Book review: Love, relationships and sex in a country marked by its history of division

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An interview with Dutch correspondent and author Niels Posthumus, about his recently published book ‘Liefdes verdriet’ (heartbreak/Love’s sadness), concerning love and relationships in post-Apartheid South Africa.

By: DAAF BORREN

The day after the official launch of his book, I met with Niels in a coffee shop in Amsterdam. His slightly small eyes revealed that the book presentation was celebrated well. On my request, he was kindly willing to assist me with some advice concerning the life as a correspondent in sub-Saharan Africa.

Niels is a friendly appearance who first visited South Africa back in 2008, where he shortly worked as a reporter for newspaper The Star in Johannesburg. In 2012, he returned as a correspondent for Dutch newspaper Trouw and BNR newsBNR news radio. From the moment he set foot on South African soil he was intrigued by the staggering, nearly ‘schizophrenic’ division of the country. Especially in (friendly) relationships, Niels encountered the history of division, which eventually made him decide to write a book about the effects of Apartheid on South Africa’s love, relationships and sex.

Due to the rather intimate approach of the confronting and dividing history of Apartheid, the book provides its reader with clear insights on the still nearly tangible effects of Apartheid on daily life in South Africa. The staggering forms of domestic violence, rape and racism in South Africa, as well as the significant role of HIV and AIDS in the country’s society, are all extensively and comprehensively described via the central topic of relationships and love.

Aside from the originally and well-chosen angle of incidence, which enables the reader to further understand South Africa’s complex history and rather fragile modern times, the discussed forms of racism (conscious and unconscious) are slightly confronting, which creates some universally applicable ‘food for thought’. Because, as Niels explains: “Racism is in my view not about whether you intend it to be racist or not, it is about whether others have good reason to feel racially offended by it.”

Altogether, ‘Liefdes verdriet’ is a comprehensive and pleasantly written must-read for those interested in post-Apartheid South Africa, and contemporary racism. For Dutch readers, you can buy your copy here.

Find out more about ‘Liefdes verdriet’ in our discussion with Niels:

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Niels Posthumus

What made you decide to take ‘love’ as an angel of incidence to describe post-Apartheid South Africa?

“When I first set foot on South African soil, I almost immediately noticed how Apartheid still is significantly interwoven with the country’s daily life. This made me decide to write a book which helps to understand how South Africa’s history still disrupts the present system.”

“When I moved to Johannesburg I became increasingly aware of my white skin, especially when I walked the streets together with a dark skinned female friend. We would get weird looks, or negative remarks even sometimes. These personal experiences concerning ‘love’ in South Africa, exposed how the most segregating system in the world since WW2, is considerably tangible in rather intimate relationships. Also, when I further investigated the effects of Apartheid, I noticed that – aside from racism – (domestic) violence, rape and hyper masculinity all lead back to South Africa’s history of division. Altogether, this painful awareness eventually made me decide to write a book about Apartheid’s ongoing effects on love, sex and relationships.”

Is love the most engaging aspect of society wherein Apartheid continues to stir up daily life?

“Personally, I would say it is. However, when looking at South Africa as a whole, Apartheid is still clearly noticeable in every segment of society. “When focusing on a social level in particular, I assume love and (friendly) relationships are most affected by South Africa’s history. Statistics show that a staggering two-thirds of the country’s population rarely has an in-depth conversation with someone of the opposite skin color. Especially in the lower segments of society, there is hardly any contact between ‘black’ and ‘white’. In South Africa’s middle class, interracial friendships seem more accepted, but still appear to be slightly superficial mostly. This lack of connection considerably affects ‘interracial relationships’. When, on rare occasions, such relations occur, they most often tend to not last very long, as families find it hard to accept. In most successful cases, one of the love birds is actually not from South African descent.”

To what extent will such love stories be more tolerated and accepted by a next generation?

“One next generation will not solve South Africa’s relational issues. Possibly interracial love affairs are largely accepted by the country’s middleclass by then, but this class still covers a rather small part of the population. Perhaps these issues will diminish and unravel over the course of multiple generations, but when an estimated 60% of the population does not regularly get in touch with someone from the opposite skin color, more is needed to improve interracial relations. Thereby, when politicians continue to randomly play the ‘race-card’ whenever they feel subordinated or mistreated, South Africa’s history of division will be upheld in the minds of the population. Suspicion and mistrust will therefore remain tangible in society, and future generations will only solve these tensions step by step for parts of South Africa’s population.”

