(This is Part IV of my six-part travelogue from shooting our documentary film, The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story. To join our team, please visit our Indiegogo site. For more travelogue, here’s Part I, Part II, Part III, Part V & Part VI.)
VENTERSDORP, South Africa – Facing a fork in the road, white leaders of the Ventersdorp Golf Club beat their chests in despair and howled to the heavens.
“How can we denounce one of our own,” they wailed, “for cursing blacks the same way everyone did – and was completely normal – just 20 years ago?”
Ok, that’s probably not what’s unfolding inside The Clubhouse. Maybe there is no crisis of conscience. Maybe they sensed, instinctively, their course of action. I’ll never know. Because I’m outside, waiting on the terrace, pondering.
If they handle it well, then … Or, if they handle it poorly, then …
The conclusion’s the same, though. Either way, no matter what path they choose, our story is infinitely better. It’ll be much richer in texture.
What will surprise me, though, is how Club leaders will vow to take action.
One leader, at least. With a bold gesture.
Club Vice President Charles Kuhn steps forward to speak to us, on camera, on behalf of the Club leadership. This is probably not a swipe at the current President, an affable chap named Christo. But rather because Kuhn – a Methodist minister – is a polished public speaker. From his base in Potchefstroom, the nearby provincial hub, he ministers to Methodists in Ventersdorp, too.
We sit in the large, dimly lit dining hall of the clubhouse. Just last night, at an awards ceremony after the championship’s first round, white golfers clapped congenially as one of the two black golfers now in their midst – Monte, buddy of our hero, Sam – accepted a small trophy for his course-play that day.
Yet the hall is now empty, except for us. We hook a small microphone to Charles’ lapel. Slightly sunburnt, he seems cool as a South African cucumber.
He starts in by explaining how he’s asked Samuel to put the entire “kaffir” incident in writing, then to email it to the leadership committee for discussion. It turns out, the Ventersdorp Golf Club – in another noteworthy sign of the times – has struck racial discrimination from its constitution.
So, does the k-word qualify as a breach?
“We view it in a very serious light,” says Charles.
But then, he moves beyond formality and personalizes his response: as a white Methodist minister whose own congregations blend black and white. And others. (Charles’ foursome during the Club tournament included a Korean Methodist minister who also preaches in Potchefstroom. After Sam and Monte blazed the trail, this Korean golfer has become the Club’s third non-white member – and first Asian.)
“It’s not a part of who we are as South Africans anymore,” says Charles. “But just because something is removed from the Constitutional books, doesn’t mean that a person’s personal journey, that has been ingrained within them, is gone.”
At this point, he’s making our story stronger and better.
Charles continues, even more emotively: “I believe we need to take a stand, a serious stand against this kind of thing, so that others can learn from the experience and see that the Club does not tolerate any such behavior here in Ventersdorp … For a change of behavior to happen, a stand needs to be taken, very definitely.
But what if you were to discipline this white golfer – I ask him – for a curse toward blacks that was once so common? How would Venterdorp’s whites react?
“It may cause some kind of issue in the community,” he concedes. “But that’s where we stand, and that’s where we are. We cannot go back to the past, at all.”
Excellent material he’s given us, and I’m satisfied.
I thank him for his time, close my notebook. Our cinematographer switches off the camera, while Charles detaches the microphone from his shirt.
Then, as often happens, one more question pops into my mind: Did you talk to Samuel, to reassure him that action would be taken? How so?
Charles did, in fact … by threatening to quit in solidarity.
Wha-a-a-a-at? I’m startled. You pledged to quit, too?
Now, when I’m a print reporter, wielding a pen and pad, a revelation like this at the tail-end of an interview is simple enough to capture: re-open pad, un-cap pen. This stunner from Charles, though, requires me to inconvenience both my cameraman and our subject. But it has to be done.
Please, we need you to repeat that on camera.
So, Charles re-attaches his microphone – and reiterates his pledge.
“I said to him, ‘Samuel, I want to give you the assurance that this will be dealt with,’” he says, as sincerely as I can imagine another man, in his seat, at this very moment. “If it is not dealt with … then I assured him I will personally take a stand – and I will resign from this Club. Not only from the Vice Presidency of this Club.”
Wow. His words imbue our film with even greater significance. We’ve just unearthed another gold nugget from the hinterlands of The New South Africa: twenty years on, in a place branded as “the most racist town,” one white man is laying something on the line for a black man. For The Clubhouse, more movement, more drama.
All I need now is one last piece of the puzzle. The offending golfer, himself.