The longest shadow

We tell our stories when we are ready. This story is about the child sexual abuse I experienced at the hands of Anglican priests in South Africa.

The author outside St Cyprian's Cathedral in 1981 at the age of 13.

“I am going to leave this place while the leaving is good.”

— South African writer Sol Plaatje in his 1930 novel, Mhudi

However hard I try, I find myself being unable to write anything else before I have written this. I am in the midst of writing a fourth novel, but the cogs of my creativity have ground to a halt, the exit routes that lead the imagination beyond this wretched piece are sealed. All that remains is this blank screen onto which these hands are forced into writing this miserable story. Perhaps, once it is written, I will be able to turn my mind to other things; this will be a case of writing to free my mind. As James Baldwin wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

I was born in Johannesburg in April 1968, under the sign of Aries, and during the Chinese year of the monkey. I am told that this is a formidable astrological alignment, but I don’t set much store by such things. When I was two weeks old, my parents moved to Cape Town, the first of many journeys that would typify my nomadic life, a life of incurable wanderlust, a life lived on the move: running away from the past, running away from myself.

I have many memories from my early years in Cape Town. I remember the layout of the house we lived in. I remember the bulbous reflective kettle in the kitchen that distorted the shape of my face when I peered into it. I remember the kindergarten I went to, and that yellow crayons were my favorite because they had a luminous glow.

I remember shaving off my eyebrows because I didn’t want to pose for photographs at a birthday party my parents had organized. I remember us one day driving behind a huge lorry packed with cars. That was when I learned the word “pantechnicon.” I remember an older cousin from Johannesburg coming to live with us while he was studying at the University of the Western Cape, and the big, heavy books he was always buried in. I remember the little girl I played with at the end of the corridor, only to be told years later that she had actually died in the house before we moved in. I remember falling ill and always being surrounded by doctors. I didn’t like that, but their strange necklaces fascinated me. That was when I learned the word “stethoscope.” I remember the old ladies who appeared when the doctors had left. They strung garlands of garlic around my neck, plastered my chest with cabbage leaves, and rubbed my forehead with strong-smelling potions. That was when I learned the words “Hollandse medisyne.” But no matter how many doctors and old women came to my bedside, I did not recover.

I remember being told that the cold and wet Cape Town winters were not good for me, and that we would be moving to Kimberley where the climate was drier. The move to Kimberley is the first journey I recall. My mother and I went by plane because I was too ill to travel by road. That was my first of countless flights. I still have the navy blue tailored jacket my parents dressed me in for the flight, and the ticket with the old South African Airways flying springbok emblem. All these memories, and I was only five.

If I could go back in time, I would save that little boy from boarding that flight. The move to Kimberley would prove to be disastrous for my family life and for me. Small towns cast the longest shadows.

I started school in Kimberley in 1974. The next twelve years—the years before my matriculation from secondary school in 1985—would be a torment for me. I hated school because of all the bullying. I was called a pretty boy with flowing hair, but neither adjective was intended as a compliment. The first bullying incident I remember was in grade one, when an older girl with bushy hair pulled a fistful of hair from my head and said, “You have girls’ hair. Give it to me.” I was chosen last for sports teams and tormented for playing the piano. The torment escalated when word got out that I was taking typing lessons on my mother’s typewriter.

Kimberley is a diamond mining city and the capital of the Northern Cape province. Cecil John Rhodes established De Beers Consolidated Mines there in 1888. The “Diamond City” is situated in the center of the country, close to the border between the Northern Cape and the Free State.  It is 950 kilometers from Cape Town, 480 from Johannesburg, and 700 from Port Elizabeth and East London. I know these routes well because few school holidays passed without us traveling to visit family in those cities. I lived for those journeys, because life in Kimberley was dull and drab; everybody was obsessed with the pursuit of small-town bourgeois respectability. There was nothing like the thrill of my mother stepping on the accelerator once we had reached the open road and looking back to see the lights of Kimberley disappear on the horizon behind us. But when at home, we did our best to entertain ourselves. As children, we baked mud cakes in the garden on Saturday mornings. I can still smell that wet red soil, the red soil for which Kimberley is famous.

