This intro might be tough for some parents to read. Especially if you’re the church-going type (of whom I am a part), who find joy in the fact that your university-aged-children attend the local student congregation faithfully.

I remember a specific church “outreach” tour back in my undergraduate years (actually, this story was true of more than one such event). After being fed-up with the fact that for days without end the one group with whom a friend of mine was spending time with seemed to be talking about sex non-stop, he attempted to rather hang out with some of the other groups of friends in the (quite large) group. He returner a day or two later with the conclusion that it wasn’t only his own group of (mostly theological students) friend that was talking about sex non-stop, it was all students.

I guess I was reminded about that time again last night when I spent an evening with a group of students. Slightly younger than most of my friends, slightly more religious, and slightly more conservative, I was struck by the fact that they couldn’t get out of conversations with some form of sexual undertone (or simply blatant sexual references). Probably weirdest would be that the whole conversation was dotted by someone (random participants, not just one sour grape) reminding the group that they are “going too far”, or that “this should stop”, after which this same person would continue with the conversation.

In a way I have a lot of sympathy with groups like these. This are a generation that was raised with some of the most hypocritical approaches to sex. They find themselves in some tensious space between Victorianism and Hollywood. Not on the way from the one to the other, but in both at the same time. Victorianism has been full of hypocrisy since its inception, with an outward pretence of puritan moralism often covering an underlying hedonism. But these groups of young people experienced being raised on Victorian ideas, where sex was never discussed or even mentioned (and even pronouncing the word is often difficult of near-impossible for some), but at the same time raised on Hollywood, where blatant and extremely visual references to sexuality was part of the upbringing of even the most religious among them.

Neither these strong influences on their developing sexuality provided a healthy approach to talking about those things sexual. Maybe that is why there search for balance include lots of laughter about sexual practices considered “dirty” by Victorian standards and jokes about the sexuality of others within their groups of friends.

Update: After reading the post Tiaan said that I can mention that he was the friend from paragraph 2.

This was the transformative experience that gave rise to the writing of this story. It’s controversial I know. And I somewhat fear for writing this.

I have never approved of the segregated church I am part of. I cannot remember a day in my life that I both knew about Belhar and rejected Belhar. Everywhere I went I always made the more pro-unification choice that was on the table. Sometimes I even attempted to stretch the table a bit, to put options on the table that weren’t considered. I remember attending an URCSA meeting in 2007 that NG students were invited to, but being the only one who went. I remember the setting up of the meeting of URCSA theological students leadership and NG theological students leadership in the same year, and we actually organized a visit of both groups to a worship session of the other. Few students attended, but the experience was positive. I guess I didn’t change the face of the faculty at UP in the process, but at least I made some friends.

At times I have been extremely critical of my own church, and the process of unity. I guess taking things a few notches further than most of the “open” voices in the church. I’ve been uncomfortable with the idea that we become one church structurally, without local congregations actually reflecting this. What I dream of and hope for has been for true unity in worship and action for many years now.

Deconstruction makes you mad, I sometimes think. Once you start down that rabbit hole, realize why you are doing what you are doing, what you are actually saying, how this is being heard by other voices, and how far away from “justice”, “mercy” and “truth” your one life really is, it becomes almost unbearable. But Africa has taught me that I can never fully deconstruct myself. I need the other to deconstruct me. I need to be open to the voice of an other, a different perspective, to help me interpret my own life and actions, to understand what it is that I am actually doing.

I don’t want to make a hero out of someone, and most of my transformative experiences was with voices that you have never heard of. And this one was only possible because of these voices, and others, who have helped me to make me open to hear the different perspective this post is about.

It was at the opening of the South African Missiological Society of 2010 when Jonathan Jansen spoke, and he dared to say that the Dutch Reformed Church is irrelevant (and this in front of a mainly white crowd). The way I heard him was that the Dutch Reformed Church was teaching their members week by week that it is OK not to ask : “Who is my neighbour”, by allowing them to sit in all white churches in South Africa. This might not have been what he said, but this is what I heard.

Deconstruction makes me mad. My thoughts went on to think in the line of liturgy. What was this liturgy of white worship communicating week by week, whatever we might be preaching? I saw it as communicating that the white ghetto was OK, that the lack of friendships with people of all races and colours was OK. That the distance we kept between ourselves and black people was OK. My thoughts went on to the idea that we might be doing a hell of a lot of development work in South Africa, but we will never be able to contribute to the transformation and reconciliation of a country if we keep this liturgy of whiteness.

The next transformative experience is quite well documented. Don’t get me wrong, I have been transformed to see black people as equal. I have been transformed to form friendships, true, deep friendships. But I am learning more and more about how deep the transformation is that is needed in my life. So the story continued, and will continue.

