For Eusebius McKaiser the personal is the political.
Family, race, sexuality, culture ‒ he doesn’t hesitate to highlight the connection between our lives and thorny issues that plague the public sphere. Considered as one of South Africa’s more progressive thinkers, he asked some tough questions of the audience that gathered to hear about his latest book, A Bantu in My Bathroom, on Friday afternoon.
Taking umbrage against the term ‘bantu’ had actually prompted some students to tear down a few of the posters advertising the event. Known as an iconoclast and a provocateur, McKaiser relished this reaction, promptly starting off his talk by questioning the assumption that Rhodes is perceived as being the most liberal campus in South Africa.
He says he hasn’t re-visited his alma mater yet for this very reason: “I’m not convinced that Rhodes students have a profound interest in political and intellectual debate,” citing how he has enjoyed wonderful profoundly moving conversations with students from University of Johannesburg in Soweto as well as the more supposedly conservative campuses of Stellenbosch and Bloemfontein. “I doubt that there is a deep yearning among the Rhodes community to apply what you learn to South African life,” he said. Ironically, this stance remained uncontested during the question and answer session.
McKaiser grew up in Grahamstown and went to school at Graeme College. He studied Law and Philosophy at Rhodes, graduating with a Masters in Arts Degree (with Distinction) in Philosophy, cum laude. After obtaining a prestigious international Rhodes scholarship, he spent time at Oxford University working with Prof John Broome, researching whether or not people are morally responsible for their beliefs; a debate which he continues to explore to this day. Since then he has enjoyed a stint as host for Talk Radio 702 and used to write a blog for The New York Times, with a column currently running in The Star.
“I write out of compulsion,” he says, “as an alternative to getting drunk ‒ it calms me down. My English teacher used to tell me that the most compelling way to write is to write from experience but I was young and thought it was more impressive to use big words, which some of the more stupid teachers gave me high marks for. But I soon realised that if you sound like a professor, you won’t connect with people, from the heart.”
A Bantu in my Bathroom has been reprinted four times and 9000 copies were sold in a mere 10 days. He describes it as a collection of “profoundly personal critical essays which discuss abstract concepts, drawn rather self-indulgently from my own life”. This approach allows him to set up critiques around “sexuality, race and other uncomfortable topics”.
He credits his childhood friend, Andrew Pinchuck (who recently obtained his doctorate and lectures at the Rhodes Maths faculty) for opening up new worlds to him when they used to hang out at Pinchuck’s house listening to Bob Dylan, playing chess and reading fantasy novels. These observations are made in one of the essays in Bantu, where he questions how Pinchuck never visited him at his house. “We’re obsessed with a non-racial society, but how will we do it? It’s no surprise that we struggle to live in an integrated manner in the public sphere when we can’t sort out how we relate to each other in private.”
The second part of the book is a no-holds-barred look at sexuality, concentrating on his experiences as a young gay man, “so if you’re squeamish, “ he warns, “you may find it tough to enjoy, or you may enjoy it more than you’re letting on!” Sharing the memory with the audience of coming out to his father while studying at Rhodes, he is still visibly emotional when he thinks about the long letter he wrote to his dad and the awkward phone call that followed. Recalling this complex experience, he asked the audience “Is homosexuality morally defensible?” mentioning how some of his best friends are gay and married. “You cannot let your parents’ tears get in the way of living an authentic life,” he emphasised, shedding a different light on what it means to have a strong moral foundation.
McKaiser is currently working on his second book, which will analyse the Democratic Alliance’s strengths and weaknesses ahead of the 2014 elections. A Bantu in my Bathroom is available on Kalahari.net
First published on http://www.ru.ac.za in 2013.