From Susquehanna Currents, Spring 2010, Feature on “Art and Activism”
AS A GAY MAN RAISED IN THE SHADOW of South Africa’s apartheid, Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing Glen Retief has spent a significant part of his life fighting injustice. A somewhat sheltered youth from a loving and protective family, he was sent to a boarding school at the age of 12 and fell under the tyranny of a sadistic older boy named John, a prefect who created a “Jack Bank”—“Jack” being South African slang for a beating. “Each student was invited to voluntarily deposit beatings in an account book,” Retief explains. “Here, these thrashings, usually administered upon the bare buttocks with a cricket bat, could earn interest and later be withdrawn when the student got into trouble.”
Although John was eventually transferred to another hall, the torment he meted out had a profound effect on Retief, who, having surrendered to Stockholm syndrome and internalized homophobia, found himself identifying with the prefect. Years later, as a prefect himself, he savagely caned an underclassman and was so appalled by his actions that he pledged to “never fight in a war and never again bully another human being.” He had recognized “that great cycle of apartheid violence—the apparatus whereby white boys are bullied when they are young, so that later they will know how to beat blacks into submission.”
Retief devoted himself to the cause of freedom, and his work as a writer, journalist and activist with the Organization for Gay and Lesbian Action and the United Democratic Front helped South Africa become the first country to include nondiscrimination clauses protecting sexual orientation in its bill of rights.
In his memoir, aptly titled The Jack Bank (available from St. Martin’s Press in February 2011), he has fashioned a narrative free of preaching. “I strongly believe that the literature of witness should not be beholden to any didactic message. When art becomes a servant of activism, it fails. Art shows ambiguities and contradictions, and asks more questions than providing answers, and in this way the relationship between art and activism is mutually enriching.”