It was 4:30am when the intercom in my dorm room interrupted my sleep: “Maroela is hier! Maroela is hier!” The distressed voice on the intercom was that of our primarius, the chief ranked member of the House Committee of our men’s residence, announcing the arrival of our arch-enemy residence, Maroela. This announcement meant that we were to immediately assemble downstairs, because we are about to have a proper physical, man-to-man, Afrikaner to Afrikaner, fist-fight to once and for all set the record straight.
“Afrikaner-to-Afrikaner” because it was the year 2,000, only six years after the transition of governments, and transformation was slow and apathetic. I was a second-year-resident of Mopanie, a men’s residence (res) of the University of Pretoria. We were commonly referred to as the ‘academic’ and ‘cultural residence’, whereas our so called arch-enemy residence, Maroela, was commonly referred to as ‘jocks’—“enthusiastic male athletes or sports fans, especially ones with few other interests.” I’m sure this pejorative term was true for some of the men, in the same way that it was true for some of the men in our res, but thinking back, allowing myself a bit more objectivity, I am confident that a very small percentage of them would truly have exemplified this description. Equally, I am confident that the percentage of ‘jocks’ in our res, was most likely not much less than those of our ‘enemy’.
Shortly prior to this event, I attended a 15-week Christian missionary course, called “Perspectives”, presented by Wycliff Bible Translators. It marked the genesis of a ten year journey of becoming increasingly radicalized as a Christian (which was followed by another ten year journey of completely extricating myself from Christian and religious ideologies). At the time, the Perspectives course was beneficial in the sense that it sparked an awareness of the ‘other’, on gaining ‘perspective’ on other nations and cultures. I experienced a sense of empathy for my fellow human beings, albeit from the conceited position of “I am saved and ‘they’ are not”.
A month prior to our battle with our arch-enemy, Maroela, I shared my, now deepened, Gospel with the men of our res. My message was truly “inspired” and I developed a “following” even among the most hardened senior men of our residence. This was truly uncommon, because I was only a second year, a relatively low rank in the res, I didn’t play rugby, which is an important status symbol in Afrikaans culture, and I was (and still am) a comparatively small and skinny dude.
Our res experienced a Christian “revival”. Many gathered to listen to the humbling insights that I gained from attending the Perspectives course, many of the men repented for their sins and gave their “hearts” to Christ and some were supposedly, miraculously healed–on the spot–from their rugby injuries.
At the same time, just as our revival started to grow, a handful of drunken Maroela enemy-men tried to provoke us by gathering on the grass slope that marked the border between ‘us’ and ‘them’, by shouting derogatory remarks to make fun of our first-year students who were gathered inside our assembly hall, hard at work, building our float for the annual procession through the city center.
Our primarius, Rademeyer and the House Committee were slow to react, partly because of our religious “revival”, but mostly because both Mopanie and Maroela were under strict orders to keep things civilized after a truce with the University, because of an inciting incident five years before. Reportedly, several men from both residences were suspended after a particularly violent fight ensued on the grass field between the two buildings, in which the winning side would be determined by whomever would end up with the most underwear (jocks) from the opposing side. This meant that one had to overcome one’s enemy by means of physical force, in order to pacify them and tear out their jock from within their pants. It’s hard to imagine how these rules were negotiated prior to the battle…
Now, five years later, after Maroela repeatedly gathered on the slope and over a period of two or three weeks shouted inflammatory remarks. Their final act of provocation came early one morning, when the Mopanie men were all asleep, and the enemy came down the slope, quietly entered our assembly hall and marked their territory with their bodily fluids.
This was the final straw. Our primarius, Rademeyer called an emergency house meeting and it was decided that if our enemy were to gather just once more on the border-slope and make just one unfavorable remark, then we would immediately assemble in our courtyard behind the assembly hall, where they cannot see us, from where we would go out to battle our enemy face-to-face on the field of ‘jocks’.
So, when that 4:30 AM intercom announcement shredded the silence, I got dressed, having an uneasy feeling about what was about to transpire. I wondered, what happened to the revival we just experienced? What happened to the men that I inspired to gain “perspective” on the “other” who would now partake in a physical fight with their so-called enemy.
Or... did I feel a dis-ease merely because I was scared shitless of physical combat?
Dozens of sleep-deprived, some alcohol-doused, testosterone-flooded and Mel-Gibson-Braveheart-inspired zombie-soldiers made their way down to the inner-courtyard. Everyone careful not to make a noise, we didn’t want the enemy to become aware that we were about to strike back at them for peeing in our assembly hall.
About eighty to one hundred, of the total two-hundred-and-sixty men housed in our residence, huddled quietly in a large circle behind the assembly hall. Rademeyer announced the strategy: We will go out and face our enemy on the slope. Then we will draw them out to the far right where there was no slope between us, which gave them an elevation advantage. Then Rademeyer’s brother, whom we affectionately called, “Bicep-Bian” (pronounced bicep-”Bee-an”) for obvious reasons, would lift his arms above his head, and if he were to lower them, the fight would commence.
