Mark Minnie was 12 years old in 1972 when he was raped by 17-year-old twins, Bryce and Mickey. They lived in the same neighbourhood.
The twins had bust Mark french-kissing their sister Gina. She was about two or three years older than Minnie. The twins chased her away before attacking Mark. In The Lost Boys of Bird Island, he recalls the violence with painful clarity.
He writes: “One of them manages to clamp my head and neck between his knees, holding my limp arms still at the same time. I’m staring at the ground. The other twin removes what’s left of my short pants and underwear from the lower half of my body.
“We’re going to fuck you silly now, you little cunt,” the twin who’s occupying a position behind me states breathlessly.
“What happens next causes me to cry out to God for help, begging him to make them stop. It feels like the lower half of my torso is being ripped apart. The twins take it upon themselves to switch positions, holding my limp carcass in the air. I can bear this no longer. I call out to God again to help me. Thankfully, he answers my prayers. I slip into a world of darkness. No more fear. No more pain. Complete nothingness.
“I am not sure how long this all lasts. But the resurgence of searing pain rouses me from unconsciousness …”
In a later passage, Minnie remarks that some years after this brutal attack, he “heard that one twin had undergone a sex-change operation, paid for by one of the richest men in town”.
Minnie, a retired cop, was found dead this week. The murky circumstances of a possible suicide remain unclear.
For the past week, the book that he had co-authored with journalist Chris Steyn has caused widespread public discussion about an alleged paedophile ring that operated in Port Elizabeth in the 1980s. It was allegedly run by National Party politicians, including former minister of defence Magnus Malan.
The reason I am haunted by Minnie’s revelation of his own childhood trauma is because this book isn’t simply a cop and a journalist’s exposé of a paedophile ring. That would be too understated and might lead to it being read too quickly. It is best understood as a text that documents an orgy of everyday violence in our society, violence that was embedded in the very social and political structures of the colonial and apartheid states.
For Minnie, the investigation into the abuse of working class and vulnerable young coloured boys in Port Elizabeth wasn’t only about doing his job as a good cop. He was deeply and painfully motivated by his own experience of familial violence in his community.
His stepfather was violent, beating up his wife and the children before killing himself. His biological father had been violent too and “apparently died a drunk”.
Minnie, in other words, knew deep inside him what it feels like to be a child, black or white, rich or poor, in apartheid South Africa. It meant that abuse and trauma would be as familiar to you as rugby and boerewors.
The very genesis of our society was violent and this endured over time and space in our country. Not much has changed for children in our society.
It is little wonder that Minnie was determined to seek justice for the victims of the violent villains of apartheid. When Minnie started investigating, after speaking to the first victim, a boy who had had a gun shoved into his anus, he believed their stories.
Survivors of sexual assault, including rape, will tell you that one of the hardest aspects of the trauma is not being believed when you break your silence.
Of course, a good cop, just like a good journalist and researcher, must follow the evidence and test the claims and corroborate the stories they get from the victims.
It became clear that Dave Allen, a local businessperson, friends with Nat ministers such as John Wiley, minister of environmental affairs, had transported boys to Bird Island, not far from Port Elizabeth, and sexually abused them.
But Minnie was driven out of the police force, not least because the Nats were determined to keep the scandal from blowing open.
Rapport reported this past week that apparently former president PW Botha himself intervened directly to shut down the investigation and to stop the media reporting on it.
Very quickly dockets went missing, and Allen and Wiley were found dead under suspicious circumstances, which looked like staged suicides.
This book is, therefore, about a complex interplay of racism, homophobia, patriarchy, megalomania and various permutations of political and social violence. I am not convinced that the paedophilia theme that the media have been reporting on thus far clarifies what is truly going on.
Paedophiles are sexually attracted to children. Malan and his friends might not have wrestled with their sexual attraction to children. Or maybe they did? We do not know. But the book is surely the tip of the iceberg, and the fact that many of these evil men are dead precludes us from knowing what went on inside their heads.
What we do know is that men like Malan were routinely extremely violent. We also know that they hated black people. The abuse of boys speaks to a long colonial history of regarding black bodies as things, as objects for exploitation. It is right up there with apartheid-era atrocities committed against activists.
Bird Island echoes Vlakplaas. These are not just secret locations where unusual sexual desire found expression. These are locations where sadistic men acted out their internalised belief that black people are subhuman and their belief that black bodies lack inherent dignity.
Many paedophiles do not act on their sexual attraction. Many wrestle with their feelings and the moral duty not to harm children. Many do harm children.
But Malan and his friends were not necessarily sexual deviants. They were powerful and evil men who were addicted to a range of ways of injuring black people.
It helps to borrow from the work of feminists such as Pumla Gqola, who remind us that rape isn’t about sex. It is chiefly about the violent expressions of power. Although it is titillating in a sexually conservative society to inject the paedophilia theme into the public discussion about Malan and his pals, we need to give a more detailed and accurate description of the nature of what these men did. They reduced these boys to things. They were not merely, if at all, sexually attracted to them.
That said, there are concurrent complexities. I kept thinking of the film Skoonheid while reading this book. It shows the depths of self-shame and homophobia in the white Afrikaans community. The setting is a rural one, and most of the men in that film meet secretly to satisfy each other sexually.
It is interesting that one of the twins who raped Minnie might himself, as Minnie remarks, have turned out to have the identity of a sexual minority. That is something they may or may not have been aware of as teenagers when they attacked Minnie. What is significant is the moral that lies at the heart of the apartheid society that this book exposes. The Nats would have hated the revelations to become public because the idea that these Christian conservative men might have been gay, bisexual or gender-nonconforming would have upset the ideological foundations of apartheid.
Some of the men in this alleged paedophile ring might well also have acted violently in part because of their own self-shame, quite apart from their anti-black racist psychologies. Just as twin boys could mete out sexual violence while possibly harbouring their own same-sex desire, the notion of an idyllic Christian heteropatriarchy belies the reality of fluid sexualities.
And when you add all these realities into one cocktail — such as self-shame, disruption of conservative moral values handed down intergenerationally and racism — you get Bird Island.
What we need to do is to dig deeper. This book must be a prolegomenon to a comprehensive public archiving of the true extent of apartheid-era atrocities. It must be bidirectional, also.
As a matter of epistemic and political justice, all victims must have their stories affirmed, told and the wounds that linger seen to.
But Minnie’s personal biography dispersed throughout this book also invites us to look anew at what colonialism and apartheid did to white men and white boys. We are called upon to grapple with the idea that monsters do not fall from the sky. Malan was evil, and culpably so. The same goes for his friends. I hope they are not resting in peace. And that the ones who are still alive will be investigated.
Besides this moral accountability, we must explore how the humanity of these colonial perpetrators was extinguished, albeit by themselves, by the very act of reducing the black victim to a mere thing. We haven’t even begun to deal with the collective psychosocial trauma this has left us with as a wounded society.