town in the world.
Five white men, staunch pillars of the community from solid National Party families, appeared in the dock alongside 14 black women, accused of having broken apartheid’s race-sex law. The world’s press had a field day over the hypocrisy of the men, and the scandal flickered across TV screens in faraway Britain. But back in Excelsior, there was no TV. Instead, the dolorous tones of the pipe organ inside the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK, the Dutch Reformed Church) echoed the gloomy sermons preaching of shame.  I’m an atheist, but as in other small towns, it is to the church that I turn to find a starting- point for my investigation and get some direction as to whom to speak to about the old scandal. I chat in Afrikaans to the woman organist about the history of the church and its organ, and then about the trial that put the town on the map. Having established a rapport, she is not shy to direct me to the home of congregant Magrietha Bezuidenhout, who lives nearby in a house as neat as a pin, with a small, well-maintained garden. 
I call at the gate, introduce myself with old-school style, using the formal term of address ‘U’, for ‘you’, as I was taught to do as a boy. Bezuidenhout is clearly not pleased to have me there; I am an unwelcome guest, summoning up ghosts from a past she would rather had remained buried with her late husband Adam, a farmer, whom she committed to the earth seven years ago. But her Christian hospitality forbids her from turning me away, so she lets me inside her voorkamer, the front room of most traditional Afrikaner homes in which guest are entertained. The place is immaculate, with polished wooden floors and furniture, and china in glass display cabinets with carved claw-and-ball feet. Bezuidenhout sits ramrod straight with tension in her chair, her steel-grey hair neatly coiffed and her eyes unblinking as she stares at me through round spectacles that are twenty years out of date. Gently on my side, suspiciously on hers, we delicately negotiate her story; she doesn’t want to say anything at all, but we soon agree that I’ll be allowed to convey the main points she wants to get across, because of her children.  
There was a time, almost four decades ago, when the outside world – in a cacophony of flashbulbs and TV cameras – callously intruded on her placid life as a farmer’s wife, whose days were spent eyeing the eroded horizon for signs of rain. For Magrietha’s heavy-drinking husband was among the white accused in the Immorality Trial. Both he and one of his co-accused, a butcher named Calitz who had fathered a child with one of his black workers, tried to take their lives. Calitz died, but Adam Bezuidenhout surviving the suicide attempt, shooting his eye out in the process. Nursed back to health by a forgiving Magrietha, he sobered up and rebuilt his life as a good husband, father and farmer. Still, four decades later, the aftermath of Adam’s indiscretion is clearly etched in the lines around Bezuidenout’s pursed mouth. She is very proud of her children, that they succeeded despite the stain on their father’s name – for it is this last that concerns her most, that her children can make their way in the world untainted by the sins of their father. 
Maintaining her composure through sheer force of will, she tells me: ‘It’s very heartbreaking. I don’t want to reopen old wounds. It’s all in the past now. As a Christian, God has helped me to make peace with it.’ But with some 12 children having resulted from those illicit liaisons 37 years ago, true peace has proven elusive for those residents of Excelsior with tangled bloodlines. On the phone, local farmer Johnny van Riet, the son of Alan Paton’s friend Jean Baptist van Riet, who died last year aged 101, tells me that back in 1970/71, shamefaced residents of Excelsior changed their vehicles’ OXE number- plates to OT for Thaba’Nchu – anywhere but the town that had become nicknamed ‘Sexcelsior’.  
The township population of Excelsior’s township, Mahlatswetsa, has now swelled to about 25, 000, while the dorp’s white population has dwindled. Most of the accused are long gone. But some, like Calitz’s former lover and their child, still dwell there. And so does the pain. Strangely, the Excelsior trial – which was halted in mid-stream by Orange Free State attorney-general Percy Yutar in order to try to stop the media circus – did little to curb cross-race sexual relations in subsequent years.  
I travel to Mahlatswetsa, just outside of town, where I ask librarian Michael Tladi where I can find Senki Mokgethi, on whose mother Corina the writer Zakes Mda based the character Poppie for in his 2002 book The Madonna of Excelsior. The book, which conflates Corina’s true story with the 1970s trial, is in great demand in the township, says Tladi, but is barely spoken of in the white dorp. In the 1970s, Senki’s father was a post office worker who came home twice a year. Corina worked as a maid in the home of a local white man who let out a room to an Afrikaner policeman. When Senki was about 12 or 13 years old, Corina would give him letters to take to the white policeman. The man in turn gave him money for his mother.  
‘I realised something was going on when my sister Kedimetse was born in 1978,’ Mokgethi, now 44, tells me when I find him at home, after a long negotiation to get him to speak. ‘She was a white person, with light skin and straight hair. Lots of people here had relationships with white guys. Excelsior was a poor town. Most of our men were working in the mines, and there were all these women around who were suffering. These white guys used an opportunity. It was abuse. If you love someone, you marry them.’ But racially mixed marriages were outlawed in 1949 and all sexual relations between the races the following year; the black women and their illegitimate babies were abandoned. ‘That white guy who abused my mother, where is he? The last time I saw him was in 1978 during my mother’s expectancy. I heard he had died, that he had committed suicide.’  
People convicted under the Immorality Act are still, outrageously, regarded legally as criminals and socially as outcasts. I agree to put Mokgethi in touch with Zakes Mda, who is now lecturing in the US. Mda’s book and a 2004 TV retrospective also ensured the pain never went away, Mokgethi tells me bitterly: ‘Some people don’t think before they say things.’