Moffie: A Story of Resilience Amidst Unseen Oppression

Moffie: A Story of Resilience Amidst Unseen Oppression. Image: Daninel Rutland Manners

Moffie: A Story of Resilience Amidst Unseen Oppression

Philip Rademeyer on the enduring significance of LGBTQ+ narratives in a world that still grapples with marginalization and ungrievable lives.

Moffie: A Story of Resilience Amidst Unseen Oppression

Moffie: A Story of Resilience Amidst Unseen Oppression. Image: Daninel Rutland Manners

When I was asked to write a stage adaptation of André Carl van der Merwe’s novel, Moffie (adapted in 2019 as an acclaimed film directed by Oliver Hermanus), I was unprepared for the emotional impact the writing process, and the eventual production would have on me. As a gay man who has been out for almost twenty years, my sexual orientation is not something I think about very often, despite the extreme anguish and depression it caused in my teenage years. The world is a different place than it was in the early 2000s when I was a teenager, and it is a very different place than it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s when many young white men were conscripted to fight in the South African Border War (also known as the Namibian War of Independence and more colloquially as the Angolan Bush War).

Moffie tells the story of 18-year-old Nicholas in the first year of his mandatory national service in the South African Defence Force. We follow his journey through his rigorous training and his time on the Angolan border, with various flashbacks to his younger self. Over the course of the play, Nicholas meets various men who all ultimately play a part in Nicholas moving past shame and claiming his identity.

Given that Moffie’s protagonist is a white gay male in a very specific episode of South Africa’s history, one might wonder what the significance of a production like this is in 2024. It seems the world has more pressing problems, and considering the “victims” in Moffie were part of the grouping upholding South Africa’s apartheid government, it is accurate to say there are people who are enduring more urgent suffering.

Moffie: A Story of Resilience Amidst Unseen Oppression
Moffie: A Story of Resilience Amidst Unseen Oppression. Image: Stefan Erasmus

Gender theorist Judith Butler writes about “unliveable” and “ungrieveable” lives. In the current world order, some groups have diminished or nonexistent social, political and economic support and are therefore more susceptible to violence and death. For populations that do not fit into dominant social scripts, systems and discourse, life is precarious and unliveable, and ultimately ungrieveable. In simple terms, some lives are valued less than others. Immigrants and refugees, large swathes of the “third world,” certain religious and ethnic populations, and those outside of heteronormative gender and sexuality. Throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries, LGBTQ+ lives were cast as unliveable and ungrieveable. For Butler, the LGBTQ+ fight for human rights was in fact a fight for personhood, to be seen as persons.

It may seem that this fight has been won if one were to look at the number of countries offering constitutional protections for LGBTQ+ people, LGBTQ+ representation in media, and the embrace of something like Pride Month by (Western) society and corporations (which are driven by only one thing). But in a year in which more than 60 countries have elections, at a time in which division is being sowed seemingly more than ever, recently won rights feel vulnerable. With many countries and regions facing a shift to the right (with a very vocal extreme right), and with some facing a shift to more authoritarian regimes, the unliveable lives, of those on the margins, are at stake.

And though LGBTQ+ rights are not at the top of most politicians or political parties’ election or legislative agendas, othering is a slippery slope and prejudice against one group often broadens to other populations. We saw this during apartheid, where LGBTQ+ people were not the main or initial focus of oppression, but were still considered less-than-human as they were seen to threaten the ways of living and ideologies upholding the apartheid state – strict racial, cultural and gender delineation, of Christian values, the “free” world, the nuclear family. We saw this during World War II, where LGBTQ+ people were not the main or initial target of persecution, but were also rounded up and killed alongside Jewish people and other smaller European populations like the Romani people, black people and disabled people.

In the past few months, three major election campaigns have dominated my airwaves – our own national elections, the UK’s and the US’s. And though this is anecdotal, it has been noticeable that when politicians or parties claim to be “for the people”, they often list “the people” as belonging to any race, ethnicity, culture, creed, religion, or gender. Categories that are often omitted from this list of “the people” are those of sexuality/sexual orientation and ability.

In this context then, to me, Moffie is not only a story about the past, but about a group of young men in southern Africa. It is not only a reminder of a difficult part of my country’s history, or a wish to keep history in mind as the world forges toward a future. As a gay man, it is not only an identity-affirming work. It is a story about oppression and persecution, internalized shame, pressure to conform to norms, and lives that are not valued and thus made unliveable. But most importantly, and this is the one thought I wrote down on a flashcard and stuck on my wall above my laptop for the duration of the writing process, Moffie is about claiming oneself in a system that attempts to deny one’s personhood. It is a story about finding community, about finding love in whichever form, about resilience, resistance and hope.

MOFFIE runs until 30 June at The Riverside Studios in London.

Article written by Philip Rademeyer