Cylindropuntia fulgida (Boxing Glove Cactus)
In my six years as a medical student in the mid-to late 80s, every single oral exam I participate in begins with the question, “Is jy familie van Stan Christodoulou?” In fact, it’s the first question I get asked almost any time I encounter a senior white Afrikaans male at Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Medicine. This, even many years after I graduate and return to the faculty to take up an academic post in the mid-2000s.
Stanley Christodoulou is one of the world’s greatest boxing judges and referees. The first man to have refereed world title fights in all 17 boxing weight divisions and the first South African to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He has officiated at almost 250 world title bouts and been awarded the State President’s award by both FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela for his contribution to grassroots boxing in South Africa. In short, the man is an icon in the boxing world.
Reproduced with permission from African Ring
I am not related to Stan but after the 2nd or 3rd time someone asks, I no longer admit that. Instead, I craft a long-winded response – in Afrikaans - that is guaranteed to eat into the first few minutes of my allotted exam time. It centres around the fact that Stan Christodoulou’s parents were also Cypriot immigrants, that his mother was born in the same region of Cyprus as my own parents, and that my uncle Andreas has met him a couple of times and is convinced a distant family connection exists. I deliver all of this in Afrikaans to ensure that I don't offend any professor who may be biased towards English-speaking students. There are more than a few of those.
It does strike me as somewhat ironic that my mostly nationalist or conservative, right-wing, male professors are so quick to acknowledge a Greek man’s contribution to South African sport. A Greek man whose claim to fame is that he can skilfully mediate between warring parties who negotiate with their fists. A man whose efforts paved the way for social integration in the South African boxing world many years before interracial fights were allowed or Apartheid dismantled. I’m never certain if being related to him will elevate my status or diminish it in my professor’s eyes. Perhaps they’re simply hoping I can get them tickets to a boxing match? Either way, I relate to the need to be a skilful mediator.
I was born on the 7th of September 1966. The day after Dimitri Tsafendas (also a Greek man) assassinated the architect of Apartheid, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd. I am not related to Tsafendas either, but I can certainly relate to his inclination to stab the man four times.
My junior school years in an all-white, parallel medium government school in Port Elizabeth were littered with prejudice and discrimination. “Bloody Greek, stupid Greek, dirty Greek, hairy Greek, greasy Greek, go back to Greece where you belong, Greek”. A tiresome litany of abuse that was constantly directed at me, my siblings and my cousins by our fellow classmates, most of whom were the children of low-income government employees who worked for the local railway services or middle-upper class Afrikaans academics employed by the nearby University of Port Elizabeth.
Initially, I felt confused. Then, hurt. Eventually, I became resigned. I tried ignoring the perpetrators as my parents suggested. I tried reminding them that the Greeks had founded Western civilisation as we know it and that the Olympic games had originated in Greece – more advice from my well-meaning parents that only yielded further insult. As I got older, I tried pointing out that Cyprus was not part of Greece and that my people had been colonised by the British for many years too. Perhaps a common enemy might make a difference? It did not.
I thought a lot about the idea that I should go back where I belonged. Where was that, exactly? Not South Africa, country of my birth, where my dark Mediterranean features and “foreign culture” designated me a “Griek”. Not Cyprus, land of my ancestors, where my fluidity with the English language and middle-class South African lifestyle - a stark contrast to the rural life my grandparents lived - designated me an “Africana”. The essence of me – a sensitive, relational being - slowly disappeared in the lonely spaces in between.
Books became my refuge and intellect my defence. I was small – always the smallest child in my class – but my brain was not. It gave me a competitive advantage that, in time, silenced anyone who might dare to call me stupid or inferior. My brothers discovered that fists sometimes spoke louder than words and that excelling academically and on the rugby field was a guaranteed formula for commanding respect. They did both.
I remember the day my mother arrived to fetch us from school and found my younger brother in the midst of a brawl with two boys who had been calling us derogatory names yet again. The image of her dragging those boys by their ears along the school driveway and barging into the principal’s office to demand that he do something definitive about this ongoing and unacceptable situation - while my cousins and I huddled together at the school gate - is still very vivid in my mind. It was the first and perhaps the only time I witnessed an adult in my family get enraged and fight back.
Today I recognise that obsequious deference is a survival strategy; an effort to tend and befriend the enemy in order to stay safe. It was a strategy that I too internalised and adopted well into my adult years and at great cost to my own wellbeing. The options to fight, flee or freeze in stressful situations were known to me, but the tendency to fawn is one I only learnt about much later. It’s taken years of therapy to undo that conditioning and, in all honesty, it’s only recently that I feel able to stand up for myself in an embodied and centred way. Being able to write about some of those early experiences is part of the journey and so are boxing lessons. Perhaps I am related to Stan after all!
Looking back on all these things now, it seems incredibly ironic that my professors chose to ask about my Greek name in their misguided attempts to put me at ease in a stressful exam situation. I know there’s no way they could have known about my experiences as a child, but did they realise that their question about Stan centred their own interests and experiences rather than mine? Did they know that Verwoerd’s government had come close to classifying Cypriots as Asian rather than European? Would I have gained entry into their esteemed medical school if they had? What might my distinguished professors have asked me then, I wonder?
Dr Maria Christodoulou