Gay During Apartheid

Never in my reading life have I encountered a scene as tortured as André Carl van der Merwe’s depiction of a rigidly conservative father confronting his son’s homosexuality and recognizing that his son just might, after all, be a human being.  Sadly, it’s a little late, as his son committed suicide after his military training in South Africa during apartheid, the assumption being that the ordeal was too tough on him, he wasn’t enough of a man to withstand the rigors of basic training.  Or so the father and everyone else assumes until a letter shows up, written to his parents, where the young man confesses that he is about to take his own life:

“I am not miserable because of the army; it is in fact here that I have had a glimpse of the happiness I will never have.  Mom and Dad, I have fallen in love, and it is a love I know I can never have.  I have avoided this in the past, but it now has consumed me.  I simply cannot live like this, you must understand, because I know and you know I will never be allowed to live with a man.  I am sure the man I love is also gay.  To know that it is right there and to know that it can never be, is more than I can bear.  It is all I think of, constantly, and I feel as if I am going mad.”

To his credit, the father finally gets it, understands his son—perhaps for the first time in his life.  It’s too late, since the son is already dead, but the father can still do one decent thing: let the young man his son loved know what has happened.  So that young man—the object of his son’s affection—is given the letter to read and van der Merwe’s brutal novel, Moffie, introduces a moment of hope.  But the reader has to endure pages and pages of conservative bigotry before that incident arrives.

The novel unfolds by juxtaposing Nicholas van der Swart’s humiliating experiences in the South African army with scenes of his much earlier life, looping back to his first memories as a child.  Virtually all of the childhood reminiscences are ugly encounters with his father.  Even at age two, Nicholas was repeatedly warned by his father not to be a sissy. His Afrikaner father upholds the rigidity of the Dutch Reformed Church, his Catholic mother is only marginally less narrow-minded.  Nicholas has to watch his father sadistically kill wild animals.  When the boy’s own brother dies, Nicholas is expected to meet the tragedy stoically.  The repeated litany from his father is “If I find out you are a moffie, that is the end.”   In short, be a man, excel at sports, love God and “Do not shame” your parents by being gentle, soft, emotional.

All of this backfires fairly soon after Nicholas, at age 19, is conscripted into South Africa’s Defence Force, “into the abattoir of its border war like an animal to slaughter,” with no say over his own fate, “Forced to kill people” he doesn’t know and be part of a war he doesn’t believe in.  In other words, defend apartheid against the country’s enemies.  And, sadly, because at 19 he is already suspected for being feminine, he is sent to “Ward 22,” not in South Africa but in South West Africa (Namibia), to toughen him up along with other assumed misfits.  The literal context is the Angolan Bush War, as it’s called, during the final years of apartheid.

Nicholas is not alone.  Physical and verbal abuse continue virtually non-stop.  When one of his friends tries to explain that his boots are not spotless because someone else has flicked mud on them, the instructor shouts at him, “Don’t you say another word, you slimeball.  Look at this fucking mess.  If you think you’re going home like this, forget it, you faggot cunt!  You are single-handedly trying to bring down the image of the Defence Force!  Is this what you want to show the people back home?  You look like a maggot homo.”

Eventually, Nicholas learns that some of the worst offenders, the sadists above him, are closeted gays.  But Nicholas does not crack and finally takes pride in the fact that his father “sent a closeted child into the army and got a homosexual man back.”   Unfortunately, many of his friends are no so lucky.  And that is what is so terribly sad about André Carl van der Merwe’s Moffie, making it almost impossible to think of the book as a novel but brutal reality.

By André Carl van der Merwe
Europa Editions, 366 pp., $15

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email:


Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.