It was well after midnight on a summer’s night in 1983. I was 22 and taking a well-earned break from training for the Comrades Marathon. The movie The Last Waltz was playing in the almost empty hall at the Bozzoli Sports Pavillion at Wits University.
It was the tail end of some university gathering and there were very few people around. The movie was playing to a few hardy souls who had stayed on. One of my closest high school friends Andrew (not his real name) and I were enjoying the classic sounds of Bob Dylan and The Band, and we began to dance to the music.
It was a hot night and we both loosened the buttons on our shirts, exposing our young muscular torsos to the night air. There was something wonderfully Dionysiac about our dancing. Two boys who’d grown to manhood together through the often lonely and sometimes brutal trials of boarding school, sharing their bliss at being young and free from all that, dancing to the rhythms of music from the world beyond the limited worldview of apartheid South Africa and revelling in the wonder of all we imagined that promised us, now that we were free to choose a different life for ourselves.
So, we danced, filled with joy and oblivious to what anyone around us thought. Somewhere, sometime in that giddy whirl of youthful pleasure and celebration, I became aware of what seemed at first ghostly figures watching us. I remember their eyes dark and yet strangely bright at the same time, as they watched us. They were drinking beer out of cans, and they began to group together, hunched over and talking animatedly over the tops of the beer cans.
We took no notice of them at first, but soon they made their way over towards the two of us. It took a few beats of music and perhaps a twirl or two of our own dance steps before it struck me that this group of beer drinkers was threatening. I realised that we were literally being hunted.
Somehow they herded the two of us away from the hall where the movie was playing. I remember low, menacing voices, growling, calling us “moffies”.
I was confused. I didn’t really believe what was happening. My clearest recollection was of thinking we could talk our way out of this – and then seeing one of them jerk up the old-fashioned ring-pull top that beer cans had in those days. He took it, and slowly, and deliberately put it on his little finger, the sharp metal edge pointing outwards, a tiny glinting knuckle duster waiting to slice into flesh. I knew at that moment there was no talking our way out of this.
Andrew still tried to talk them out of it. I watched him as he spoke. Then the first blow struck. It was the attacker with the beer top. His fist crashed into my nose, smashing the cartilage and breaking it instantly – at the same time the sharp knuckle duster sliced deeply into the outside of my nose.
Another blow landed on the side of my jaw. I spun around, desperately fending off the attackers as best I could. They kept coming, and I kept spinning. The low lighting of the pavilion flashed around them, confusing my vision as the attackers circled around me, a revolving shadow play of horror as somehow I managed to hold off the worst of the strikes, but I knew it was only a matter of time before I was overwhelmed.
Andrew and I were separated. I had no idea what was happening to him as I fought to hold my own. Spectators were gathering, standing in a circle watching. I turned desperately around and around. “Somebody please help us!” I pleaded breathlessly, but no one moved. The shapes of their heads blurred into the bobbing heads of my attackers.
As a child I had learned some judo, and it helped a little now. I parried and struck back – and hit one of them in the side of the face. “Leave my brother alone,” snarled a voice out of the vortex of light and shadow, and another punch landed on my face.
Somehow, at the bottom of my terrified vision I saw a kick aimed at my groin. I blocked it with my shin.
Blood was pouring out of my nose. Blood and the terror of my desperate fight was choking my breathing. I was utterly alone, surrounded by my attackers. And yet, I was not helpless. I fought back. In the maelstrom of light, shadow and blows I glimpsed the entranceway to a staircase leading out of the building into the parking lot below, and, beyond that, Empire Road.
I fought my way into its half-lighted rectangle. As I reached the first step, I turned and fled. Somewhere on that dim staircase, I tripped and fell, cracking a bone in my ankle. The pain of it shot through my leg. I could no longer walk. I turned into a kind of broken serpent, dragging myself down the stairway as fast as I could manage, smearing blood over each step from my bleeding nose and blood-soaked shirt. I wasn’t aware of how much blood there was at the time, but Wits security told me two days later they were horrified that there was so much blood left behind.
My mind has blanked out most of what happened in the parking lot. I dragged myself between the parked cars, which actually provided very little place to hide. I peered from underneath a chassis into the darkness, waiting for my attackers to find me. I couldn’t run from them. I had no choice but to try and conceal myself somehow: shivering, bleeding and near vomiting with fear in the darkness behind the tyre of a car.
They never came. I think they must have been satisfied with their work and left me bleeding and crippled on the stairway. Andrew was much stronger than me and he somehow managed to fight his way out of the mob. He called my brother and my cousin who were somewhere else on campus, and I remember my brother’s voice, high-pitched with rage, anxiety and, yes, love, calling my name over the roofs of the cars. He, too, is much bigger and stronger than me, and I knew when the three of them arrived that my ordeal was over.
