Living without a Mask
For much of Fanelesibonge's young life, academic achievement and success were the markers of a carefully presented image. But it hid who he really was and he paid a high price for the facade.
Fanelesibonge Ndebele (25) was born in Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal. His mom was a single mother, which led to him living with a different family during the first few years of his life.
“The first few years of my life I spent with my grandmother in a village called Driefontein. That home has a special place in my heart, it was where I spent the greatest time of my childhood. I lived with them for five years because my mother couldn’t find anyone to look after me while she was working as a teacher. I call her my grandmother but we were not related by blood. My mom grew up next door to them, it’s one big homestead with two families living there. My maternal grandparents had passed away and there was no one on our side living there - the house was empty. My mom asked that family next door if they could take care of me. They agreed, and I became a member of their family! They are really my family. I have never felt more at home. It was one of the best times of my life. I was the baby and I was loved tremendously. They really are an incredible family.”
At five years of age, Fanelesibonge moved from his rural home to live with his mother and brothers.
“I moved to a new environment and it was quite an adjustment. I went from a big home with a lot of people to a home of just the four of us – my mom and two brothers (one older and one younger). In the rural area, I was used to running around at night and there was a lot of freedom. But then in a township, it’s a different setting, you can’t be on the streets after a certain time. It was such a transition to move from a place where we used electricity only for the most basic things, and suddenly there was a toilet that I could flush and a heater. I have stories of being in such awe of these things! Overall, I think I adjusted well but I was definitely sad with the change.”
Not long after Fanelesibonge moved in with his mom and brothers, two of his male cousins also moved in. He refers to them as his older brothers. Fanelesibonge’s mother provided for all five boys.
“My mom was financially responsible for all five of us and she was trying to strike a balance. We grew up in a single-parent household, she never made us feel like we were a burden and she worked hard to ensure that we had what we needed. She sent one cousin to university and the other went to boarding school because they were older than us, her sons. She really managed to be there for each and every one of us. She had her struggles and made a lot of sacrifices that she never told us about.”
Fanelesibonge only knew his mom as his primary caregiver. While he has spoken to his father over the phone, he has never physically met him. He recalls the first day he heard his father’s voice.
“We didn’t communicate at all for many years - until I was 11. I remember that day my mom and I were spring cleaning and she stumbled across her diary which had his number in it and she told me to call him. She said, ‘Let’s see if his number works’ and she dialled and it rang and he answered. That’s the first time I spoke to my dad. It was a bittersweet moment. I was excited to finally get to speak to him. I don’t know the type of reaction I expected. I expected him to be surprised and he was mellow and I realized later that it’s his personality. At that moment, the type of energy I got from him was that he was not really excited or bothered. It was a weird experience, it was a short phone call. I told him the story that we had found his number and just called to say hi. He asked me how I am doing. My mom was in the room with me. After that call, we went on with the day but my thoughts lingered, like, ‘why wasn’t he excited?’ But you just move on with your life. I saved his number. I memorized it. To this day, apart from mom and my own numbers, I remember his number.”
As a child, Fanelesibonge tried a few more times to reach out to his father over the phone and eventually the phone calls were no longer an attempt to connect, but instead, they became transactional.
“He never called me, I always called him. In the beginning, I wanted to connect but the reception from him was never what I wanted. After some time, I began calling purely for financial support, but then that turned into sending an SMS and for a good three years, we communicated only via SMS. Our contact is minimal, you can just feel when someone is not interested.”
As a child, Fanelesibonge struggled with his tendencies.
“People noticed. My mom said, ‘don’t do that’ when I showed certain behaviour that would alarm others into saying, ‘You are not a girl, why don’t you go play with the boys and kick a ball.’ Or, ‘why are your friends only girls?’ When people questioned a part of me that I couldn’t understand, as 'wrong' I naturally suppressed it. I did whatever it took for people to shift their focus to the good parts of me and excelling became my motto.”
At the age of nine, Fanelesibonge started boarding school.
“I tried to live up to the expectations I had set up for myself. At the time, everything that I did, I had to do it perfectly. I had to be number one. I loved being recognized and being acknowledged for my work. I thought if I was excelling, then it would be easier to interact with people and be friends with them. But I was wrong, I struggled to make friends and I never used to fit in. It’s not healthy to have that mindset as a child, every time I struggled with something I would panic, thinking people would realize I was a fraud. Throughout my childhood, I was driven by achieving, but no achievement fulfilled what I was looking for.
