It was well after midnight on a summer night in 1983. I was twenty-two and taking a good break from training for the Comrades Marathon. the film The last waltz He was playing in the almost empty hall in the Pozzuoli Sports Pavilion at Wits University.
It was the end of some university meeting and there were very few people around. The movie was about a few strong spirits that remained. One of my best friends in high school Andrew (not his real name) and I were enjoying the classic sounds of Bob Dylan and the Band, and we started dancing to the music.
It was a hot night and we were both unbuttoning our shirts, exposing our little muscular bodies to the night air. There was something wonderfully Dionysian about our dancing. Two boys who grew up together through the often brutal experiences of loneliness and brutality at boarding school, share the happiness of being young and free from it all, dancing to the rhythms of music from the world outside the limited worldview of apartheid South Africa and enjoying the wonder of everything we imagined and promised, now After we are 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 swirling whirlpool of youthful fun and celebration, I became aware of what seemed at first glance to be ghostly figures watching us. I remember their eyes dark and strangely bright at the same time, as they were watching us. They were drinking beer from the cans, and began to huddle together, bowing and talking excitedly over the lids of the beer cans.
We didn’t notice them at first, but they soon made their way towards the two of us. It took a few beats of the music and maybe a swirl or two of our dance steps before it occurred to me that this group of beer drinkers was a threat. I realized we were literally being chased.
Somehow, they took the two of us away from the hall where the movie was being shown. I remember the low, creepy voices and snarls that called us “moffies.”
I was confused. I really couldn’t believe what was happening. The clearest thing I remember was thinking we could talk our way out of this – and then seeing someone go up the old ring that beer cans were in those days. He took it, slowly, and deliberately placed it on his little finger, the sharp metal tip pointing outward, a tiny shimmering finger duster waiting to be cut into the flesh. I knew at that moment there was no talk of our way out of this.
Andrew is still trying to talk them out of it. I watched him speak. Then the first blow struck. The attacker was the one with the top jersey. His fist smashed into my nose, instantly smashing and breaking the cartilage—at the same time, the sharpened finger duster cut deeply into the outside of my nostril.
Another blow landed on the side of my jaw. I turned around, holding off the attackers as hard as I could. They kept coming, and I kept turning. The low illumination of the wing flashed around them, blurring my vision as the attackers circled around me, a swirling shadow of terror as I somehow managed to fend off the worst of the blows, but I knew it was only a matter of time before I was overwhelmed.
Andrew and I are separated. I had no idea what was happening to him as I struggled to hold my own. The spectators would gather and stand in a circle, watching. I turned desperately. “Someone please help us!I pleaded eagerly, but no one moved. The shapes of their heads were blurred in the swaying heads of the attackers.
As a kid, I learned some judo, and that’s helped me quite a bit now. I tackled and hit – and hit one in the side of the face. “Leave my brother alone,” a voice growled from the vortex of light and shadow, and another punch landed on my face.
Somehow, at the bottom of my horrified vision I saw a kick aimed at the groin. I kept him from my neck.
Blood was coming from my nose. The blood and terror of my desperate fight choked my breath. I was completely alone, surrounded by attackers. However, I was not helpless. I resisted. In the storm of light, shadow, and beat, I glimpsed the entrance to a staircase that led out of the building to the parking lot below, and beyond that, Empire Road.
I fought my way to a half-lit rectangle. When I got to the first step, I turned around and ran away. Somewhere on this dim staircase, I tripped and fell, breaking a bone in my ankle. I got pain in my legs. I can no longer walk. I turned into a kind of broken snake, dragging myself down the stairs as fast as I could, blood on every step from my bleeding nose and bloodied shirt. I didn’t know how much blood there was at the time, but Waits’ security told me two days later that they were horrified at leaving so much blood behind.
Most of what happened in the parking lot has blurred my mind. I dragged myself between the parked cars, which offered very little places to hide. I looked down from the structure into the darkness, waiting for the attackers to find me. I couldn’t escape from them. I had no choice but to try to disguise myself somehow: trembling, bleeding and half-vomiting with fear in the dark behind the tire.
They never came. I think they were satisfied with their work and left me bleeding and paralyzed on the stairs. Andrew was much stronger than me and somehow managed to fight his way out of the mob. He called my brother and cousin who were elsewhere on campus, and I remember my brother’s high-pitched voice of anger, anxiety, and yes, love, calling my name over the rooftops. He is also much bigger and stronger than me, and I knew when the three of them arrived my ordeal was over.
