At least people were talking, Edlmann says. Loving or hating it eventually became "kind of not the point. And I think linking it to 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is great, because it highlights some of specificities of the South African conscript's experiences, but also the universality of the issue."
For his part, van der Merwe, whose first time seeing the show was opening night, loved it. "The hugest thrill was sitting in the audience and thinking back on those bad days so long ago which gave rise to the diaries that were the foundation of the book that I was now seeing performed in front of me," he wrote in an e-mail from Rome, where he was promoting the launch of Moffie's Italian translation. "At that time of prejudice and fear it would have been unthinkable that something like this would eventually take place."
Why put on the play now, though? Compulsory conscription was officially abolished in 1993, almost two decades ago. Not long after, the post-apartheid constitution outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation—meaning gays could openly serve.
But as Edlmann points out, it wasn't until the early 2000s that people even began discussing the legacies of conscription, and not until van der Merwe's book that writers and thinkers really began interpreting and analyzing it. Only recently have the media and artists begun dealing with this chapter of South African history, noteworthy as one of the only instances of white victimization under racist apartheid rule (blacks were not conscripted). Edlmann, who cites the publication of J.H. Thompson's collection of conscript narratives, An Unpopular War, as the first instance of this transformation, describes the new openness this way: "The veneer of the rainbow nation was cracking, and so the complexities and bigger stories could begin to emerge."
So Moffie, which will travel to Cape Town, Pretoria, and Amsterdam, represents the latest piece in a newly emerging body of work that confronts long-unacknowledged issues of conscription, service, and trauma. By the end of the play, when the old South African flag is draped over the body of a dead gay soldier, the point is clear: a searing indictment of past wrongs, but also the chance at future forgiveness.
But as Snyman emphasized multiple times in interviews and talks, this is not just South Africa's burden; the legacy of mistreatment of gay soldiers transcends borders. That's why American sound bites, along with references to the Brits and the Middle East, were included in his piece.
Despite considerable progress, it still isn't easy being gay in South Africa, especially outside the major cities. But many liberal South Africans are proud of people like Snyman, who has chosen one his nation's biggest arts festivals to present a work as daring and provocative as Moffie—a show with a disturbing title, intimate depictions of gay love, stark rape scenes, and graphic violence.
After the show, one South African said to me: We're still waiting to see something like that in America.