During these earthy games, we kept a lookout for diamonds because there were always stories circulating of people finding diamonds while gardening. Like many Kimberlites, we got to know the Kimberley Mine Museum like the back of our hands and the story of the Open mine by rote. The biggest hole in the world started as a hillock on a farm, which belonged to the De Beers brothers. Digging for diamonds there commenced in 1871 and ended in 1914. During that time, 22 million tons of earth were excavated, yielding 2,700 kilograms of diamonds. All this digging left a crater 200 meters deep with a circumference of two kilometers. It also left high mine dumps of blue-grey kimberlite around the city. A favorite pastime was to go tobogganing down those dumps on old conveyor belts. We became proficient with the diamond mining process: from deep level explosions, to excavation, to filtering on grease belts to which the diamonds stuck, to weighing, to sorting, and finally to cutting. Sorting happened in Harry Oppenheimer House, one of Kimberley’s two tallest buildings. It rises over fourteen floors with windows on only the south-facing side. These dark-tinted windows are angled precisely to let in just the right amount of light to facilitate the sorting process. Access was strictly curtailed. We would stare up at those angled windows from down below and imagine the mysterious process of sorting the world’s finest gemstones. Many of my classmates dreamed of working up there when they finished school. Not me. My only dream was to get out.

But it is another famous Kimberley landmark that passes the longest shadow over my life, “longest” being a poignant word here because it houses the longest nave in South Africa—St. Cyprian’s Cathedral. While I am a Muslim, I am from the kind of religiously mixed family that typifies my hybrid community in South Africa, a family in which Hindus married Christians and Christians married Muslims. If South Africa were to split along sectarian lines, families like mine would be torn apart. St. Cyprian’s was where my maternal family worshiped. Growing up, I spent a lot of time there because I was an altar boy and a chorister. Being an altar boy meant serving at Mass four or five times a week. Being a chorister meant choir practice twice a week and singing at Mass two or three times a week—more often on big religious festivals like Christmas and Easter. In a monotonous city where nothing special ever happened, being associated with superlatives like the biggest hole in the world and the longest church in the country brought some kind of sad kudos. I say that this landmark has cast the longest shadow over my life because it is at St. Cyprian’s Cathedral where I was sexually abused by priests from the age of ten.

I first came out about the child sexual abuse I experienced at St. Cyprian’s in 2018, after Archbishop Desmond Tutu resigned as ambassador to Oxfam following the sex abuse scandal that rocked the international aid agency. I made my statement then to point out that while Tutu was being critical of Oxfam, he never fully addressed the systematic and institutionalized sexual abuse happening inside his own organization, the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. In my initial statement, I did not divulge the names of the priests who abused me. Neither did I go into the details of the abuse and its full impact on my life. In fact, I turned down subsequent requests for interviews resulting from that first statement. Even at the point of coming out, I still acted on one of the most common impulses the abused feels towards their abusers—to protect them.

At the time, I thought that my initial coming out would be the end of the story. I was wrong, firstly because I now realize that coming out is not the end of the conversation, but the beginning, and secondly because three years after my statement, the abuse I experienced in the Church continues in different forms. While child sexual abuse in cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg is relatively well documented, it remains comparatively underreported in provincial cities like Kimberley, where recourse is often curtailed by concerns like, “What will people say?” So let me proceed with the details now—by no means to discredit a faith, but rather to challenge an institution. I hope that speaking openly will help other survivors to realize that they are not alone either, even if they choose to remain silent. We tell our stories when we are ready.

My first abuser arrived at St. Cyprian’s in 1978, the year I turned ten. His name was Roy Snyman. The touching started almost immediately. Snyman was a divisive man, who at the height of apartheid insisted on displaying the old South African flag in the cathedral. As a boy, I never understood why a bigoted white man would be attracted to a skinny black boy like me, but now I have come to realize that his abuse was not attraction. It was the typically racist assertion of white power and authority over the black body; his intention was not to flatter, but to humiliate. When Snyman shook my hand in greeting, he would drop our tightly clenched hands to my groin, rub my intimate parts, and ask, “How is the tiger in the tank growing?” This happened whether we were dressed in civilian clothes or religious robes. It happened whenever he could snatch a moment with me alone: in the dark corners of the cathedral, in his office in the cathedral, or in his house on the cathedral grounds.

