My 20-year high school reunion is coming up in October. School tradition dictates that the first reunion is after 15 years. So when that mark passed by unceremoniously, I was somewhat relieved. High school was awful. It was the 1990s, white people were still whylin’ out of control with the racism.
I went to a Model C school that was probably the last to take in black pupils. By the end of my first year, I was one of only eight black kids in a school of more than 500. At the age of 10, I was also the youngest in the entire school. The bullying was epic. On my first day, one of the kids in my class told me his dad was a member of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging and did I know what that meant and that he was going to moer me. LOL!
The news of the reunion reached me the day after the Ruth First Memorial Lecture where there was a lot of “Fuck white people” and “Yhu! Abelungu!” going around. The day after, I felt somewhat excluded from Nolwazi Tusini’s narrative of challengers and collaborators because, as a child, I was neither. I was just a kid trying to get his education; a small, queer kid who was being called “kaffir” at school, “moffie” on the way home and “umlung’omnyama (coconut)” in the township. The small part of me that remained vindictive – the part of me that imagined returning to our 15-year reunion happy, successful and accepted – decided I was going.
It was a difficult time, those transition years. On the one hand we were busy forgiving because The Arch and “that nice man Mr Mandela” were telling us to. Yet every day I was given a reason not to. Every day a reason to find new people who should be sorry. But the 1990s were a bit like waking up from a dream that you could still replay in your mind but could not identify the people or things that receded from you even as you remembered them. At least we wished it were like that. To wake up and see the big bad nightmare, the proximity of which was still palpable, move further and further away from you until you forgot.
I escaped the school-sanctioned physical bullying that is PT by signing up for music lessons, and I played the piano really badly for about three years. One day, when my piano fees hadn’t been paid and the teacher refused to give me lessons, I bumped into the only black pupil enrolled on the fine art programme. He and the rest of the art students were on their way to their biweekly lesson at the only gallery in town – the Victorian-style Ann Bryant Art Gallery in East London. I decided to tag along. I sat for a drawing they had been assigned and poked around the gallery a bit. It was boring. Old, rich settler ladies in their finery painted by obviously enchanted artists.
After high school I went to Fort Hare and the party was on. It was the beginning of kwaito’s golden years. Tata churlishly dubbed us the Boom Shaka generation and Boom Shaka told us to “be free” and “don’t feel ashamed”. I opened the sekile (circle) at student bashes and found the acceptance from my peers I so badly craved. We protested against financial exclusions and were called lazy party animals with no DPs. We probably didn’t feel like “time travellers”, as Leigh-Ann Naidoo describes the Fallists of the class of 2015. We were firmly rooted in the now. The past was still so close we could actually feel it in the library with only four networked computers for a student body of about 2 000. The future: well, just look at it.
I discovered Jesus and I discovered art. I dropped the one and kept the other. The Student Christian Organisation on campus boasted a few assumedly straight but feminine-presenting men with known girlfriends and I thought they maybe had a cure. I found no cure but it turned out the feminine-presenting men were not straight at all — not then, not after.
The art I kept. A fellow majaivane (dancer) from the sekile, who also happened to be a fine art student, introduced me to a gang of black art students mainly from Jo’burg. Their art and outlook, which helped to develop and nurture my own, allowed my mind to travel beyond here and now, and back and forth through space and time.
We had a Toyota Super-16 taxi named “Boss of the Road” that fetched us every day, bumping the latest party jams. The party called to us and we answered.
I wonder now how the reunion will pan out – will it be a party or will it be a case of “Yhu! Abelungu!”?