The experience I am referring to was at Amahoro Africa close to Krugersdorp in 2009. It was the experience of telling my story, the Afrikaner story, to my new Kenyan friends, and how they made me free to become an African in a way that truly changed me. You can read about it at the following places:

can’t speak about Amahoro

How one Afrikaner became an African theologian

It has been noted many times that white people seem to be comfortable when together with black people when it is a “controlled environment”. If the black people aren’t too many, primarily. But the experiences I had at the end of 2006 was not controlled, this time I chose to break out of the box.

I was doing a holiday job assisting the marking of matric exams. They appoint students from the universities and technicons to help with this. Usually a majority black students, and a group of white students, and the previous time I did this, I simply flocked to the safeness of the white crowd. Plus, I had a white roommate that time.

I arrived at Nelspruit high school on the first day. Upon registering the white administrative woman at this predominantly white school offered to put me in a room alone, so that I don’t need to be with a black person – if it was possible. When walking into the room where all the other assistants was already waiting, I found only four other white students. I immediately went to sit with them. At lunch time I went into Nelspruit with them. They were all living in Nelspruit. We sat around doing nothing during the whole first day (yes, don’t think that in writing this I’m going to make as if our current government system doesn’t have mistakes). At some point during the day I at least met some of the black students, who was asking me about what I was reading (Soultsunami at that stage).

At this specific marking center they were marking African languages and Computer studies. African langauges had only black markers. Computer studies I belief only white, but computer studies was a very small subject. All the white teachers preferred to find other sleeping arrangements, rather than spend the night in this predominantly black space. At other marking centers the white markers use the arranged sleeping quarters, but here, the number of blacks was just too many I guess. And the other white assistants went to sleep at there parents homes. I think I might have been the only white person in the hostels those nights. My room-mate’s name was Eugene.

The next morning, when walking into breakfast (or maybe this happened at lunch, I cannot remember), I had to make a choice: Get food, and go over to the table of white students, and proceed with life, knowing that every night I will be the white man alone. Or get food, walk right past the white table (that was largely empty) and sit with the people that weren’t off to there parents every chance they had, that stayed in this space where I was bound to stay. I chose the path less traveled, and that has made all the difference.

It was obvious from this point onwards that I was an outsider to the white group. Some decent dialogue still happened at times during the next 8-10 days I guess, but for the most part, this was the end of the short friendship we had on day one. But I made friends I could never have imagined. They were all Swazi’s. They taught me about the culture in which I grew up in. We simply became friends. Especially one person stand out from this time. Sibitiwe. We met on day one I believe. She was the daughter of two Lutheran pastors, grew up in church, but couldn’t believe that any straight-thinking young person would spend six years studying theology. So we got talking. She explained the tension between Zulu’s and Xhosa’s to me at the time when Jacob Zuma was starting to become visible as a possible next president. But mostly we just talked. About the squatter camp, about psychology, about the future, about life. And then one night she gave me the compliment of a lifetime, and not one I’m sure I deserve: “You have a black heart” she said. Even though you are white, you are different. Yes, they also knew that I had to in a way end the relationship with the white students if I wanted to spend the time, both day and night, with the black students.

In this time I remembered that I was given a Swazi name as a little boy in Swaziland. I didn’t even know it anymore. I found it from my father, and shared it with my new friends. Hi, they named me Nhlanhla : Lucky.

White boyfriend challenged

February 26, 2010

By the time I was finishing high school I have developed strong anti-racism sentiments, and learned to see black peers as friends and equals. I would go into university quite sensitive to the strong undertones of racism in the first residence where I lived (Sonop), and very comfortable with the mixed racial environment at the second one (Taaibos).

But my transformation was not finished. I fell in love at this stage, and no, not to a black girl (not that that would have been a problem in my eyes). I fell in love with the girl that would years later become my wife: Maryke. In the early years of our relationship she challenged me in a number of ways, but the two I remember most clearly was:

  1. I learned from her that I couldn’t think of God as male. That this was a male construct (without her having any feminist training, she was just being a woman, and sharing the honest experiences of being a woman).
  2. Although my friendship with Tsidi teached me that black people was equals, I felt like I must be a racist when I met Maryke. She wasn’t only willing to have black friends and think in terms of equality. She was totally comfortable in relationships with black people. I knew black people. She seemed to know the name of every black girl in her year-group! She seemed to be colorblind!

In the years following she continued to challenge by just living a life of total and absolute equality. It was some of the most amazing experiences the few times I went to the movies of to functions with her friends. Catolic, Protestant, Atheist, Hindu, Buddhist. White, Black, Indian, Oriental. Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Mandarin, and a host of other languages I don’t even know. All of this were found in a group of maybe 10 or 12 people. They weren’t making a statement, simply living life together, and finding more in common than that divided them.