When I was sent with messages to his office, he would beckon me to stand behind his desk. Remaining seated, he would rub my intimate parts and ask his usual question. On one occasion, I was sent to deliver a message to his house. I found him in the TV room, watching the weather forecast. He gestured at me to sit on the armrest of his armchair and told me to wait, because the weather was important—all the while fondling my intimate parts. Snyman was a man full of wit, but also prone to ugly outbursts of anger. He could have people in stitches, but could also make them tremble with fear. With time, I stopped laughing at his jokes, but I never moved on from my fear of him.

When Snyman’s death in Port Elizabeth was reported on September 15, 2020, I was filled with a strange mixture of confusing emotions for which I have still not found the words. In the months since Snyman’s death, I have felt stuck, unable to leave the house, and unable to focus on anything much for any length of time. So one day I set about researching all the adults who were in positions of authority while I was a child at St. Cyprian’s. That was when I made a shocking discovery: the cathedral choirmaster, Nicolaas Bester, who had in the intervening years emigrated to Tasmania, was imprisoned there on two occasions for sexually abusing one of his fifteen-year-old students. Bester, who is now a convicted sex offender, described the abuse he had inflicted on his student as “awesome.”

My second abuser arrived in Kimberley from Wales in 1981, the year I turned thirteen. His name is Keith Thomas. I still remember the first time I saw him; it was at a baptism service in the cathedral. I also remember his first visit to our house during his rounds to introduce himself to congregants of the parish. While I have no recollection of Snyman visiting our home—he was more given to socializing with white parishioners—this visit from Thomas, a handsome Welshman, was a big deal; it felt as though God himself had walked through the door. The special cups and saucers were brought out, and the table decked from side to side with canapés and snacks. When the visit ended, Thomas asked me to walk him to his car, which he had parked on the next street. I remember him commenting on the size of the lemons on our neighbors’ lemon tree during our walk. Today, it strikes me as strange that he did not park outside our house, especially as we had an ample driveway. But at the time, the bullied boy felt like the chosen one.

While Snyman was an opportunist, Thomas played the long game. First, there were increasing visits to our house until, over the years, he became a family friend who was always invited to special family occasions. My parents’ marriage was in decline and Thomas was their marriage counselor. Then there were invitations to join the youth club, which met at his house on the cathedral grounds on Friday nights. Looking back, I see that this is how child sexual abusers frequently operate—by winning the trust of the family. Youth club was supposed to be a safe space, keeping young people of the parish away from clubs, substances and underage sex, all of which were rampant in Kimberley. With the deterioration of my parents’ marriage during the course of 1982 and 1983 and my increasingly fraught relationship with my father, the invitations extended to spending the night after youth club so that I didn’t have to go home to face my father. It wasn’t long before I was spending the whole weekend at Thomas’s house, only going home after Evensong on Sunday nights. Over the years, I was becoming increasingly isolated from my family, while often being selected for special roles in the church. For instance, in preparation for Bishop George Swartz’s enthronement as Bishop of Kimberley and Kuruman in 1983, I was the boy selected to clean and polish his silver crozier. It took me two days working in Thomas’s house to remove all the tarnish.

Even though the sexual abuse started almost immediately, with Thomas coming into my bed every night I stayed over, I did not understand it as abuse. I longed for the weekends when I could get out of our troubled family home and spend time with him. My bed was in the corner in a room at the end of the corridor. Thomas would come into it during the night. I would press myself into the wall, but he would press up behind me, rubbing himself up against the back of me while trying to pull down my pajamas to gain access to my intimate parts. That was when I learned the word “frigid,” because that was what Thomas called me when I resisted him.

Today, I’m still trying to understand what was worse, the escalating sexual abuse or the increasing psychological abuse that followed. Thomas would lose his temper with me whenever I spent my free time with my family, my cousins, or my friends. I started to feel guilty for neglecting him, so I withdrew from those relationships to spend all my time with him.

I also remember that Thomas’s shelves were lined with books—that was where I read The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time. There were afternoon drives into the countryside during which Thomas let me change the gears on the car while he guided my hand with his; there were times when I listened to Mozart at full volume while conducting the imaginary orchestra in my mind.

