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Breytenbach is perhaps the most striking case. Not long ago he penned a long essay on his current state of mind for Rapport, the Sunday Afrikaans paper. In it, he sneered at those who would “crawl on their knees to blacks in supplication.” The Afrikaners have always been and will always be a “culturally distinctive ethnic group,” he concluded, and even might someday have to find a little patch of land on which they can govern themselves.
* * *
In the end, the man who helped me understand redemption in South Africa wasn’t a liberal nor an ascetic, but someone many see as having turned his back on redemption altogether. We’ll call him Lappies. I met him in Bloemfontein, a town halfway between Johannesburg and Orania. He worked there as a lawyer. I was doing some reporting on a group of his clients, and in the course of telling me their life stories over lunch, he also told me his own. It didn’t seem relevant then. But I have since found I think of it all the time.
Lappies told me he had grown up in Mafikeng, a dusty town near the Botswana border. His father was a cattle farmer there. He was born in 1972, the third boy in the family. His two older brothers had gone to war. Big fights were on at that time in nearby Namibia and Angola. Their black liberation movements were suspected of assisting anti-apartheid fighters as well as conspiring with Russia and Cuba to undermine South Africa’s white capitalist economy. White South Africa instituted a draft to protect itself. The war effort was characterized by the South African government, popular radio, and film as not only necessary but moral. It was part of the greater death match being waged worldwide between Communism and freedom.
Lappies’s brothers had come home heroes. And so all of the daydreams and the play-hours of his childhood were spent fleshing out one fantasy: going to war himself. That was the greatest gift of love a boy could give his community, his country, and the world. That was how a boy became a man.
He entered the army in 1988 when he turned seventeen. It was, however, a strange and unfortunate time to join up, as over the course of his three years of service nearly all the honor and glory that had surrounded fighting in the army dissipated like so much thin fog. The Berlin Wall fell. Then the Soviet Union did, too. All the breathless panic surrounding the red tide creeping over Africa suddenly appeared silly, and the government’s anti-Communist rhetoric a flimsy cover for a racist war against blacks. Moreover, after decades of insisting a black takeover of the state meant certain death for the Afrikaners, the South African government released Nelson Mandela from prison.
The war that had once seemed so critical suddenly seemed foolish. In 1989, South African troops withdrew from Angola and Namibia. Lappies finished his army training and waited on his base’s tarmac for two days for his Angola call-up, but the plane that would have flown him to his heroic destiny never came.
The public moral line was changing exceptionally fast in South Africa. Lappies’s unit, once a particularly elite and respected one, was sent into the townships to keep the calm. One day, some soldiers opened fire on a group of black protesters. The local newspapers condemned the incident as a “rampage.” The government — still white then — referred the unit to a human rights commission for investigation and then, as part of the negotiations around South Africa’s democratic transition, agreed to disband the unit entirely.
The implication was that Lappies should feel ashamed. But when he went on to enroll in university, he found he keenly missed his army life: the intensity of it, the strict discipline, the male bonding, the glory — the idea of glory in Namibia and Angola. He still felt so disappointed he hadn’t been able to fight there. He was also aware these feelings were potentially sick. They kept him awake; they ate at him as he tried to concentrate on his studies. How could he miss something that had been so wrong?
His solution was not to redeem himself from the shame of his experience by crushing the sensations of pleasure and pride his memories of the army triggered, or by constructing a new notion of what glory entails. That would have required the erasure and revision of all his childhood dreams, of what woke him in his youth in an excited sweat like the young Nikolenka Bolkonsky in War and Peace, who awakens from a dream of his battle-slain father and then pants happily, “Father! Father! Yes, I’ll do something that even he would be pleased with…”
Rather, his solution was to redeem the experience itself from its bad reputation. He did it this way. When he advanced to graduate studies in law, the university asked him to act as a kind of “dorm father” to an unruly residence of undergraduate boys. He decided to restore discipline to the dorm by introducing all the practices that had taught him discipline in the army. Early in the morning, the boys underwent room inspection: shirts stacked from light to dark and toothbrush, toothpaste, shaver, shaving cream, and Bible lined up in that order on the bed, exactly like he’d had to do it in the army. Screw it up and they had to do “P.T.”, or push-ups, exactly like he’d had to do in the army. Freshmen were subjected to intense hazing to promote male bonding, just like he’d been in the army. Lappies’s wager was that the judgment on his army experience would come full circle: in correcting these bad boys, it would prove that those years had a purpose that might have been positive after all.
It did and it didn’t. Lappies’s dorm became the model of discipline. It won the annual campus float-building contest and the intramural rugby league. But in 2008 the dorm came to shame when its boys filmed a video protesting a university plan to place more black students in the dorm. In it, the boys mock-haze their elderly black janitors, forcing them to pound beers in their basement and run races. The video went viral across South Africa. After weeks of uproar, the dorm met the same final fate as Lappies’s unit in the army: the university shut it down altogether.
* * *
In Hamlet, Claudius, after having killed Hamlet’s father, delivers an anguished monologue on redemption. “My fault is past,” he reasons,
But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?
That cannot be; since I am still possess’d
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?”
I have long loved this monologue, but I always understood its lesson to be that giving up what you’ve won through sin, and promising not to sin again, are the prerequisites to redemption. Claudius still has an out, if a distasteful one: give up his crown, his wife, and his political ambitions, and he’d be ready for pardon.
In South Africa, I learned you might also have to give up your past; you might have to give up your memories. It was easy for Lappies to promise he’d never fight for apartheid again after apartheid ceased to exist. It was harder to regret having done it and harder still to erase having spent his whole youth wanting to do it.
Apartheid was an exceptionally pervasive system of social engineering. It strove, cruelly, to govern all aspects of human life: where people lived, where they worked, whom they married. It was the vast cloud under which many ordinary people built their lives; at first it sheltered them from the sun, but when it burst, everything under it got wet. The Afrikaner poet Danie Marais has written about feeling a wave of nostalgia for his first kiss, followed by shame when he remembered that kiss occurred during apartheid: “It seems unlikely, almost perverse, that one’s own personal experiences of beauty and innocence could have happened in such a time and place.”
I see now that there is a lot of work being done here toward redemption. It is the redeeming of the self through the redeeming of the past. In a place that has been touched by a wrong as all-encompassing as apartheid, what we ordinarily understand as redemption would entail the renunciation of a huge number of things, including one’s feelings and beliefs about one’s own youth. We call the people who do that lunatics or saints. In South Africa, ordinary people are involved, instead, in redeeming aspects of their old lives. The liberal historian is redeeming his education by insisting that the language in which he was taught is a noble one that must be preserved. The Oranians are redeeming their favorite holidays and foods by trying to show that traditional Afrikaner culture could be clean, if only the exploitation-of-black-labor tradition could be scrubbed from it.
Lappies is still engaged in redeeming his army experience. You might think, after the demise of his dorm in 2008, he would have given up. But instead, he collected money to open a private dorm just off campus in which the traditions of the army are again given center stage. When I visited, I asked one college freshman whether he thought early-morning room inspection was a little inhibiting, a relic of an earlier era when strict discipline for twenty-year-old men was more in vogue. He vigorously shook his head no. “It makes us big for the future,” he said.
Lappies as he was in the army exists again there. In fact, Lappies as he wanted to be has come into being there. “Have you noticed the way he smokes?” one student asked me. He explained that Lappies’s unusual thumb-and-forefinger grasp on a butt lets him cover the burning end with his palm. It was a habit, the student was sure, that came from when he had to stop Communists from spotting him on the battle line at night in Angola.