From "My Childhood as an Adult Molester: A Salt River Moffie" by Zackie Achmat, in Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa, edited by Mark Gevisser and Edwin Cameron (New York; London: Routledge, 1995), first published by Ravan Press in South Africa in 1994. Footnotes omitted.
In 1972 I turned ten. I discovered active sex and never turned back. Nana was still working in a clothing factory. She has worked in the industry for more than 40 years. At the time she was supporting all my mother’s children, her father, her husband and, at times, her younger brother. Nana was the most self-sacrificing person I have ever met. Once I fractured my ankle, jumping over six milk crates on a Sunday afternoon, and the next morning she took off work. We did not have money for bus fare so she carried me on her back from lower Rochester Road to Woodstock Hospital, a distance of five kilometers.
The division of labour in our family was as follows. Nana worked in the factory and cooked on Sundays. Ma looked after the children, did the washing and cooking during the week. And I, being the oldest, had responsibility for the household budget and shopping, as well as scrubbing and polishing the floors after school and before Madressah. One afternoon while polishing the floors (God, it had to shine!) I had the most wonderful fantasy. A tall, strong, powerful man holds me down on the floor, kisses me, and fucks me. Today most people won’t believe I had this fantasy. They just don’t have imaginations.
A few weeks later. Sunday. Nana is cooking. I am sent to the shop to buy tomatoes. Being myself, I daydream all the way there and on my way back a car’s hooter stirs me from it. It is a kombi, maybe a Hi-Ace. A white man beckons me. He opens the passenger door in the middle of the Main Road and shows me his cock. It is hard as a rock. He begs me to get into the vehicle. I drop the tomatoes and run.
In the kitchen Nana, who cooks on Sundays, bellows: ‘Where’s the damn tomatoes?’ I run back; the tomatoes are squashed. Forgetting the tomatoes for a minute, I run up and down looking for the kombi, wishing I had got into it. At home I earn a hiding because I cannot account for the tomatoes. I’m not allowed to tell the truth because children are not allowed to discuss their sexual desires.
I continued reading. I read two books a day. At night, I did not go to sleep; I’d read at the kitchen table instead. During the day, I’d sleep at my desk at school. The Salt River Public Library was and still is a mobile unit. It was clean and neat, but despite being open only two afternoons a week, I read most of its books in three months.
The coloured librarian, Mrs Kies, was very prim and neat. She was one of those people who believed that ‘coloured people should better themselves through education’, and the fact that I read so much made me an ideal guinea pig to prove that ‘whites and coloured are equal when educated’. Embarrassed that she had no more books in the mobile, she hit on a wonderful plan: ‘I am going to write to the Chief Librarian at Observatory Library (the white library) and tell them that you have read all the books here. They have a huge library which is open daily. I will beg them to let you use it.’ I was thrilled at the prospect of a big library, though sceptical even then about the notion of equality through education.
Observatory Library had shelves and shelves filled with books. It had spaces to sit and read. It was quiet, there were no intrusions of street life. You could read and study and escape life at Salt River. I used to bunk Madressah to go to the library. At this stage my daily schedule looked something like this. Wake up at six in the morning, light the coal stove, make breakfast for the kids. Go back to sleep till 8.15 am. Then Fika would wake me rudely, because she had to knot my tie and do my shoelaces before going to school. I would stand there in my underpants with a tie and shoes and socks. I’d dress leisurely, eat something, get to school just after prayers, and sleep through class.
When school closed I would run home. Get to my grandfather’s radio, where we would sit down and listen to those wonderfully romantic Afrikaans serials. I can still hear Miets, Gerhard and Ma Matilda of Ompad. I could never forget Tant Ralie. I hated weekends and public holidays, because I missed Die Geheim van Nantes, Ongewenste Vreemdeling and Die Dans van die Vlaminke. After the serials I would clean the house, do shopping and pretend to make off for Madressah. Instead, I would go to the library.
