Friday 29 September 2017

The Madonna's Illegitimate Daughters

This is an extract from my book A Taste of Bitter Almonds (BestRed, Cape Town, 2015) which was long-listed for the Academy of Science of South Africa's inaugural 2016 Humanities Book Award.


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 pale of 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,
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 give 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 MPs 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 record. 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 USA, but I imagine that literally thousands of poor
blacks, whose careers have been stymied by their ‘criminal’ pass law
violations 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 (No. 21 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 his rock-’n-roller lifestyle as guitarist for The Flames to
settle down with Lily and raise their girls, telling me tragic tales of
stories he’d covered for the old Golden City Post about Immorality
Act trials, Security Branch raids on people’s bedrooms in their most
intimate moments, 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’ of
lovers pitted against the state is the one that cut closest to the human
condition, 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
rasskande, 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. In 1971, five white men, staunch pillars of the community
from solid NP 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 in 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 survived 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 1970–1971,
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 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 in
his 2002 book The Madonna of Excelsior.56 The book, which conflates
Corina’s true story with the 1971 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 in another town
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 I’ve negotiated with him to get him to tell his story. ‘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 with mixed marriages a rarity
outside the bubble-world of the media, arts and politics, are still
often social 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 that the pain never went away, Mokgethi
tells me bitterly. ‘Some people don’t think before they say things.’