Somewhere on the Border
Publisher: Wits University Press
Short review by Janet van Eeden
Anthony Akerman’s play Somewhere on the Border has been published by Wits University Press, to accompany a revival of its performances at the Market Theatre and soon at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town. Set “in the recent past”, the play focuses on the journey of the main protagonist, Doug Campbell, who is forced to join the army after he’s been travelling around the country, bonding with people on the fringes of society, most notably, some black “cats”. Most remarkably for that time in South Africa, he found he really connected with a few “cool” black people
We just bust a bottleneck together. The sun was setting and we were taking hits, and then I got this full-on rush. This is Africa! Like we were so close and digging each other’s company, the future could have started then. I found peace, ek sê.
Instead of being able to enjoy his new-found peace for longer than just a few moments, Campbell is conscripted into the South African Defence Force, under the laws of that time which forced all white males from the age of sixteen into armed combat.
During the first days of his training he tries to rise above the humiliating attacks from a mean-spirited Bombardier Kotze who can’t stand Campbell for a number of reasons, most notably his English name. Campbell also finds himself defending the stock character of the “Black Actor” who appears in various guises throughout the play. Campbell manages to be fairly sanguine until the pressures in the barracks between men of different political persuasions build up to breaking point.
Campbell’s final and most unrelenting test comes when their battalion is sent to the border to go into armed combat in enemy territory. This is the moment when there’s no escaping the brutal reality of what National Service really means. In the dying moments of the play we see Campbell in extremis. He is forced to choose a path which will change his life forever. The dramatic question asked at the beginning of the play: “Will Campbell be able to maintain his neutrality?” has to be answered. And the answer is as unwelcome and inevitable as bad karma.
Akerman’s play has received glowing reviews in the press following its run at the Market Theatre. This is proof positive that the play hasn’t dated and that a reflection on the madness of the recent past’s Border War isn’t anachronistic, even post-apartheid. War has always asked enormous sacrifices of individuals. And Akerman’s play shows that the greater the humanity and dignity of the individual, the more transformational, for better or for worse, that sacrifice is. This play is an excellent addition to the South African dramatic canon about the border wars.
Anthony, this play was first performed in 1983 in the Netherlands, am I right? How was it received then, at the height of the apartheid era, and in the midst of the worst turbulence this country has ever seen?
Yes, that's correct. By the time it was performed in the Netherlands it was already banned (as a publication) in South Africa. I was living in Amsterdam and I directed the first production with South African actors who were living outside the country, some of whom had evaded the Angolan call-up. After working in Dutch-language theatre for eight years, I wanted to do my first play in the language in which it was written. Given that it's written in English, with some Afrikaans, and much of the language is obscene, I think a lot that would have been lost on Dutch audiences, even though they are proverbially polyglot. Nonetheless, it did receive an appreciative response and in cosmopolitan Amsterdam there was quite a substantial South African and English-speaking audience.
You’ve just had a run of this play again at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg – nearly thirty years later. What was the response of the audience this time and how do you think this play has stood the test of time? Did audiences still think it was relevant so many years after the end of apartheid?
Yes, we have just finished a five-week run at the Market Theatre, but it's the first time the play has been performed there. The first South African production was directed by Gerrit Schoonhoven in 1986 and, interestingly, was presented in Johannesburg by the state-subsidised PACT, which had to employ a private security company to protect the actors against other state employees after two of them were assaulted by members of the Defence Force's Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB). That production stirred up a lot of controversy, but I was also told that many conscripts who previously couldn't speak to their parents about their experiences in the army took them to see the show and that helped to start a conversation about what they'd been through. I have heard many stories of ex-conscripts who have come to see André Odendaal's production and afterwards brought their children to see the show, and in forums like Facebook I've read many comments from young people like, "Now I understand my father a lot better." Interestingly, young people have responded extremely well to the play and many schools have been to see it and reported on animated feedback sessions. Apart from the fact that they're being exposed to a chapter in South Africa's history that is seldom referred to, it is also a play about experiences young people go through, so the characters' attitudes and obsessions are those of young people. It also seems to resonate with ex-conscripts. I've been approached in the foyer of the theatre by several people who initiated the conversation by saying, "I haven't talked about the army for fifteen years ..." Clearly, there is a need to talk and that seems to have become more pronounced.
You left South Africa to go into exile as you couldn’t continue to be part of the conscription service. You were lucky enough to have resources to get out of the country at that time and I think your father was a doctor. How do you think you would have responded to the horrors of the Border War if you hadn’t been able to escape conscription? In other words, is your character Campbell, who is a reluctant and conscientised conscript in the army, an extension of yourself if you’d been forced to go to the border?
After I'd done my basic training I decided I didn't want to serve in the army again, which meant I spent four years ducking and diving to get out of three-week camps while I was at university. But I also left the country because I wanted to further my studies abroad and, yes, I was fortunate enough to have the financial backing to do so. Yes, Campbell is possibly the character closest to my point of view, and what he endures is what I imagined I could have endured had I not left the country. Campbell is the protagonist, but he's certainly a flawed hero, who is undermined by his own arrogance and self-deception.
