In The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood (published in April 2011 by St. Martin’s Press), Glen Retief writes about growing up as a young white male South African during the final years of Apartheid. And while his story is, at its core, indeed a memoir, the book as a whole is full of symbolism, and touches on subjects that go beyond the narrator’s person.
For one, there are parallels between Retief’s school years, in particular the boarding school system that he attended, and the workings of the Apartheid system. In Retief’s story, we get to see what life was like for young white males, and how, from an early age, they were psychologically and emotionally conscripted to perpetuate the violence and race politics of the time. At a more personal level, the fact that Retief talks about issues of sexuality in his wider family, and opens up about his own homosexuality, means that for those who read on, this is a book that will invite deep reflection on a subject that is rarely explored in such detail in African literature.
Living on a game reserve where his father works, Retief, who is only nine years old when we first meet him, is already aware that he is not like the other boys. He doesn’t like sports, cares little about girls in the way that other boys seem to do, and he increasingly notices as he grows up that he finds boys attractive. In one incident, he engages in a verbal exchange with another boy after a squabble over a tennis match. The boy makes a telling accusation:
“You are a total sissy,” he says. “You like boys, not girls. My pa says some boys turn into these weird, sick perverts – I bet you’re one of them.”
Thus, from an early age, Retief is somewhat of an outcast. He doesn’t like the boys at his school, and they don’t like him either. Unable to make friends at school, he turns to his father, who sets him up with the son of a friend. The two young boys hit it off, and Retief can finally be like other kids his age – for a while.
Later, Retief leaves for boarding school, where he is unprepared for the bullying that goes on – he and his junior classmates encounter appalling cruelty meted out by the older kids, led by John, who is both the dormitory prefect and tormentor-in-chief.
It is here that we are first introduced to the concept of the Jack Bank. Jacks, we come to know are the beatings meted out by John and the other seniors. On the night that he is due to leave the dormitory after being reported for his bullying, John tricks his unknowing young charges into accepting to deposit jacks against future indiscretions. The next day, the poor boys wake up to discover that their hard-earned thrashings were in vain, and that John had pulled a fast one in getting them to agree to a final round of jacks, knowing very well he wasn’t going to be around anymore.
In Retief’s words, the bullying, in a way, represents:
“the 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 continued submission…”
From boarding school, Retief heads out to university in Cape Town, where for the first time he gets the opportunity to engage with nonwhite South Africans as equals. Here, away from the eyes of his parents and the restrictions of boarding school, he gradually transforms from an unsure social misfit to an openly gay, and evidently promiscuous activist, with a more or less exclusive attraction to black men.
At the young age of 20, he finds himself at the heart of a campaign that eventually sees South Africa become the first country in the history of the world to ban discrimination on the grounds of sexuality.
The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood is currently available in hardcover and kindle formats only. The paperback version is due to be released in April 2012.