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Confession of dark 80s days causes shockwaves



A culture of bullying, racism, toxic masculinity, sexism, homophobia, corporal punishment, indoctrination, and militarisation. “k****r-hunting” on the weekends, and army “cadet” training at school. Parents who sat silently, and teachers who were taught not to think or question. These were just some of the factors of Christian National Education described in a letter by Ben Horowitz, published in Daily Maverick on 6 January 2021.

Horowitz wrote the piece as a letter to his peers ahead of their 40th matric reunion. “I hope we don’t celebrate the disgusting culture that so many of us embraced. We matriculated from a government institution designed to mould white boys into pawns of the apartheid government. The environment encouraged us to be sexist, homophobic, and racist. Christian National Education normalised militarisation and prepared us for conscription into an army that was defending apartheid. Our experience is shared by tens of thousands of white South African men of our age,” he wrote.

Describing how he was bullied and in turn joined a group of bullies “to survive”, he recounted how they beat a black man into unconsciousness. “We were sexist. We were trash. Gay people suffered our scorn, vitriol, and violence even more than women and, dare I say, maybe even more than black people.” He wrote that while he has worked to become a better person, he still has to “check himself” for bullying tendencies.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, Horowitz says it was empowering to share the painful memories with his wife and children and the wider community, and encourages other families to have similar conversations. He said at his school there wasn’t much antisemitism because there were so many Jewish students, but it was also part of the wider culture. He questions why more Jewish parents didn’t object to the toxic environment of these schools and stand up to apartheid as a whole. But, he acknowledges that the apartheid government was powerful and controlled education, even sending inspectors to these schools.

Horowitz’s experience isn’t unique. “[His article] is absolutely accurate, and whether one was at any of the public boys’ schools, it was exactly the same,” says a community member speaking on condition of anonymity.

“I have spent many years in psychoanalysis, processing my school days where I was a popular influential leader,” he says. “I don’t feel comfortable revisiting those days of mayhem and hatred, and thank goodness, have processed the fact that we all loved school but never visited it again for 30 years or so because of the shame and repressed anger that emerged in our adulthood. Thank G-d I had Habonim, where I learnt and then practiced proper values of humanity, which I hopefully integrated into my life.”

Jonathan Ancer wrote of similar experiences at school in a blog post in October 2020. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, he says, “I have mixed feelings about my school years. On the one hand, I did make good friends and it wasn’t all bad. But, on the other, it was terrible. There was a pecking order, and boys who were bullied became bullies themselves. Anyone who was different was victimised. There was a culture of bullying and violence which was tolerated by the staff and sometimes even encouraged.”

At the same time, “Many people who went through school during apartheid still hanker after the ‘good-old days’. I think a lot of people who graduated from government schools and were fed apartheid propaganda have struggled to find a place in a democratic South Africa. They haven’t been able to unlearn the ‘education’ they received.”

Then there is the psychological impact of being in such a system. “The impact on these men as teens cannot be underestimated,” says Lauren Jacobs, a Cape Town clinical psychologist.

“Their teen brains were still developing, and their need to fit in with the peer group was important. These men were both victims and perpetrators. They were victims of a system of conformity, and victims of a syllabus that was skewed to present history in a certain way. And they were perpetrators, of small and large offenses, hence their expression of guilt and shame. By not standing up for the rights of disenfranchised fellow students and disenfranchised black fellow South Africans, they were complicit.”

“Their traumatic experiences pushed their still-malleable brains’ trajectory into a defensive mode geared to promote survival,” she says.

This had an impact on them then and into the future. Possible effects include disconnection from others and cognitive dissonance, intrusions, and distortions. They could have difficulty regulating emotions, leading to acting out self-harming behaviours such as addiction, thrill-seeking, violent rage and depression, anger, and questioning fundamental beliefs. “I salute these men for sharing their vulnerability. As a clinical psychologist, I see that much has shifted, yet there is much that still needs to shift,” she says.

Beverley Lester, who grew up in South Africa, and is now a psychotherapist in London who has explored these issues in her writing, emphasises that “brutal environments brutalise us, and bystanders are also brutalised. We were guilty by association, there’s no escaping that.” In addition, schools were “aggressive” environments, enforcing the status quo.

Assistant sociology professor at George Washington University Fran Buntman grew up in South Africa and now lives in Washington, D.C.

Her research interests include institutions of punishment and power. “One of the most important things that explains South African society, past and present, is that masculinity is too often defined as requiring domination,” she says. “Domination can manifest itself without violence, but even if violence isn’t explicit, the threat of violence is never far away. I think some of the white schools, especially all-boys schools, unofficially “contracted out” violence by allowing older boys to be abusive to younger boys.”

She went to a co-ed school, and says that while the culture may have been milder, it was similar. “There were a few progressive teachers, especially in history and English. One teacher organised a secret small group to meet with black students in a church, and we did poetry together. But another teacher was violent against a girl who was my friend, and it was shocking, not normal. To say the least, rebellion and resistance weren’t accepted, so my anti-apartheid beliefs made me an object of suspicion and an outsider.”

She also went to veld school, as did Ancer. Veld school was a camp for school children held in the outdoors, alleged to have been used by the National Party government for political indoctrination.

“I think that’s where I saw the most naked and extreme ideologies of Christian National Education play out. I realised that however much I deplored in my school, we weren’t the worst off. The swart gevaar [black danger] mentality and need to think of white society as under siege was baked in.”

Buntman had a boyfriend who went to a prestigious all-boys school, and shared two memories with her. “After we watched a movie that showcased the violence of the British public-school system, he shared that it was a lot like what he experienced in school. I asked him why he hadn’t told his parents. He replied that his father had gone to the same school and knew about the abuses that went on. The second memory was that he lost his virginity to a girl considered a ‘slut’ who he and his friends ‘took turns’ on. He was ashamed but also proud that at least he said something nice to her, whereas the other boys didn’t.”

“The 1980s was a dark chapter in South Africa’s history. This filtered down to schools,” says Ancer. “There has been a strong reaction on social media to Horowitz’s essay. There were some ugly responses and, unsurprisingly, there were denials. Too many people resorted to their old familiar bully boy roles, which I think made his point,” he says.

A few people did take responsibility for their behaviour. “I hope Ben’s piece encourages more people to talk about our school days,” says Ancer. “We have a difficult and messy history, and we shouldn’t run from it.”

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