Observatory Library was then only open to whites. But, armed with my letter from Mrs Kies, I became one of the few coloureds to use it. The Cape Town City Council has always been liberal. But at that stage the liberalism did not extend to toilets. I could use their library, read and borrow their books, but I was not allowed into their toilets. One afternoon, I desperately needed to go; despite my insistence that it was an emergency, I was directed to the nearest public toilets.
Any toilet in Muslim mythology — whether whites only, blacks only, mixed, public or private — is evil. The Shaytaan dwells in the toilets. You enter them with your left foot reciting a special toilet prayer. After using a toilet, all Muslims must wash themselves three times, reciting another prayer. This process is known as Istinjaa. It is haraam (forbidden) to leave the toilet without washing. On leaving, you set out on the right foot, completing the cycle of toilet prayers.
Observatory Station is two minutes walk away from the library. I had to rush there. I walked into the Whites Only toilets; there were no guards. As I entered, three or four men hastily moved in all directions. I was driven by natural forces into one of the two cubicles. The toilet doors were painted a railway orange-brown colour. The black of koki pens transformed them into works of art. It was not the drawing, it was not the misspelt words or even the rhyme and rhythm of prison gang poetry, that transformed these symbols into art. It was what they said. They spoke of unspoken, unwritten and unsung love. They celebrated sex between men. They advertised sex between men. They told wonderfully erotic stories of sex between men. I loved it. Toilet doors became galleries for the art of love between men.
The men who were there waited for me to finish, but I would not leave. I stayed in that toilet till 7pm. Then I went home where I got a hiding for missing early evening prayers. I rushed to mosque for Eshaai but I did not pray. I went to the mosque toilets, hoping to find the songs of love between men on the walls. I forgot toilet prayers; maybe that is why I did not find any drawings, messages, stories, desires on the doors and walls. I waited till all the men had left the mosque.
The next day I returned to Observatory toilets via the library. There was a man. A white man, about 20 years old. He had brown hair. He tried to pretend that I was not there. He looked at me and looked away. I stood at the tap. I looked at him. Eventually, I walked up to him and put my arms around him. He whispered nervously: ‘You are only a child. Go home.’ He spoke softly and he was strong, but I wouldn’t go. I always suspected that learning poetry and Quranic verses by rote would have some use. Now it did. I could recite the poetry of the toilet walls to him. I had memorised it. He saw that I was not going to relent. I had an erection and so did he.
He kissed me. He held me. But he could not hold out against me. He would not enter me, but he entered me. He was gentle. He fucked me slowly, carefully, but with tremendous power and passion. I felt him everywhere. I could taste him in my mouth. We came together. I had an orgasm which came from inside my arse, exploding out of my cock. We kissed and I insisted that he meet me the next day. I went to meet him completely in love. He wanted to give me a present. I refused because I would not have known how to explain it at home. He had to return to Jo’burg. He left. I cried. But I soon got over it. I had the toilets.
I had sex at the toilets every day, sometimes twice or three times a day. I would go to the library to get books, which I would read in the toilet, so that when something happened I would be there. Almost all the men were scared to touch me because of my age. But once they discovered that I was into it, they enjoyed themselves. I had sex with anyone who wanted to: old, young, black or white, fat or thin, it did not matter. The sex and tenderness mattered, and there was lots of both.
Apartheid worked in mysterious ways. From denying me the use of one set of toilets, it opened the world of another set to me. But apartheid was not just about toilets. At ten I knew some things about apartheid. It was about sitting upstairs in the bus. It was about using separate entrances at the post offices. Apartheid meant that Salt River was a coloured area and Observatory, like Mayfair was a white working class area.
Apartheid also meant that my dad’s mother, Grannie, not only refused to eat with Aunty Emma, but blatantly favoured her fairer-skinned grandchildren. She gave the darker ones less food, smaller presents — if she did not forget their birthdays entirely. This has caused intolerable strains in our family. This is what I knew about apartheid. Apartheid forced me to use Observatory Station toilets, but apartheid was destroyed in those toilets. By men who had sex with men, regardless of race or class.