“As time passed by, I began to identify as gay. But I kept it a secret. I was raised in a community that was closed-minded and I was taught a certain thing about a group of people - that it was a sin and they would burn in hell. I fed off of those words and I knew that if I had to be open and honest about who I was, then I would be rejected and that I would burn in hell.
“As much as I tried I could not suppress who I was. It eats at your soul, it really does. I wanted to please people but I was unable to change my nature. I always felt alone. I was lonely and alone. If you think of a school setting, everyone has friends and their groups. I could never find a sense of belonging. I could never fit in and be part of a group. I always had to insert myself superficially in different circles. I used to have the personality of being the shining star of the group, I would overcompensate in order to belong there. I would be the entertainer of the group, I would change things about me to fit in, but I never felt I did.”
As the years went by, Fanelesibonge experienced some bullying at school.
“In high school, it got out of hand, I didn’t like sport and I didn’t fit their criteria. If you think about boarding school, you have popular kids and they were normally rugby players. I’m tall, I have the body of a rugby player but that was not something I was interested in. That ostracized me further. There are only a few of you in the hostel, and if you don’t align with the majority then that is when the bullying comes in. The bullying would be a range of things, from subtle things like playing tricks on me to doing other things that they kept saying were jokes. I wasn’t big on fighting and was often pushed around. Once or twice I got punched. The reality is that I was considered an outcast.”
Fanelesibonge recalls a particular act of cruelty by bullies the night before a school prize-giving, in which he was the recipient of several awards of excellence.
“The night before, someone put hair removal cream on my hair while I was sleeping and when I showered the next morning I freaked out. I didn’t know what was happening and my hair fell out in patches and at breakfast, everyone was laughing at me. I associated hair loss with cancer, so I was quite scared. I’m laughing about it now! I told the teachers that I can’t go to school but they said I’m being dramatic. I went up and down to receive certificates during the ceremony and people could see whole patches of my hair missing. As soon as I could I just went to the sound room to cry, while the assembly was still going on. I ended up going to town to have my hair shaved off. I eventually found out who did it. For them, it was just a joke. They could not understand why this thing had humiliated me.”
Fanelesibonge never shared his school experiences with his family.
“I didn’t share this with my family, we are not a family that really talks. I just deal with things on my own. If I needed to cry, I cried alone in my room, I dried my tears and then went out.”
Despite the bullying, Fanelesibonge excelled both academically and in leadership roles.
“Towards the end of Grade 11, I got elected as school head boy and hostel head boy. Now I’m holding two important roles, which is something that had not been done before. It was a milestone for me. In terms of the learner population at the school, it was predominantly white, the teaching staff only had one black teacher. I was only the second black head boy in the school’s history of over a hundred years. The first one was in 2007, but I was the first to hold both positions.”
The leadership roles presented new challenges for Fanelesibonge.
“Starting off, I had so many ideas and so much I wanted to do as head boy, I wanted to have an impact. But there were a lot of challenges, the biggest challenge was that the members of my team did not give me respect, not because of my abilities but because of a new nuance - the colour of my skin. The prefect body that I led was made up of approximately 80% white students and the majority did not want to cooperate. They kept turning to the head girl who was part of the rugby squad. I had to fight for our place in order to be recognized, my deputy was also a black guy. It became more and more challenging. I felt like I was not receiving support from teachers who had been appointed as support. A teacher once said, ‘Fanele you now need to grow some balls’ in front of everyone when something had happened a few days into my term. I earned that place with my hard work and I needed teachers to support me. My black colleagues recognized what was going on and rallied behind me. And they affirmed me. ‘We support you’, they said. I was constantly working, as a school prefect you are assisting the teachers and as hostel prefect, you have to be the enforcer of rules. For me, there was never a time to switch off and I still needed to pass matric.”
The stress of his leadership roles plus a violent mugging took its toll on young Fanelesibonge.
“It was a quiet Sunday afternoon when I was walking from a taxi to the hostel and two guys robbed me at gunpoint. Cars were driving by and I screamed, they hit me with a gun and slapped me. There was a car that stopped and the driver took me to the hostel, I was hysterical and I was crying. I called my mom, told her what happened and got some comfort.
