Editor's Note: Robert Ganshorn Gay_liberation.jpgwas a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front at Purdue University before creating one of the first Public Television documentaries on gay lifestyles broadcast during his graduate studies at Indiana University. Failing to become the Gay Walter Cronkite, he is retired from Ganshorn & Associates in Chicago and now lives in Thailand with his loving partner of 31 years.
With the celebrations of Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday underway I cannot help but think of John Sandys Smith and Wilfred Cibane (pronounced se bo na) who were an interracial gay couple living under the Apartheid regime in South Africa. They were silent business partners and since Wilfred was an "employee" could live in the White designated neighborhood in Johannesburg officially as his "servant" with John and his aged mother. Both of these were incredibly interesting men, both wrote books about their experiences during Apartheid. Wilfred's, the most recent, is entitled: "A Man of Two Worlds"(Kwela Books 1998) and can still be gotten. They met when John was what he called a "commercial traveler" or what we could call a sales representative.
I met my two "aunties" in the Bangkok airport as we waited together for a domestic flight within Thailand fifteen years ago. They were in their very late 70's. When they found out we were in Thailand on business they were quick to form a new friendship. They had been interior designers in Johannesburg from 1950 to 1964 including a wholesale import, resale and retail business. They knew that if either their business or personal relationship became known they could both suffer imprisonment or worse. As a form of outreach John and Wilfred sponsored an "interracial understanding" club at the University of South Africa in Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela was a student who became a member of this club as part of his drive within the university to bring the Apartheid system to it's knees. There was much early hope that this unfair and unjust separation of races could be accomplished peacefully. John and Wilfred sponsored this tea and cake and idea sharing group for years until it was banned arbitrarily by the race conscious university administration.
By 1963 Nelson Mandela was in prison, by 1964 the authorities had delivered an ultimatum to John and Wilfred. Leave South Africa or have a trial for your illegal partnership. As John's mother had died they felt little reason to fight to stay and emigrated to England virtually penniless to begin again, their business. Their work, both within and outside of South Africa had given them great visibility. They were so successful in England they became a provider to the Royal Family and their last job in 1981 was to redecorate the suites of Buckingham Palace that would be reserved for Princess Diana and Prince Charles. At this time John the eldest was 65 and Wilfred was 63.
An amazing accomplishment for an African man who was born on a traditional tribal rondovel who herded goats for his father. The youngest child of a man with six wives Wilfred was nearly illiterate when he met John. Wilfred had spent over 20 years taking extended courses in all subjects of interest to him. John gave all credit for their success to Wilfred. Wilfred gave all credit to John. They retired to Majorca in Spain and could have spent their full lives there, but never forgot "the cause," and never lost track of happenings in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was released in February of 1990 and the situation was right to allow Wilfred and John to return to South Africa without fear of imprisonment in 1991. After Thailand they were later guests of ours in Chicago. We, in turn, went on safari with them in Zimbabwe spending a wonderful two weeks under the enormous African sky.
"So," I asked, "Did you attempt to contact Mandela when you returned?"
Always modest, Wilfred responded first, "He knows we are here, from friends of ours, but he is the President, we would never presume."
"But," I persisted, "you helped him, surely he would remember your club."
John answered, "And we were lucky not to have been brought up on charges for sponsoring it. The important thing is that to whatever degree it did help, Apartheid lasted nearly thirty years beyond our little club. What we did was nothing compared to what Mandela has done. He has literally reinvented the country."
Everyone acknowledged that conditions were still tenuous in South Africa, the "National Reconciliation" was underway. There were tremendous numbers of tribal Africans living under expressways in the cities now that they were free to travel anywhere. There was "White Flight" to other countries and a fear of a significant brain drain on the economy. Still, they were grateful to be home again.
As Wilfred's health deteriorated (diabetes and blindness) the elder John took loving care of him. Suddenly, after a phone conversation in 2004, John told me that they were moving in with Wilfred's relatives to a "Granny apartment" and he would forward me their address. I never heard from them again, but I know that it was only on account of weakness. One of them could not long live without the other.
I have often thought that their life story represented proof positive than no injustice can last forever. I wish my dear friends were alive today to see full marriage rights take root in South Africa, but that is a relatively small thing. What they had endured, how they had sacrificed and shared burdens and accomplishments, and who they were as people, shout from the mountaintops:
We Know Love.