MOFFIE, a film directed by Oliver Hermanus, is about a gay conscript in the SANDF in the 1980s. Picture: Dan Rutland Manners
MOFFIE, a film directed by Oliver Hermanus, is about a gay conscript in the SANDF in the 1980s. Picture: Dan Rutland Manners

'Moffie' reopens wounds of border war suffering

By Terry van der Walt Time of article published Mar 22, 2020

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I went to see the movie Moffie on the weekend, for a couple of reasons.

First, because I am gay and know what a potent word moffie can be when spat out by homophobes in South African society.

Second, because I always believe a movie set in the period when white teenage boys such as myself were forced into the SADF, would somehow help me heal from the horror of it all those years ago.

Well, it did that and more, leaving me with a strong sense that it is a movie younger people, as well as those directly and indirectly affected by the conflict, should see. Many people today don’t know that the apartheid government conscripted young white men into the army. They don’t know that there was virtually no escaping it.

Moffie tells the story of gay 16-year-old Nicholas van der Swart (played by Kai Luke Brümmer) being called up in 1981, carrying his own insecurity over his sexual orientation, which is amplified in the toxic macho environment of the army as it brutalised young men to become compliant soldiers who could take on the “communist threat” in the so-called Border War in then South West Africa.

Harrowing depictions of troops being dehumanised through routine and brutal afkak drills and training, and being called moffies, girls or k*****- boeties, terms used to isolate anyone who did not fit in with the agenda of war.

Oliver Hermanus captures the chaos and cruelty meted out on the conscripts in a vivid and agonising way. He weaves into the story the grim programme of conversion therapy that young men were subjected to, as Nicholas’s love interest, Dylan Stassen (Ryan de Villiers) is sent to ward 22. Yes, shock treatment to turn men heterosexual.

I remember after school assembly the standard nine (Grade 11) boys were told to stay behind. We could hear there were visitors in the foyer. Minutes later men in brown uniforms entered and took down our parents’ names and addresses. Soon enough, my folks got a letter informing them that I had to report at Natal Command on a date in January after my matric year. If I did not, Military Police would visit and I would be arrested. You did two years, and if you refused, you went to jail for three years. That simple.

“Two years will be gone in no time,” chimed my mom and dad.

Guys had already been killed in the operational area, and I worried that I would not survive. I went camping in the Drakensberg with my best friends in the December holiday so I could see them for the last time.

There was no End Conscription Campaign back then, so you got on that train and you were turned into a number.

Every memory I have of that dehumanising experience returned to me while watching Moffie. Terrible people behaving savagely towards young boys who were dragooned into a drawn-out conflict that claimed many lives, and left hundreds of thousands scarred for life, on both sides.

There are days when I can be triggered by something really beautiful. It could be the smell of rain hitting hot canvas, or an achingly gorgeous sunset, or a song played frequently on cassette tape-decks. When this happens I feel as though this army experience happened just the other day. The day will be tinged with memories, good and bad, of my youth being ripped away from me, me being ripped away from my family and those dear to me. Me being ripped away from myself. My sensitive self.

I am feeling this now, while I write this, and it makes me angry all over again. After 40 years those two years are vivid in my mind, and the memories make me feel hollow inside. Restless and anxious. Angry that the situation thrust on us altered us, and then it was all over and it was soon enough not the topic to raise in polite society. It was politically incorrect to even admit you served in the Defence Force, even though you were forced to take part.

“Walls have ears,” we were told. Never talk about what goes on in the army, we were told. The enemy is everywhere. They needn’t have sworn us to secrecy, because what we experienced could not easily be put into words, could not be explained to exasperated parents who just wanted to see that you are fine, and that you got more meat piled on your plate at a family gathering during your pass or break from border duty.

I trained to be a medic and spent almost a year in Ovamboland treating troops, local residents and even “enemy” soldiers fighting for the liberation of Namibia. Helping others with wounds or infections somehow lessened the burden I felt for being at war with people I did not know, whose destiny had nothing to do with me.

Ruacana, where millions of rosy-faced love birds flicked pink and flacked green in raucous flocks above the Kunene River is where I first lost a comrade in a contact with Swapo fighters. His name was Steyn. He’d just received a parcel from his mother, lovingly sewn in cloth so it could withstand its rough passage up north.

Steyn was beaming as he opened it. Biltong, dried wors and his favourite sweets. He told us how happy he was that he and his stepfather were finally forming a good relationship. Days later he was shot dead. And we all sobbed or cried quietly at a memorial service held for him on the tarmac.

On Saturdays they would show movies in the mess hall to distract us, but the first one after Steyn was killed was Ryan’s Daughter, a dreary movie made 10 years earlier about a married Irish woman and her affair with a British soldier during World War I.

I watched 20 minutes of it and could not take any more so I headed back to the tent to lie down. I felt so isolated and deprived of warmth and kind human touch. I thought I was going to have a breakdown, and feared that if I started, I could just sob forever.

A friend who shared the tent returned from duty in the ops room.

He stepped into the tent, sighed and stored his rifle and then stood near my bed.

Words formed in my mind and I said quietly: “Please won’t you lie next to me and hold me?”

“I have been wanting you to say that to me for the longest time,” he replied.

And while men slouched through the dismal movie, we lay in each others arms, taking comfort where we could, breathing, feeling alive, feeling like we were going to be alright.

When we heard the other troops noisily making their way back to their tents after the movie, the brief intimate encounter came to an end and I was alone in my bed, but stronger.

And we did make it out in one piece, physically.

We carry the scars of that horrible war no one wants to talk about.

We are all in some way paying the price of that conflict. War veterans we’re ashamed of, some menaced by alcohol and drug addiction.

The violence and abuse has followed many men into old age where the restless heart strangely yearns for aspects of that blood-soaked landscape, the camaraderie and being so alive, and yet frighteningly facing death each day.

Don’t be put off by the name of the movie, because it actually deals with so much more than gay men surviving the army experience. It is about the human condition, and the frightful things we’re subjected to in life, and the unspoken truths about men, and how they relate to each other.

Two years after arriving in Potchefstroom we all stood on the parade ground in December 1980, so that we could clear out of the army.

The commandant thanked us for doing our duty, and wished us well in our travels across the country back to our families.

The regimental sergeant major bellowed: “Tree Uit!” (Fall Out!) and we marched the few steps required, and then the men grabbed their gear and headed to the gates, some of them running. I looked around me, and all the men I had been serving with were dispersing, some were sharing landline numbers and addresses and promising to stay in touch. I just stood there bewildered and bereft because I would never know that feeling again where I could feel protected in such a dangerous situation, a situation that made me feel joyful to be alive, and yet so scared, all at the same time.

I will one day travel to beautiful Ovamboland, retrace my steps at Ruacana, Umbalantu and Okatopi, among other places. I know it will be difficult, and I know I will cry, but I will do it, as I did by watching Moffie, because I hope that it will heal the hurt inside me.


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Weekend Argus

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