Zackie Achmat’s parents think he should be stoned to death. He was 11 when he first tried to tell his mother and aunt he wasn't like the other boys that he didn't like girls, that he was a "moffie". They threatened to "whip his hide off” if he ever mentioned "such things" again. A few weeks later, he tried to kill himself by swallowing 60 painkillers. The next thing he remembers was throwing up in the kitchen sink and feeling his aunt's hand on his shoulder. "Don't ever do that again," she said, her eyes brimming, "that's a coward's way and you're not a coward." No, he's not a coward.
Zackie Achmat, now 32 is quite a lot of other things though: writer, student and filmmaker, among them. But above all he's queer; queer in the sense of the word as it now stands voguishly rehabilitated at a 180 degree angle; queer In the sense of the word as it has been snatched back from the bigots by the very people its poison is aimed at, turning sting into serum. My Childhood as an Adult Molester is the jaw-dropping title of Achmat's essay in Defiant Desire, (Ravan) South Africa's first-ever book of gay and lesbian non-fiction edited by Mark Gevisser and Edwin Cameron and launched In Johannesburg last weekend.
It begins: '”There is no place called Salt River. There are no people called moffies. Children don't have sex. Muslim men don't beat or oppress their wives. This testimony is fantasy because everything is fantasy. In real life, no one has sex. Names and places in this fantastical testimony have been changed to protect the guilty. Everyone is guilty. Guilty of enjoying sex … " It is a shocking story, unsentimentally told, of a childhood that lost the luxury of innocence almost before it could walk. It is, up to a point, a familiar story of a family which, ground down by poverty ignorance and oppression, turns on itself and chews up its children. It is beyond that point a strange and unfamiliar story about sex and childhood or, more accurately, about sex and Zackie Achmat's childhood. It is a story that will offend some and shock many.
But then, that is Achmat's style and almost always his intention – he has used public platforms to champion cruiser sex that indiscriminate, zipless variety which often has gays and lesbians squirming along with the straights. We are used to the miserable fact of children as sex victims with no minimum age limit. We are not used to the idea of children as eager or indeed, like Achmat, insatiable sex pushers in the adult realm.
Achmat thinks this is because of the taboos that send children and their sexuality scuttling underground: "All kids have sexual desire, and we deliberately close our eyes to it." But in his own case, Achmat's not talking about a probing game of "doctor doctor" with the boys next door. He discovered "active" sex at the age of 10 with a white man in the Observatory public toilets and "never turned back". The man was reluctant: ''You are only a child," he told the beautiful boy. "Go home." Zackie persisted. The man relented. From then on Zackie had sex at the toilets once, twice, sometimes three times a day. The toilets were an apartheid discovery: while be was given special permission to read in the (whites only) Observatory Library, the librarian would not let him use the toilet; thus he was driven, bladder bursting. down the road to the public toilet, whose grafittied walls became his alma mater.
Achmat concedes he was "a lot more adventurous than other kids" but then, sex was one of the few pleasures available to him. The eldest of six children, his earliest memories are of his parents fighting and of he and his sister "Fika" (not her real name) crying in tune to Blue, Blue My World is Blue on the radio. Packed off to live with their grandparents in Salt River, Zackie and Fika were pretty much left to fend for themselves. Individual attention came in the form of almost daily beatings. Trying to make some sense of the violence and precariousness of his childhood, Achmat now says he doesn't think his family was so different from most others. "The family gets structured as a site of violence and it's not just about smacking or shouting, it's also psychic guilt, rejection, taboos. It's nonsense to say middle class families don't suffer from it."
By the age of 14, Zackie found life at home "intolerable" and left. He never went back to school but spent the rest of his youth staying with friends, on the street and in prison. It was 1976 and Zackie along with millions of black schoolchildren discovered their political muscle. For Zackie it went a step further: "In those years I discovered that sex is political and that, as moffies and letties, we had to be part of a revolution to change everything. It was the beginning of a life of sex and politics," he wrote. It was also the beginning of a substitute family, a family of political outcasts survivors and fighters bound not so much by the love that Achmat craved, but by solidarity which, for the time being, proved more reliable.
"Before 1976 I didn't give a damn about anybody," he says. After 1976 he found something worth giving a damn about – freedom, or at least the intoxicating idea of it. Arrested, detained for two months and finally convicted of burning down his old school (did you really? "Well, I was convicted," he replies archly), Achmat came to the attention of the security police. Six weeks later he was detained under the Terrorism Act for six months. It was the “one time I found myself in serious personal trouble. I broke down and for three days I believed in God although as an atheist, I had stupidly refused the only reading material on offer: the Bible and the Koran. My general madness stems from that period."
Another prison experience the following year was equally seminal but in a very different way. "To be thrown into a cell with 40 adult men is an event most boys would want to miss," Achmat has written in an as yet unpublished essay- especially a cell run by the rules of the notoriously brutal 28 Gang. Achmat describes how, although he was nervous, the dreaded sexual initiation was not for him exactly an initiation. The "young athletic murderer", Cups, who that first night scored Zackie as his "wife", was astonished to find himself in bed with a child who "showed him what a 69 was". Cups was so smitten he engineered Zackie's transfer to an isolation cell where he would be safe. Although Achmat left school with a Standard Seven pass, his education never stopped. He read everything, including Trotsky and Freud (in Marxist terms, a strictly incompatible combination).
ln 1986 he went to university on an age-exemption ticket and completed an honours degree in English at the University of Cape Town. Now he is doing a masters degree at the University of the Western Cape on homosexuality in South Africa from 1890 to 1948. Achmat has a reputation for being one of those people who upsets someone's apple cart every time he opens his mouth. He is "scathing about the homophobia he has experienced in leftwing structures. “There is plenty of homophobia on the left," Achmat says, "I've never been in the closet, but at the same time one was discouraged in political structures from making an issue of one's sexuality.
These days Achmat is more inclined to believe that politics happens outside parliament. "Crucial stuff, like anti-racist struggles, campaigning for a meal a day for school kids, setting up shelters for battered women … political parties won't achieve those things." He's going to vote "probably for the first and last time in my life" in April partly because "we 'need to get rid of those bastards" and partly as a lite-of-passage: "The ANC was part of my political infancy. I need to grow up and voting for them will see me into political adulthood." Children, as Achmat's award-winning documentary Die Duiwel Maak My Hart So Seer emphasised, are cruel and clever and they survive. "I wanted to show that," he says, "the joy of survival." Zackie Achmat should know. (Defiant Desire – Ravan, R51.30)