Finding Masculinity: A Return to Innocence Lost

Narrative Essay by Selabe Kute

I can’t quite remember the day my father walked out on us. It must have been sometime around 1994. We lived in a rural homestead on the outskirts of the North West, surrounded by beautiful maroon soil and pale blue skies. While the fresh aroma of democracy hung in the kitchen air and the dream of inclusion glistened on our television screen, he slipped out the backdoor and disappeared. Dissolved into the ether of my memory. It was at that point, just shy of my second birthday, that I was to brave it. Crawl through the confusions of boyhood alone. Wrestle with the performance of manhood without a script. 

The Making of Men 

It is often said that fathers give their children a sense of security. Physically and emotionally. For their sons, they lay a certain blueprint to being. They pass on a credo that ringfences what it means to be a man. In the early years, young boys learn a choreography from their fathers. Like a Viennese Waltz, man and boy glide in unison, replicating steps and gestures in a quick tempo. Bodies close. Boy learns to walk sternly. Shake hands firmly. Roll a fist with intent. Handle tools, wield razor blades against bare skin, court the opposite sex. Machismo. Wear the cloak of masculinity with self-assurance. 

Do I have reason to feel aggrieved then? Maybe. My father, in a selfish act of cowardice, left me at the altar of boyhood. 

Like millions of other boys, I was brought up by women. With heavy eyes and weathered cheeks, they cradled me with a certain innocence. Instilled in me a slower kind of waltz. Where the steps allowed you to speak gently. Feel intently. Smile easily. Float with sensitivity. For a time, it’s all I knew. However, as my hair grew and my knuckles bulged, I found myself awkwardly treading through the ballroom of masculinity. Unaware of where to ground my feet or trace my steps. 

A Crisis of Belonging 

Growing up in Johannesburg was always going to be tough. A city with smoky sunsets, motoring Siyayas and milky reservoirs of garbage, glitter and invariably gold. A place that gives you everything you need to soar or crash. Build or destroy. A city arbitrated by tough, bear-chested men with chipped lips and heavy wallets. A place where a caricature of masculinity rules. 

It is here where your ability to be a conventional man is under constant inspection. Looked for in everything you do. Between the crevasses of job interviews, Bumble dates, and chest-puffing banter with the boys over the braai, this city, with all its contradictions, sets you on a collision course with yourself. 

“You don’t strike me as someone who’d fix anything – like get your hands dirty,” a close friend of mine once remarked. She had bought a new painting that needed to be mounted on a wall in her small studio apartment. She comes from a household where her father spent hours slaving away in his workshop; chiselling, crafting, and assembling all kinds of things, tables, frames, drawers. A religious man who believes in the sanctity of father as chief provider and producer. For her, this is what men do. This is who they are. Artisans with cracked palms and greasy overalls. Watching on as I struggled to place the painting over a pair of loosely placed nails, she saw someone who deviated from the artisanal masculinity she had come to know. 

Her remark, fleeting as it was, tapped into a certain crisis of belonging for men without fathers. A crisis that plays itself out in them being alienated for not exuding the right kind of masculinity. A crisis that sees them on the peripheries of self. Probing into why they’re constantly spoken over, spoken down to, shunned and patronised, silenced by peers, romantic partners, colleagues. Displaced. 

Coming Home 

Today, South African men are four times more likely to take their own life. At the same time, they also have a higher propensity to take the lives of others. Tragedies born out of masculinities that are either toxic or in a crisis of belonging, and often both. While young boys learn a choreography of manhood from their fathers, the performance often plays itself out in acts of violence or self-harm. Similarly, those of us without fathers often find ourselves slipping and sliding across the ballroom of masculinity – trying to move to a rhythm foreign to us. And in turn, becoming foreigners to ourselves. 

I often wonder what kind of man I would be had my father not disappeared. Would I be able to mount paintings or handle my own in a brawl outside a Melville bar? Would I be able to speak in an octave that lets people know I’m in the room? Would I be able to fend off the urge to cry? I don’t know. The answer has always been unclear. However, it is only now, in the twilight of my twenties, that I’ve allowed myself to puzzle through an alternative answer: that masculinity has no start or endpoint. Like a Viennese Waltz, it is a dance grounded by loose principles but perfected through improvisation. It is many things, and that is okay. For some of us, it is a dance that leads us back to that creaking homestead, where we can find and return to innocence lost.