A journey through the desert of patriarchal apartheid in South Africa

by Wilhelmina Johanna Venter (South Africa)
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I was born in 1963, three years before the infamous assassination of Hendrik French Verwoerd, the primary architect of apartheid. Apartheid was a terribly complex system of social separation. People were grouped into categories of "whites" and "non-whites" with the former being those from European extraction. "Non-whites" comprised of Bantus (people of African descent), Coloureds (people of mixed descent) and Asians (mainly of Indian descent). I was fortunate to have been born as the eldest daughter of "white" Afrikaner parents. Being a "white" Afrikaner included more than merely affiliating oneself with the "white" tribe that has claimed direct descent from European ancestors. It has equally been a reference to being Christian. However, the term Christian was qualified even further as a reference to a particular version of Calvinist Protestantism which established itself in South Africa in the form of three Dutch Reformed churches. My religious roots are to be found in the smallest of these, namely, the Gereformeerde Kerk. Any other version of Christianity was viewed with absolute suspicion. There was, for example, Father Hahn, a priest in the local Roman Catholic Church. Father Hahn was treated with great contempt by the "white" community. Besides him representing the Roomse Gevaar (Roman peril), he posed a great threat to the community due to his free association with "blacks". In fact, he was seen to be a communist, since he dared to challenge the poor treatment farm-workers received from their "white" masters. As children, we often yelled at him Kafferboetie (Negro-lover) when seeing him driving around in his van filled with "blacks". He, after all, aligned himself too closely with the Swart Gevaar (Black peril).

The history of "blacks" and "whites" is emerged in blood. In the Afrikaans culture, there is one day of celebration each year which stands out, namely, the Day of the Covenant or Dingaansdag. On 16 December 1838, a relatively small group of Afrikaners defeated the Zulu nation in a battle which became knows as the Battle of Blood River. A few hours before the battle took place, this small group of Afrikaners made a vow to God that if He gave them victory over the Zulus, then they would commemorate that day forever as a Sunday. In this battle, about 3000 Zulus were killed with only four Afrikaners being injured. Until the present, this victory over the Swart Gevaar is commemorated every year on the 16th of December. As a child, I felt particularly on this day great pride in being a member of God's chosen people whom were sent to dark Africa in 1652 in order to bring His light to the heathens of that continent. I felt a personal urgency to spread His word and thus decided at the young age of nine years to become a minister of religion in the Gereformeerde Kerk. This church is particularly known for a tradition of resisting whatever is regarded as a representation of modernity.

In line with this tradition, I had contempt for everything associated with the worldly. My physique was seen as an embodiment of this worldly element, and was as such to be hidden and avoided at all cost. The tool that I developed in order to deal with this self-alienating worldview was to immerse myself deeply into religiosity. Thus, I occupied myself with transcendental matters instead of allowing myself to be distracted by the material temptations of this world.

I enrolled for an undergraduate degree at Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education (PUCHE) with a view to doing theology. This decision was greatly discouraged by the majority of people who learnt about it, due to my gender. However, some of my critics noted that I could put my theological training to good use by becoming the wife of a minister.

However, while I was an undergraduate student, I developed a deep awareness of discrimination in the tradition of my church. This awareness was triggered off when I finally realised that pursuing theological studies would be a fruitless endeavour, since I was regarded as inferior due to my status as a woman. I therefore decided to discontinue my theological studies.

I realised for the first time that "love thy neighbour" applied only to those who looked and thought the same way as I did, namely, "white" Protestant Afrikaners. But even amongst us, the "insiders", there was a fixed hierarchy based on, amongst other things, gender and class. It then dawned on me what my mother meant when she used to tell me that irrespective of what career I followed or whom I married, I would always be a woman and as such, would ultimately have the responsibility of cooking food and looking after the children. I then understood that, although she might not have agreed with this socially instructed position, she knew from her own experience that I would be left with little choice in this regard. My prayers to God the Father then became a rebellion against all these confinements due to my gender.

This war between God and me intensified even further when I finally realised that the Afrikaners were after all not His chosen people, as was declared in the doctrines of the Reformed Churches. This realisation robbed me of my sense of identity and purpose in life. It appeared that all I was told to believe about the world and myself were mere expressions of other people's ideologies. As a result of my disillusionment, I ceased appealing to God for His understanding. From this stage onwards, I sought to be liberated from what I now realise were authoritative truths.

While I could reject any biblical grounds for the Afrikaner's dominance of "black" people, I found it impossible to argue that women's subordination was unscriptural. The tools I inherited for interpreting the Bible did not allow me to read the references to women any differently from just taking them literally. As my idea of Christianity was confined to the GK and its doctrines, I concluded that the Bible and Christianity were inherently patriarchal. Thus I rejected Christianity and I rejected God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as being the embodiment of all the men whom I had failed and who had failed me.

In 1992, I got married to Ernest Nakedi Mbabama, a member of the Xhosa tribe. We were lucky that the law prohibiting mixed marriages was repealed in 1990, otherwise we would have been harassed, if not imprisoned. My family, however, rejected his union. They regarded this not only as a betrayal of Afrikaner nationalism, but as rebelling against God's order for creation. I, after all, got married to a member of an inferior group, and that meant utmost chaos for civilisation!

Click on small image to enlarge.   Click on image to enlarge.   Click on small image to enlarge.

Click on small image to enlarge.

I felt pregnant in the middle of 1997. A little girl was born named Neo, a name given to her by her paternal grandmother, meaning "Gift". I soon noticed changes taking place in me, changes that I have difficulty to describe to this day. The most useful terms I could use to describe these are centred around words like "god", "deity", "truth" I suddenly noticed god everywhere: in myself, in the people around me and in the rest of creation. Every task is an act of worshipping, whether preparing food, writing my doctoral thesis, cleaning Neo's bumps, etc. God is everything and nothing, god is both male and female, but neither any of the two, god is life, and life is god.

Neo has become to me a symbol of a merger between so-called opposites. Neo is the "truth", the coming together of two worlds that were regarded to be absolute separate entities. Her existence embodies the miracle of our country, and she symbolises hope for a world torn apart by refusal to accept diversity.



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