Sometimes, I used his key to enter the cathedral when nobody was there. Alone in that magnificent building, I would spend Saturday and Sunday afternoons by myself playing the beautiful grand piano and the splendid pipe organ. My favorite piece to play on the piano was Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata; on the organ, his 5th Symphony. Even the food Thomas served was a novelty: I had never eaten baked beans on toast. But most of all, there was love, or so I thought. I loved Thomas as a father; after my parent’s marriage ended, I fantasized about him marrying my mother. (My teenage fantasy overlooked the prohibition of such a union by South Africa’s Immorality Act, which banned sexual relations between white people and people of other races.) In fact, it would be many years before I realized that the sexual acts Thomas inflicted on me were also prohibited, and that what he had done was criminal. I simply had no notion that priests could do any wrong. At the time, I believed that he loved me, so when the time came for me to go to university, my elation at finally being able to leave Kimberley was tempered with sadness at having to leave him behind.

My child sexual abuse took place during the political abuse of the grand structure of apartheid. As my political awareness developed at university, I started to grapple with my position as a man who was racially abused by the apartheid state and a child who had been sexually abused at the hands of white priests. My story is not an exception. Neither does it belong to the past; child sexual abuse in South Africa remains pervasive. According to the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town, one in three South African children are sexually abused before the age of eighteen. In my experience, the reasons survivors of child sexual abuse are reluctant to speak about their abuse are complex and many: as children, they don’t have the language to express what is happening; they are afraid no one will believe them; they worry that they have done something wrong; they fear retaliation from their abuser; they expect that they will be punished; they become entrapped in a ring of isolation their abuser weaves around them; they are afraid for the reputations of their families; and they internalize the shame, all of which leads them to choose suffering in silence, as I had done for forty years.

The consequences of child sexual abuse endure into adulthood, long after the abuse has stopped. I live with bipolar disorder. I have grappled my whole life with the symptoms of my condition, which are well-documented: excessive spending, substance abuse, eating disorders, extreme highs during which one feels invincible, debilitating lows during which one cannot stir from bed, suicidal thoughts, sexual promiscuity, self-harm, and risky behavior. Such behavior started in early adolescence and continued all through my adult life, until three potentially fatal events, which happened in quick succession in 2017, finally forced home the realization that my life had become unmanageable and that if I didn’t seek help, I would end up dead. Today, I manage my condition with counseling, medication, vipassana meditation, exercise, and the unconditional support of my loved ones.

But that has not stopped the abuse I experience from the Church, which has now taken on other forms. In April 2018, I gave the names of the priests who abused me to a senior bishop of the Anglican Church in South Africa. Since then, I am not aware of any conclusive action taken against Snyman or Thomas by the Church; I only know that Snyman died a priest in robes in September 2020. In September 2019, after no substantive action relating to my case on the part of the Church, I initiated legal action against Snyman, Thomas, the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, and the Office of the Archbishop of Cape Town. In retaliation, the Church demanded that I pay $40,000 as surety for their legal fees because I am not a resident in South Africa. In December 2020, the courts threw out that demand, opening the way for us to move forward with legal proceedings, which are now pending. That Snyman died before facing trial is perhaps part of my confusion surrounding his death. The rest is for the courts to decide, but I have little faith in the Anglican Communion Safe Church Network given the Church’s lack of transparency and sincerity in its handling of my own abuse case. And whenever I hear Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata and 5th Symphony, I am overcome with feelings of utter loss and total foreboding.

As altar boys, we were given medals depicting a phoenix rising from the ashes. Like all writers, one is frequently asked about why one writes. In the past, a typical response was: Because I feel I have to. But I have never fully understood why I have felt so compelled to write—until now. It is only through writing this that I have come to understand the drive behind the compulsion, and it turns out to be quite basic: I write to stay alive. The pen is now my phoenix, and if I am unable to write another thing, at least I have written this, and it has kept me living. Writing has brought me to a greater understanding of what happened to me when I was a child. Now, as a man, I stand on the threshold of my most important journey—from the shadows and into the sunlight.

Further Reading