We were about to head out from the courtyard, when I, the inspired spiritual teacher, interrupted with much bravado and asked, “What did King David (of the Bible) do before heading out to battle?” Everyone waited in reverence for the answer… “He would pray to God to help them.” Everyone agreed. This is a good idea.
As one, we sank onto one knee with our arms locked together. We lowered our heads and waited on Rademeyer to speak the words of the anointed. An awkward silence hung in the air. Rademeyer didn’t say a word. I looked up and everyone started looking at me. Fuck. (This is a word I am only comfortable to say or write in retrospect.)
I prayed. What on earth did I pray? I cannot remember. Probably something like this:
“Dear God, in the name of Jesus, please help us as we go out to battle with our enemy today. [...for having peed in our assembly hall]. And don’t let anyone be hurt, but help us to triumph over them.”
We arose as one and marched out to meet our enemy on the field-of-jocks. There were about fifteen of them. All of them were drunk. Rademeyer and Bicep-Bian drew them out to the far right where we could face them on equal ground. They called for reinforcements and maybe ten or more brave Maroela zealots came rushing across the grass field to join the fun. Some of my close friends stood in the front row. I walked a bit slower so that I can hide in the back.
Bicep-Bian stood in the center, in the front. There was less than a meter distance between the enemy lines. Bicep-Bian turned his back on his enemy and faced his men. Then he lifted his arms while you the Maroela men kept shouting inflammatory remarks. They must have thought that there was no way that these cultural, academically minded, Mopanie softies would be able to throw a punch.
Then, as clear as day, I remember the words Bicep-Bian uttered as he looked us in the eye: “Kom ons bliksem hulle.” (Let’s fuck ‘em up.)
In one fluid movement, he lowered his arms, clenched his fists, turned toward the enemy and served a Tyson-thwack right on the nose of the unlucky, drunken Maroela student behind him. Silence descended and the battled-of-the-jocks commenced. Boastful shouts and chatter were replaced with flesh-on-flesh blows, grunts and moans, buffets and thuds. I watched as my friends, some equally scrawny as I, threw punches and dropped their enemy to the ground. I, shamefully, stood frozen at the back—a participant because I am there, and a coward, because I was too scared to get involved.
The next moment my premarius, Rademeyer, came tumbling past with an oversized Maroela jock ontop of him. I jumped onto the man and rolled him off our leader. Rademeyer jumped up, gave me a glance of acknowledgement, or so I’d like to believe, and he turned to the Maroela jock, ready to take him on again, but whom have already retreated to his side of the field.
The rest of the drunken enemy minority also started to retreat and one-by-one our boys ceased to throw punches. Shirts were torn. Noses were bleeding. Faces were scuffed. Dried, cut grass stuck to their hair. My shirt was squeaky clean. I was probably white as a ghost in the face.
We returned to our courtyard in a triumphant spirit. I turned to my friend, Uys, who was well loved and on the Culture Committee and said to him, “It would be wrong of us to take pride in this victory. God will punish us.” What was I smoking? Dead Sea papyrus scrolls?
Uys rebuked me sharply, “No He won’t! Don’t take this victory from the boys.”
From that moment, my short-lived influence over my brethren started to dissipate. Like so many preachers and politicians of times gone by, I spoke portentous words of wisdom of how I believe this world operates, of how I think we ought to conduct our lives, of what I believe is right or wrong, but when the shit hits the fan, then our true character is revealed and our spurious proclamations of truth and hope are unmasked and our insidious ideologies are laid bare.
Sometimes I remember the bullies that I was confronted with at school. They completely humiliated me and I never had the guts to fight back, nor the percipience to respond with placating wit. I was always paralyzed, just like I was when Bicep-Bian threw that first punch. I didn’t even have the clarity of mind to recognize how ridiculous all of this was in the first place: That we allowed ourselves to give credence to the vacant utterances of drunken students and bodily fluids on the floor of an assembly hall. All of their provocations, as well as our retaliatory actions, were exemplary of our shared heritage with our common ancestor, the chimpanzee:
Make a noise to proclaim your masculinity and pee on the ground to mark your territory.
But we were made in God’s image, were we not? It would take more than a decade before I would start to see the forest for the trees.
Our animalistic instincts have been with us for much longer than we are able to comprehend. We are slaves to our 2.8 million year old Homo Habilis biology and only when we are willing to acknowledge the truth of reality, as science unmasks its underlying mechanisms, can we seek out methodologies to help cultivate a more favorable response and a more meaningful future for all of humanity.
This story first appeared on Vasgevang on April 25th, 2019.