Some of these friends still visit us from time to time, and we keep on being enriched by there uniqueness.

White kid in a white school

February 24, 2010

When I reached the age of 6 or 7, it was time to go to school. So started some of the most formative years of my life (obviously). Where the community in which I lived was mostly black, and I had a lot of interracial experience, although it might not have at that stage translated into amazing friendships, the school in which I found myself was all white. Race was not an issue, since we never dealt with it.

I was in grade 1 in 1991. Before the referendum of 1992. I remember my parents voting, and I remember that the outcome was good. I can’t remember Apartheid being discussed much in the house, but I had no doubt about my parents’ position on whether blacks may vote etc. I think it must have been around this time that the black lady that worked for our family, her name was Eniy, did Bible study with us in the mornings.

But somewhere around this time I must have picked up some implicitly racist ideas. I remember singing a song at primary school with these words:

Strawberry lippies, die kaffers gooi klippies

Mandela’s ‘n kaffer en nou moet hy suffer.

Kaffer is the most oppresive term white people ever used to refer to black people under Apartheid. The rest translate as follows:

Strayberry lips, the kaffers is throwing rocks

Mandela is a kaffer, and now he must suffer.

If ever I was a white man toi-toi’ing against the struggle, it was when we were singing this song. I do remember that it was with some discomfort though. This wasn’t how we were brought up. But although the school would never have propagated Apartheid ideology in those years (remember this was very close to ’94), and since I was living in Swaziland I never knew about all the Apartheid issues (I heard about pass laws only while in high school), the system in which I was finding myself was strengthening the idea that black people were somehow lesser humans than white people. It’s not something we argued about, and about which people made explicit cases for, but in our jokes, in our talking, somehow as if it was in the water, in our blood, we knew that we were better, and that black people were dirty.

In about 1995 I remember the fights for transforming the schools. I know my father was taking a leading role in our school to have them open up for black kids. Eventually they did. But I remember the day when we were driving to the high school to pick up the high school kids that were living in Swaziland, and seeing the march of armed white men who was fighting against the first black kid that was allowed in the school.

Some black people were different though. We had a child from the kingly lineage from Swaziland, a Dlamini, in our school who was our fastest athlete. Somehow he was considered to be touchable. I remember Chester Williams (Invictus reminded us of him), he was a hero of sorts. And I guess there were others as well. Some called them “good kaffers”, which in a brilliant way describe the experience that some had when they realized that there were black people that was really just better than white people in something. Usually sports was a good first place to notice this. How do you recognize the fact that a person is truly contributing to the school while still being inherently racist? But even when black students performed, you’ll find the jokes like “he can run so fast because he used to run away from the police”.

There was good coming out of this system. We were getting to know black kids, but usually we remained divided along language lines (actually if I remember correctly the school was mostly divided along language lines even before 1994). But 5 years later, by 2000, I was even more of a racist than before. And if I still wonder if I was a racist as a preschool kid in Swaziland, I know I was one by early high school. Even though still in a reserved manner. I was well-trained by my parents never to speak of maids or kaffers or openly discriminate against black people. None of my friends would have considered me a racist though. In most circles I would have been considered very open to black people. It took an “other” to help me realize my own inherent racism.

White kid in Swaziland

February 23, 2010

I grew up in the southern part of a small country called Swaziland. It has less than a million people living in it, and most on them living in the north. My father was a pastor in a black congregation there. The people of Swaziland are poor, as is general for the most of Africa. We lived in a 600m2 house owned by the church, across the street my father’s black collegue was living in a much smaller house with his family.

I have many good memories from this place. Typical child stuff – playing, climbing trees, riding bicycle. But I also remember the black congregations in which my father was working. I remember the singing, and even today still remember some of the songs, and recognize them in black congretions in Mamelodi when I visit. I remember the ways in which they collected the meagre amount of money on a Sunday, with singing and dancing.

But I never had black friends in Swaziland. Well, apparently I had as a very small kid according to my parents, but I can’t remember them. My friends were white. Blacks were the other. They played by themselves. We played by ourselves. When we had birthday parties, it was the white kids from the small white community in South Africa, and the white kids that we went to school with in Piet Retief, the white town on the other side of the border.

I do remember some of the black collegues my father had, with some of them I can remember not really noticing colour. Not caring to be touched by them. Easily talking to them. Especially Baba Gama, who always checked to see if I could recognize his voice when he was calling and I would answer. I remember black people sharing the table with us at our home, and we with them at conferences. I had much of the inter-culture experience that kids of missionaries have. I treasure that.

But I know this: the black people living across the street, the black people in town, even the black congregants, I weren’t looking at them as equals. I don’t know if I were racist at this stage of my life, but I definitely had a sense than the black people among whom I were living weren’t “on the same level”.