My brother carried me to the car, and we drove to General Joburg. There were x-rays, painkillers, and a fiberglass splint for my ankle. My smashed nose they couldn’t do anything about. Or at least they said the same thing. It will have to heal on its own.
Somehow we got home, and my dad woke up. There was not much they could do other than put me to bed as I lay on my back, my mind spinning in shock. I’ve replayed every hit to my head multiple times, and I’m still too devastated to feel any relief. Slowly, with painkillers and the youthful ability to sleep, I fell into a kind of semi-stupor.
Sometime in the darkness of the remainder of that night, I remember my mother entering my room and knelt by my bed to pray for my physical and mental recovery. And what protection she might have for her son. There was nothing she could do to change what happened to me; But in love with her mother, she wanted to bring God and whatever angels she could find to keep me safe in their care. It was all she could do to begin to heal the hate-ridden violence in my life.
In the days, and then the weeks and months that followed, I didn’t want to talk about what happened. Violent abuse leaves its victims with a double whammy. You have the pain of the accident and you’re trying to recover from it, and you feel the paradoxical shame of thinking you let it happen to you.
This is actually illogical, but it is a deep and inextricable part of the trauma of abuse. I couldn’t bear to remember what happened. I forced myself to remember the fight as best I could, and the memory of someone’s voice outside that bewildering ark of light, dark, and savagery shouting “leave my brother alone” was something I clung to. It was the main thing I talked about when people asked me what happened.
I didn’t want to think of myself as just a victim, and in that moment of violent self-affirmation, I somehow felt that I had at least partially validated myself. I wasn’t just a prey at the mercy of others’ cruelty. I didn’t give up, and that self-realization was the only thing I could carry away from this grotesque convolution and uncoiling of memories of every moment of fear and brutality.
It took months for my ankle to recover. I’ve never run with buddies, and despite having surgery in recent years, my nose has never healed properly, and it still gives me problems and keeps crooked laterally.
What I carried with me for years was that feeling of self-blame. I incorrectly felt that somehow I was part of the problem. Perhaps I thought sometimes, uninhibited, and in fits of misplaced shame, that I should never have taken off my shirt, that perhaps Andrew and I should never have danced our cheerful dance together. We have restored them. If only we had acted differently, they would never have chosen to attack us.
Only in recent years have I clearly realized that it was not my fault – and it is not my fault – that we are victims of other peoples’ hatred. Our attackers decided to attack us because they thought we were gay, and deserved to be beaten just for dancing together while two guys were partying on a warm summer night.
We had no control over their choices. The best we can do is resist, and somehow survive.
I still, though, carry the shock of that with me. The other day I met someone who thought he was deeply religious – and of course very righteous – who was deeply interested in LGBT people fighting for their rights in today’s world. He saw their influence as harmful, their calls for recognition of their humanity full of what he claimed were lies and what he claimed were deliberate and indoctrinating lies that led to “the amputation of children”.
I hardly need to address this horrific calumny, but in the interest of the press, I will clearly state that there is no evidence to support this fanaticism. Claim.
When I heard those soft-spoken words, uttered with feigned mercy and sickening moral outrage, I was suddenly flashing back 40 years, to fists and blood and half-light fighting as attackers circled around me.
Across the world, there is a rising tide of hate against LGBT people, from Vladimir Putin speaking invoicefor the Colorado massacre springs To the appalling legislation recently passed on our continent at Uganda. The evidence in our country is that there is a greater acceptance of their right to simply be who they are, but there is still a long way to go.
I don’t know exactly how one fights hate. There is no doubt that it ultimately stems from fear, but understanding this is not always enough. I learned the hard way that you also have to fight back to assert your humanity, in fact, simply to survive.
However, I also know that those savage little thugs didn’t go home that night chastising me for my self-affirmation. They may have been secretly ashamed of their brutality, but they may have enjoyed it. Perhaps they were morally complacent because, as they see it, they taught us a lesson.
I will never know. I can only talk about my inner life and what their assault left me with. The resistance was necessary to recreate my sense of self-worth.
Looking back at what happened now, I see one of the most disturbing things is that there was no one to step in to help us. We were left to fight on our own, while others simply looked on the negative side.
For those of us who are allies in the LGBTQIA+ struggle to achieve full and unequivocal recognition, we must ensure that we ourselves are not guilty of mere sight while they too are fighting alone for their humanity.
We must actively challenge such intolerance wherever and whenever we encounter it. The right to dance freely and joyfully on a summer’s night with whomever we choose is non-negotiable. DM