“The geographical positioning of the townships and cities for instance, creates an ongoing physical barrier between black and white, which will not simply be resolved by the healing of time. Much more is needed for better mutual understanding and (intimate) connections between black and white South Africans.”

In the last chapter of the book, the question arises whether everyone – either consciously or unconsciously – is slightly affected by a racial bias. How would you answer this question?

“Clearly, racism is a magnified issue in South Africa’s society. But it is not unique and is part of societies around the world. The differences between personal imagining, and racism are extremely blurry, which raises the question whether we are all racially biased.”

“For instance, when I once explained to a female friend in Johannesburg, that I felt more attracted to black women with styled hairextensions than black women with their natural short frizzy hair, she explained to me this was a racist statement. Even though I quite surely felt it was just a matter of taste, she thought it was racist as it emphasized I do not like the natural hair of black women and rather fall for black girls who ‘Westernize’ their look to appear more like whites.”

“The lesson which can be drawn from this, is that it is not always about whether you intend it to be racist or not, but whether others might feel racially offended by it. In the same chapter I mentioned South African columnist Eusebius McKaiser. He further elaborated on this matter by dividing racism in an ‘explicit’ form and a more ‘hidden’ form. The latter form of racism is considered as least as dangerous and damaging according to McKaiser, as it is a form of racism which is more difficult to address. And when racism is denied, or cannot be addressed, it is much harder to resolve.”

In your book, hyper masculinity frequently returns as a major issue in South Africa. To what extent are men to blame for the country’s complex relational sphere? And are women the sole victims?

“Staggering statistics concerning rape and domestic violence show that women and children are most affected by the present hyper masculinity in South Africa. However, this hyper masculinity is the result of a broader cultural problem, wherein women play a certain role too. Firstly, many South African women clearly prefer macho and masculine men over more emancipated men. Secondly, in familiar spheres, boys and young men are constantly treated as superiors and head of the family – also by their mothers. Stories of boys raping their cousin without consequences for instance, aren’t unique. In other words, women sadly also contribute to the hyper masculinity of the country. However, it will of course always be men who are to blame for their own hyper masculinity in the very first place. Then again, they have often also been victims of it themselves as well. Most men who abuse nowadays have been physically or sexually abused in their own youth themselves too.”

Would a female president be able to improve the position of women in South Africa?

“Women are well represented in South African politics, fulfilling several ministerial positions. Also, the South African constitution is one of the most emancipated and progressive in the world, protecting the rights of women extensively. Unfortunately, a clear boundary is noticeable between South African politics and the, often harsh, reality. Female politicians mostly don’t really defend or advocate for the equal and fair treatment of women in practice. A poignant example is how many female politicians have continued to express their support, after and even during the accusations of rape to the address of president Jacob Zuma. As long as female leaders don’t really stand up in practice against day to day violations of South Africa’s constitution, too little will change, even when a woman is in presidential office.”

Will the future be bright, for ‘interracial love birds’ in South Africa?

“Due to the history of Apartheid, the country suffers from what one could call a posttraumatic stress-syndrome. The resulting distrust among people and population groups tremendously affects society and needs to be solved first, before South Africans can move on. In this case, it is deemed important to first and foremost actually address the many social problems present in South Africa today.”

“And surely, the strongly divided situation will improve over the next decades, but collective measures are needed to move forward. Government and companies should invest more in economically lower classes of society, and establish more offices near the townships for example. South Africans should be stimulated to mingle with other population groups way more. Such measures can establish sustainable and more structural connections between the black and white communities of South Africa. Finally, I assume the country would benefit from its own version of a ‘sexual revolution’, surely resulting in more acceptation of interracial contacts and relationships.”

 To conclude, is there a (universal) lesson, hidden in your book?

“Initially, I decided to write the book purely in order to comprehensively elaborate on the dividing effects of Apartheid, on today’s society. But well, if there is a more general lesson to be drawn from the book, I hope it exposes how division of groups can significantly dislocate and disrupt a society. And that whereas the segregation of a society is fairly easy to establish, that similar segregation is extremely hard to erase.”

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