Your play reminds me a bit of James Whyle’s play National Madness, about being in the army, which he also wrote in the ’80s. It was also a scathing attack on the apartheid system and the army. I also loved Greig Coetzee’s White Men with Weapons which had tremendous success around the world too. A recent article in Beeld said that the time was over for men to write about the Border Wars, as everything that needed to be said was said already. I didn’t agree at all. My film which I’m producing now has so much to say about this period, especially from a woman’s perspective, which has never been done before. You obviously don’t agree either, or you wouldn’t be staging this production. Can you tell the readers of LitNet why it’s important to revive this play at this particular moment in our history?
I don't think it ever crossed my mind that it was "important" to revive the play. After we went to see a school production at Pretoria Boys’ High School my wife said it was time Somewhere on the Border had a professional revival. That was in 2009 and by the time the play was staged two years later it found itself in the company of several books, TV documentaries and photographic exhibitions dealing with the Border War. The Border War probably disappeared from public discourse for about fifteen years because it was politically sensitive and the guys who went through the military experience also wanted to try and forget about it. But the psychological scars don't just go away, and that generation doesn't want to see the trauma they went through airbrushed out of a revisionist history.
It’s strange how these plays and screenplays have similarities. There are always the hard-arsed staff sergeants or corporals who bully one particular soldier. And there is often the English-speaking conscript who is singled out by his Afrikaans commanding officer. And in my screenplay and in your play there is an Afrikaans-speaking conscript who changes his point of view during the course of the play. There are also similar actions in all our plays and screenplays. The “fetch a leaf from a tree” scenario is just one. Critics of our work might say we are using stereotypes, but I believe we are telling it like it was. Just because a truism is common, doesn’t make it untrue, if you know what I mean. So my question here is this: Is there only one truth about the border wars or in how many different ways can this story be told?
It seems obvious that plays about the army would have similarities, as would plays set in schools, or television dramas situated in hospitals. But the similarities are probably superficial. The army was always a great leveller, in which people from different social backgrounds were thrown together. Plays such as Chips with Everything by Arnold Wesker and Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun by John McGrath were written in response to the experience of conscription in Britain, but most of those plays simply provided the setting to play out Britain's national obsession with class conflict. I hadn't read any South African army plays when I wrote Somewhere on the Border, but after I had written the play I read everything I could get hold of and felt, certainly at the time, that my play was very different from everything else I'd read.
When I launched my campaign to raise money for my film A Shot at the Big Time I became the target for extreme right-wing hatred and vitriol, so much so that there are a few parody sites created of Shot, and also a dedicated Facebook site determined to stop me making this film. I was shocked by the anger of the former SADF conscripts who accused me of lying about the very existence of my brother as well as telling me that I couldn’t write about this hallowed era as I was a woman. Of course, I retorted that Margaret Mitchell hadn’t been present during the American Civil War and somehow managed to write a little tale called Gone with the Wind which won the Pulitzer Prize. I also told them that I’d written this script as a tribute to what they went through because of the insanity of war. It hasn’t stopped their hatred and the parody and other sites continue to mock everything I say. Have you encountered the former right-wing SADF brigade who think you are making a mockery of the blood they spilled on the border? Do you have any thoughts about why they feel so strongly about the past?
No, I've had no first-hand experience of this and, certainly this time round, no one has raised any ideological objections to the play in print or on Facebook. I would imagine those people are a minority. I have no idea why they would have taken exception to your film before it is even in the public domain.
As I said above, it was probably because I was a woman daring to write about an experience which is usually regarded as masculine territory. And putting it on IndieGoGo.com placed it squarely in the public domain.
Your play covers the journey of one conscript, Campbell, who has travelled and been exposed to more than most when they enter the army. He is conscientised and not keen to take up arms. As many men of conscience were at the time, he is forced to comply with the system and take up arms against the so-called enemy. I’ve heard people in literary circles say that writers like us writing about white people with consciences during the apartheid era are merely apologists trying to cover their tracks and “make nice” with the current status quo. I found this highly offensive to those of us whose lives were destroyed by the apartheid system as my family’s was. What are you thoughts about this?
That sounds like a very strange reaction to me. Anyway, in my play the character who starts out being most politically aware is the one who up ends being most morally compromised. I think when I wrote the play thirty years ago I set out deliberately to explore the paradoxes. I don't really subscribe to a worldview of heroes and villains, and the prevalent political correctness these days could potentially undermine truthful artistic expression as much as censorship did during the apartheid years. I have heard an interesting perspective on the play expressed by young black audiences. People have said they never realised white people were also victims of apartheid.
What are your hopes for this play, Anthony? Do you think it has a life overseas as a play and would you like it to continue playing around the country for a while? You’re opening in Cape Town soon, I think.
I have no idea. The play started its life in the Netherlands and was also performed in the 1980s in German in Stuttgart. We certainly have had some interest expressed by people in other countries. I suspect that has more to do with the fact that it's perceived as an anti-war play rather than an anti-apartheid play, but there are no concrete offers yet.
And lastly, here is the dreaded question for all writers, directors, producers: What are you working on next?
The next thing I write will be Episode 1 328 of Rhythm City.