“After some time, I was sitting in class and I couldn’t breathe. I walked to the secretary’s office, I just walked in and sat on the floor and I started to cry. It was a breaking point I believe, it was so weird. Some of the teachers came in and out not knowing what to do. I was unravelling. Because of the mugging incident that happened to me, they said that it was a reaction to that trauma. Today, I don’t think it was the main cause but it was a catalyst. It was much deeper than that. They called the trauma counsellor, he walked in and he said I looked fine. We spoke for a good twenty minutes, he was dismissive and nonchalant. He told me to just rest. ‘Maybe you are tired’, he said. That was my first experience of a counsellor. The next day I was back at school. I was my normal self and went on with life. But a few weeks later I was in my room, it was quiet and I started thinking, for the first time I had the thought of ending my life. My mom used to buy painkillers which were in the room and I started taking them, popping those pills and crying. For a moment I froze, the shame started crawling in. Like, how could I do this? I had everything going for me. I had provisionally been accepted at Stellenbosch University and I had a bursary. What could I be struggling with? I stopped taking the pills and my crying put me to bed. I spent the rest of that year just trying to get by and focus on my academics.”
Fanelesibonge passed matric and started his first year at Stellenbosch University to obtain an LLB degree. He was excited to make a new start.
“There was a lot brewing inside, I was still struggling with my sexual orientation. I packed my bags and went to Stellenbosch with no friends or family, it was an opportunity to start over. Initially, that was a breath of fresh air, but although you can leave a place you can’t leave your problems behind. I recreated myself, in my first year I did everything; I was excelling academically and I was part of every committee you can think of and every party on campus.
“There was still heaviness in my heart; when alone I would cry for no reason. But I put on that mask and wore that. All the issues I was facing, I did not address them. You just push until you can push no further. Once again, I attempted to take my own life but I froze. I don’t know, I couldn’t go ahead with it. The thought of ending the pain was attractive but the thought of how others would perceive me was stronger. I started relying heavily on alcohol and having a great time as a means to unwind. In my second year, I was hanging on a thread.
“As usual, I got involved in as many things as I could. I was elected as the vice-chair of the juridical society student-faculty committee. Then it was Fees Must Fall and as a student leader, I got actively involved. That in itself took a lot from me, I was constantly fighting around the table with the university. Because I was in the juridical society I got involved in other committees, our faculty decided to vote on an interim language plan that recognized English as the primary language of instruction. So, I sat on the faculty board and voted on that language plan and that came with resistance and many follow-up meetings. I began missing many classes during the day and after-hours I would need to explain myself to students as they needed to hold me accountable. For the first time I was struggling academically and I no longer felt in control.”
Finally, Fanelesibonge admitted that he was not coping.
“I remember sitting down in my professor’s office and saying, ‘I can’t cope, I’m done, I am leaving the University.’ She called another professor and they walked me to the campus health facility. They told me I needed to see a psychologist. That was a turning point for me, the beginning of the most difficult journey of my life. I finally acknowledged that something was wrong."
Fanelesibonge failed the year academically and had to appeal to the university to be readmitted.
“My appeal was successful. I came back and therapy became mandatory. I was diagnosed with depression and put on antidepressants for a while, but it wasn’t working out financially, so I stopped taking them. Talking to someone has assisted me somehow, I have managed my studies and I am in my final year at university. I have learnt to be aware of my wellbeing and to say no when I begin to feel overwhelmed. I have slowed down and I am definitely doing less to be recognized by others. I am really picking up the pieces of my life and beginning to accept who I am. I took the step of introducing my boyfriend to my brother and he was open. I suspect my mom also knows, but she is not ready to talk about it yet and I respect that. My focus is to understand who I really am without all the masks I have worn over the years and to slowly let the world experience the true Fanelesibonge.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown restrictions have been challenging for Fanelesibonge’s mental health.
“For me, it has been quite an adjustment in terms of being forced to stay in one place where you live and work and to have minimal interaction with people. The restrictions have been difficult from a mental health perspective. Fortunately, I don’t live alone and it helps to have open communication with my housemates. I try to keep busy as well as being involved in certain workshops. I also interact with people albeit in a virtual space, including calling family and speaking to them over the phone.
“Because mental health is close to my heart, I try to reach out to people in my personal capacity and just reassure them that it’s normal to feel demotivated and despondent. I am using my story and my experiences to have those personal conversations. I have created a space where people can talk to me and I have people calling me to talk often. A lot of people are sitting in their homes and they are struggling. I am not a professional, but if I can support them just to feel that they are not alone, that is my little contribution towards fighting this epidemic.”