Op Ed: Magnus, Minnie and The Lost Boys of Bird Island: Different possibilities for masculinities

Posted on August 29, 2018

Do “soft men” rape children, including boys? This seems to be the opinion of former National Party minister Barend du Plessis. He recently responded to rumours that he is the unnamed third minister in the book The Lost Boys of Bird Island, and denied that he had anything to do with the alleged sexual assault of boys in the mid-1980s on the island.

Oscar Wilde, the brilliant Irish playwright who was prosecuted for his homosexuality, once said: “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”. That horrors such as those alleged in The Lost Boys of Bird Island would one day be revealed, is in a way predicted in the Cannes award-winning film Skoonheid.

Skoonheid casts the spotlight on a topic seldom discussed: male sexual violence against other men, or boys. The film tells the story of a middle-aged, suburban, apparently straight Afrikaner family man called Francois, who belongs to a “club” that others don’t know about and would never imagine. He meets up with other apparently straight Afrikaner men in a house on a smallholding, far from peeping eyes.

There, on beds pushed together for one reason only, he and the other men revel in sex with one other. Anal, oral, whatever. Yet, this physical intimacy is not accompanied by emotional intimacy. His instrumental interaction with other men reflects Francois’s relationships with his wife and daughters, which also lack emotional intimacy.

Eventually Francois can no longer psychologically handle his alienation from the world. He falls head over heels in love with a beautiful young man. And then the story takes a horrible turn. As Wilde also said, “for each man kills the thing he loves”.

I thought of Skoonheid when I read du Plessis’s words about his former colleague Magnus Malan in an interview in the newspaper Rapport: “He was a man’s man… a paragon of disciplined masculinity. And, yes, as hard as a rock. A militarist with that much bronze on his shoulders doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone with a milligram less on his shoulders.”

Du Plessis speaks as though he doesn’t remember what all that “bronze on the shoulders” was for. Malan was a key figure in the apartheid state’s terror campaign against democratic activists in the 1970s and 1980s. As chief of the defence force he was an integral part of the military destabilisation of our neighbouring countries, with an unspeakable human toll. Later, as minister of defence, he was partly responsible for the counter-revolutionary “Total Strategy” against the “Total Onslaught”, the basis and justification of the NP’s state violence in the 1980s.

Malan was close to PW Botha, and together they brought South Africa to the edge of a military dictatorship. The National Security Management System (NSMS), which sowed so much death and destruction in South Africa during the 1980s, was mostly their idea. It was an extended securocracy which eventually exercised greater power than the cabinet and civilian government structures in the 1980s.

Together they controlled the State Security Council, which sat like a spider in the centre of the NSMS web, with threads reaching from the president to local level. Several murders (Pebco 3, Cradock 4, and so forth) and massacres (the so-called Trojan Horse incident, and so forth) are linked to NSMS operations.

This abuse of power, extreme violence and complete disregard for human lives form the context of the claims made in The Lost Boys of Bird Island. According to the book, Malan was part of a group of well-known and powerful men who transported vulnerable boys with military helicopters to the island near the coast of Port Elizabeth. There the boys, many of them “coloured”, were raped for days on end before being dropped back in Port Elizabeth.

That Du Plessis’s defence includes that Malan was a “rock hard man’s man” speaks volumes. In this thought paradigm, offence is taken at the allegations, but one wonders at what exactly. The specific reference to Malan’s masculinity suggests that the allegations are deemed offensive because it would make him less of a man.

Less of a man and more of a moffie? Because the alleged victims were male?

Some people may not want to hear that the construction of masculinity as “hard” is one of the very causes of sexual violence. And that sexual violence serves as one of the methods to maintain the supremacy of “hard masculinity” in the hierarchy of masculinities.

Wilde’s reference to life imitating art may also be read as that social norms, also represented in the arts, create the world. The social norms that constitute “hard masculinity” create a world of violence and destruction, from micro to macro level. Men who pursue these norms use violence to exercise dehumanising power.

As will be noted, I refer to masculinities in the plural. Fortunately there are more options than simply this one destructive form of masculinity. Men – and women – are increasingly deciding to pursue other, more humanising, forms of masculinity. Mark Minnie, the book’s author who was recently found dead in suspicious circumstances, is an example of someone who chose a different way of being a man.

He broke the taboo of silence around male sexual violence against men and boys. This he did by being honest about his own experience of sexual assault as a child, and by attempting to bring about justice for child victims of rape. In honour of Mark and other men like him, every effort must be made to uncover the truth of what happened on Bird Island thirty years ago.

This article originally appeared in Afrikaans on Netwerk24 and in Beeld, Die Burger and Volksblad. Prof Christi van der Westhuizen is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Pretoria. The views expressed here are those of the author, and not of the University.

Click on the link to the radio interview with Eusebius McKaiser: https://omny.fm/shows/mid-morning-show-702/the-lost-boys-of-bird-island

Prof van der Westhuizen will be a speaker at the following events:
* At the Boekejol in conversation about 'Can Women Lead?',Thursday 30 August, Leriba Hotel, Clubview, Centurion. 2pm.

* At the launch of the latest publication of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), titled Whiteness, Afrikaans and Afrikaners: Addressing Post-Apartheid Legacies, Privileges and Burdens, to which she also contributed. Thursday, 30 August 2018, Nelson Mandela Foundation, 107 Central Street, Houghton, Johannesburg, 5.30pm.

* She is also a featured author at the South African Book Fair, where she will be talking about her book Sitting Pretty - White Afrikaans Women in Postapartheid South Africa at a discussion on 'Deconstructing Identity', Saturday 8 September 2018, Newtown Precinct, Johannesburg. 4pm.
- Author Prof Christi van der Westhuizen

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