no holy cows in sins of the past

Bruce Fraser

Bruce Fraser

Having put down the novel For Whites Only only a day before my scheduled interview with author Charles Cilliers, I was beginning to feel intimidated.

Here is a writer who definitely wears his heart on his sleeve. In his book he tackles the issue of racism in the white community with the finesse of a bull in a china shop.

For Cilliers there are no holy cows. He slams the Afrikaner and English with equal venom, firing off salvos that will make the average white South African cringe. Imagine my surprise then, when confronted at Sowetan's reception area by this articulate, trendy, good-looking young man, who looks barely out of high school.

"I'm surprised I'm being interviewed by a white," he quipped. "I'm surprised you're so damn young," I fired back.

Cilliers is laid-back. His body language is that of a confident person, someone who is comfortable with who he is; yet equally uncomfortable with the attitudes and actions of so many whites.

"Just the other day I spent some time in the Kruger National Park with family and friends and the statements made, often with subtle racial undertones, make me cringe. It's just plain ignorance," he says.

Like so many of his generation, Cilliers was brought up in a home heavily influenced by right-wing politics.

His early childhood was spent on a farm in Witbank where, he says, they "grew nothing in particular".

"My father was a blacksmith in town but he wanted us to grow up with the freedom of living on a farm. It was a fun time. I was like a savage . never bathing, climbing trees."

It wasn't too long before a young Cilliers learnt about race.

"My best friend on the farm was a black boy. We would play from sunrise to sunset, but when my white friends from school came to visit, I used to tell him to lie low. So even then there was that unspoken assumption that black and white kept their distance. There was racism in me even at that early stage."

Cilliers' parents divorced when he was 13. While he and his father moved to Bloemfontein, his mother remained in Witbank, where she remains a concert pianist and teaches music. Cilliers soon found himself at that bastion of Afrikaner education in the Free State, Grey College.

After matric it was a short journey up the road to Free State University, where he gained three degrees: journalism, communication science and linguistics, followed by a masters degree in creative writing in Cape Town.

So, when did he realise things were not right in this country?

"My parents were both AWB members. I used to be forced to dress up in this ridiculous khaki uniform and march in the sun.

"We were taught it was a battle of good versus evil. The whites were seen as God's chosen ones and blacks as Satan's savages.

"But some of these AWB people would be drunk and a couple of them looked seriously in-bred. I began to question if this was really good. It was about the same time that Madiba was released from prison. He just defied expectations and was completely dignified. This was supposed to be the anti-Christ, but just look at him. what a man. And then slowly my perceptions began to change."

And how did the book come about?

"I originally wanted a black person to write the book but as I got more involved in the research I realised a white person should write it. It was meant to get people to understand what apartheid was about but then I realised the majority of whites do not feel guilty about apartheid because they are in denial. They deny their involvement, they deny the effect it had on so many people.

"They continue to cling to as many privileges as possible. Apartheid did not die in 1994. It is still very much with us today. This denial continues.

"I wasn't going to take the easy target which is the Afrikaans community. This would have been a pushover. I didn't want the English-speaking liberals to hide and say 'we're not so bad'."

In the book Cilliers comes across as a Zuma supporter, something he does not deny.

It was while studying at the University of Cape Town that Cilliers befriended the subject of his first book, The Choice, and someone who had a strong influence on his life, Gayton McKenzie.

McKenzie, a former bank robber, is no stranger to controversy. He is mostly remembered as the whistle-blower on corruption at Grootvlei Prison in the Free State back in 2002.

"We run a fish business together in which we bring fish up to Gauteng and then distribute as far away as Mpumalanga," Cilliers says.

"The business employs about 20 people - all ex-convicts - as we believe it is important to give people a second chance."

A second chance could just be what the white community should be looking for, if only they could muster the courage to admit to the sins of the past.

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