My letter to Beeld, the Afrikaans language newspaper, was published today. In it, I said I thought the musical Tree Aan! was a sanitised and sentimental depiction of life as a conscript. I also remarked on the striking similarities between this production and Somewhere on the Border, a 1980’s play by Anthony Akerman. I have heard others say the same on both counts.
It is difficult to explain one’s thinking fully in the short space of a letter to the editor. I thought it would be useful to clarify some of my comments here.
First of all, my main concern is not the similarities between the two productions. The similarities merely make a comparison easier. I know nothing about theatre, I’m an occasional theatre-goer, but I did think the two productions were close.
While the main characters seem almost identical, they are often played differently. For example: the Jewish soldier, the bully, the English speaker who has doubts, a black base-worker who later morphs into a liberation soldier and a character who dies in action. Deon Opperman adds a lieutenant and a girlfriend for romantic interest, which is where the two productions look very different.
One could say that a journey through military service described in a 2 hour (or thereabouts) stage production is likely to look similar. National Service in the 80’s was a fairly predictable formula. And Hollywood has produced films that follow recruits through training and into action. Here I think of Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill etc. Others focus in on training e.g. Tribes, and many have chosen to take the audience straight into the war zone, e.g. Saving Private Ryan.
My surprise did come only after I’d seen both productions, when I was told that Opperman was in the original cast of Somewhere on the Border. I thought he might have decided to take another way of portraying the military sausage machine to make sure he avoided comparisons being made. I suspect this may be of more interest to theatre critics and those in the business.
I went to see Tree Aan! because I knew I was going to Somewhere on the Border in Grahamstown the following week. I was interested to see how an ‘80’s play compared to a contemporary interpretation of that period. As it turned out, the ‘80’s play was the more powerful of the two by a country mile. In the foyer afterwards, myself and two other border war vets stood shaking with the impact of the play.
Somewhere on the Border took me back to the bungalow at 1SAI in Bloemfontein, and off to my tent on the border. The language was the foul, misogynist, sexualised swearing I remember all too clearly. The Permanent Force corporal was, like so many I had the misfortune to be trained by, a nasty, sadistic piece of work who victimised those who were different. Racism was ever present in its ugliest form (I was called a kaffir-lover for reading Andre Brink). There was no tolerance towards those who questioned the morality or politics of what we were doing. Ultimately Somewhere on the Border demonstrates how powerful the SADF was at moulding us to their needs. The “total institution” wore most of us down in the end and we bowed to the authority of our commanders and did the bidding of their Apartheid masters.
By contrast, Tree Aan! is clearly designed as family entertainment and it succeeds. By all accounts it has been playing to packed houses and when I saw it, standing ovations. It glosses over a brutal, violent and morally dark period in South Africa’s history. For me the only real jolt came when the list of those conscripts who died in action was projected onto the curtain at the end. Some may say that it was a cynical ploy to generate tears. Well, for me it worked. I recognised some names of young men I’d fought with in Angola.
Tant Sannie would barely raise an eyebrow at the language or indeed any of the themes. And that, I suspect, is Mr Opperman’s aim. Like so much coming out of Hollywood, it is designed to make money. Many will say that there is nothing wrong with that. But in a South Africa still struggling to come to terms with a difficult past, this kind of nostalgic look back does little to add to the possibility of healing for ex-conscript war veterans and society at large.
The SADF gave us no space for coming to terms with what many of us saw or did. When I came out of Angola my mortar firegroup got less than an hour with an industrial psychology honours graduate: a woefully inadequate debriefing.
There is a sense that we are beginning to talk about our experiences. And we need to be able to tell our stories without censorship. Many of us have censored our stories for decades. My concern is that Tree Aan! regurgitates the myths and lies of the time, closing down the space where veterans can start talking about what really happened. We were involved in what was often a very dirty business. Some of us committed atrocities or stood and watched while others did. Many went off to the army with deep reservations. Still others believed implicitly in the cause and returned deeply disillusioned. We need to find a healing path, and repeating old lies is not the way.
One of the final lines of Opperman’s musical is crucial: (apologies if this isn’t exactly right) “who will remember us in 20 years?” There are different ways of remembering: A way that allows us to be honest about what happened up there and allows us a way of making some measure of peace with our present, with ourselves and the country we live in today. Or a way that locks us into the past, a way that denies the difficulties of the time, and colludes in suppressing the pain many still feel.