My brother carried me to the car, and we drove to the Joburg Gen. There were X-rays, painkillers and a fibreglass cast for my ankle. My smashed nose they couldn’t do anything about. Or, at least, they said as much. It would have to heal on its own.
Somehow we got home, and woke my parents up. There wasn’t much they could do other than put me to bed where I lay on my back, my mind whirling with shock. I relived each blow many times in my head, still too devastated to really feel any sense of relief. Slowly, with the pain drugs and the ability of youth to fall asleep, I fell into a kind of semi-daze.
Sometime in the darkness of what remained of that night, I remember my mother coming into my room and kneeling down next to my bed to pray for my bodily and mental healing. And for whatever protection there might be for her son. She could do nothing to change what had happened to me; but in her mother’s love she wanted to bring God and whatever angels she could find to hold me safe in their care. It was all she could do to begin to heal the violence that hate had torn open in my life.
In the days, and then the weeks and months that followed, I didn’t want to talk about what had happened. Violent abuse leaves its victims with a double blow. You have the pain of the incident and are trying to heal from that, and you feel the paradoxical shame of believing that you allowed it to happen to you.
That is indeed irrational, but it is a deep and inextricable part of the trauma of abuse. I could hardly bear to recall what had happened. I forced myself to remember fighting back as best I could, and the memory of the sound of someone out of that bewildering orbit of light and darkness and viciousness shouting out “leave my brother alone” was something I clung to. It was the main thing I did talk about when people asked me what happened.
I didn’t want to think of myself as a mere victim, and in that moment of violent self-assertion I somehow felt that I had at least partially vindicated my own humanity. I was not mere prey at the mercy of others’ cruelty. I had not submitted, and that self-realisation was the only thing I could carry away from that hideous coiling and uncoiling of the memories of each moment of fear and brutality.
It took months for my ankle to mend. I never did run the Comrades, and despite an operation in recent years, my nose never really has healed properly, it still gives me problems and remains twisted sideways.
What I carried with me for years was that sense of self-blame. I felt wrongly that somehow I had been part of the problem. Perhaps, I sometimes thought, unbidden, and in spasms of misplaced shame, I never should have loosened my shirt, perhaps Andrew and I never should have danced our joyful dance together. We had antagonised them. If only we had behaved ourselves in a different way, then they might never have chosen to attack us.
It really is only in recent years that I understood clearly that it was not my – not our – fault, that we were the victims of other peoples’ hate. Our attackers decided to attack us because they thought we were gay, and deserved to be beaten up simply for dancing together as two young men celebrating on a warm summer’s night.
We had no control over their choices. The best we could do was fight back, and somehow survive.
I still, though, carry the trauma of it with me. The other day I met someone who thought of themselves as highly religious – and of course, deeply righteous – who was viciously concerned about gay and trans people struggling for their rights in today’s world. Their influence he saw as pernicious, their calls for the recognition of their humanity filled with what he alleged were lies and what he claimed were deliberate, indoctrinating falsehoods that led to “the mutilation of children”.
I barely need to address this horrifying slander, but in the interests of journalism, I will clearly say there is simply no evidence to back up this bigoted claim.
In hearing those soft, sweetly spoken words, uttered with false compassion and sickening moral outrage, I was suddenly cast back 40 years, to fists and blood and fighting back in the swirling half-light as my assailants circled around me.
All across the world, there is a fast-rising tide of hate against LGBTQIA+ people, from Vladimir Putin’s recent Bill, to the massacre at Colorado Springs to the horrifying legislation passed recently on our continent in Uganda. In our own country the evidence is that there is greater acceptance of their right simply to be who they are, but there is still a long way to go.
I don’t know how exactly it is that one fights against hatred. There is no doubt that it stems ultimately from fear, but understanding that is not always enough. I learnt the hard way that you have also to fight back to affirm your own humanity, in fact, simply to survive.
And yet, I also know that those brutal young thugs did not go home that night feeling chastened by my self-assertion. They may well have been secretly ashamed of their own inhumanity, but they might equally well have revelled in it. Perhaps they were even morally satisfied with themselves for having, as they would see it, taught us a lesson.
I will never know. I can only speak for my own inner life and what their assault left me with. Fighting back was essential to my reconstituting my own sense of self-worth.
Looking back on what happened now, I see that one of the most disturbing things was that there was no one who stepped in to help us. We were left to fight alone, while others simply looked on passively.
For those of us who are allies in the struggle for LGBTQIA+ people to achieve full and unambiguous recognition we must ensure that we ourselves are not guilty of simply looking on while they too fight alone for their humanity.
We must actively challenge such bigotry wherever and whenever we encounter it. The right to dance freely and joyously on a summer’s night with whomever we choose is not negotiable. DM