Collage by Ta'Ron Joyner.

Sekoetlane Phamodi.

Hermanus's Acclaimed 'Moffie' is Probably Not for Black Queers

For all its accomplishments, the success of 'Moffie' lies in creating a cinematic experience for which Black people are probably not the target market.

This essay is part of OkayAfrica's SA Reframed series, featuring personal writing from some of South Africa's best young writers edited by Verashni Pillay.

Since its Johannesburg premiere, I have been unsettled by Oliver Hermanus's latest film, Moffie, loosely based on the titular autobiographical novel by Andre-Carl van der Merwe. The film, follows a teen conscript's journey through the army into the brutal "Border War" in northern Namibia and southern Angola, and then back into apartheid society again as a man.

As he moves from his send-off party at home, to his training camp and then to the front, we see our protagonist, Nicholas van der Swart (played by Kai Luke Brummer), trying to make sense of his desire for men inside the cauldron of apartheid's violent masculinity.

Roughly 600 000 youths were processed through the apartheid army, many of whom would have to return for short-term training camps to keep them fit for war. Through Nicholas's eyes, Hermanus gives us an unfiltered view of what life in the army must have been like for this generation of men, and the culture that groomed them for it.

The film has been received with critical acclaim at home and abroad, with every review bringing into focus Hermanus's remarkable vision in producing a rich and sensory experience of the entanglement of risk, violence and desire at a particular time and place in South Africa's history.

The acclaim is deserved, in many ways. The themes Hermanus explores are universal... but here's the crux. His characters are not. They are all white. Apartheid's army was white. By itself, this shouldn't be a problem. The film is set in a particular moment in South Africa's recent history, where these white characters in a white army have a distinctly white experience under a white supremacist social order. But its decided refusal to examine the cost of their context and choices to their and our collective humanity only edifies the tired trope of South Africa's whites as apartheid's facile victims rather than its passive collaborators.

For queer men in South Africa, the word moffie, which carries the equivalence of stabane or faggot, is layered with experiences of shame, exclusion and violence. The slur functions as both a boundary defining the limits of masculinity, as well as a consequence for its transgression.

At home, on the playground and in society, we knew that to be called a moffie was to have failed at performing received scripts of masculinity in some way, and that to be identified as one was to not only lose the esteem of your community but to be deservedly punished by it.

Moffie is not a safe territory to inhabit, as those of us who grew up under apartheid's shadow well-know. Conforming to the script of heterosexual masculinity was necessary for our survival, and the consequence of being a moffie was often calamitous, and sometimes even deadly.

Queer men were faced with impossible choices when it came to exploring their desire for one another - to deny themselves and be rewarded for keeping to the script, or to live as themselves and brace themselves for the punishment of certain social death.

This intimate knowledge of living at risk from society is a shared territory for gay men in South Africa, and it is this territory that Hermanus enlists us to explore through Nicholas and his platoon's coming of age. Moffie is not a political film, it's a film about gay shame.

The first time we hear moffie in the film, the slur is relentlessly barked at the fresh conscripts as they are being processed into the army. And every time we hear it, thereafter, it lands with a very credible threat of violence, or its very brutal enactment.

Each time the word is uttered, it is clarified for us that to be a moffie is shameful and something to be despised. Every time it lands, the shame clings to the body and gets under the skin, and we understand that moffies are enemies of society like the very "kaffirs and communists" that these boys were being trained to kill at the border.

The tension between these impossible choices and their implications for their survival are really what hold this film together, and their everyday-ness is presented with dramatic effect through Nicholas's eyes.

Very early in the film he has to choose whether to participate in the obscene racist assault of a Black man at a train station he passes through on his way to train for a racist war. He then has to choose whether to participate in the violent male bonding rituals that go on in the barracks or face the shame of being identified among the moffies of his platoon. At the height of the film, he has to choose whether to give in to himself and his desire, and risk the cruel and degrading medical abuse that awaited moffies in the infamous Ward 22.

Hermanus's handling of these choices really brings to bear how coercive the apartheid system was on its youth. It's difficult to come out of Moffie without a sense of how damaging it was to the humanity of even its foot soldiers. In a cultural moment that has neither the space nor the patience for discussing white victimhood, Hermanus really challenges us to, at least, consider the humanity of these guys, and understand them within the rigidly defined limits of their context.

And this is really where the film becomes tricky to watch from a Black position. Perhaps because of the source material, or the proficiency with which Hermanus realises white apartheid logics on-screen, Moffie also reads in ways which are uncomfortably ambivalent about the culpability of its characters in apartheid's war.

We learn a great deal about their brainwashing, their intimate desires and the depths of their languishing, but we don't learn very much about how they reckoned with their entanglement in apartheid ideology as its pawns and agents. By contrast, the only Black people we glimpse, on each end of the film, are seen through white eyes. They have no names nor interior landscapes. They function only as objects of white violence, elaborating things we already know about the character of the white people this film is about.

To suspend our disbelief and fully participate in the magic Hermanus creates on the screen, we have to accept that these conscripted youths did what they had to survive apartheid or they did not. We are called to accommodate rather than confront their culpability in apartheid if the universality of the themes Hermanus invites us to explore is to succeed.

This appeal to the universality of internalised homophobia in the experience of queer men, wherever they come from, are the key features by which some will want to locate Moffie in the queer archive. And maybe this is possible for the white Afrikaner and European markets in which Hermanus's films perform so well. But here, at home, Hermanus's failure – even refusal – to examine his characters' complicity in apartheid's war make this difficult - perhaps even impossible.

Rather than queer, Moffie offers only conservative frameworks to understand these boys by and, by implication, the gay men who fought in apartheid's war. It disconnects their internal conflict with gay shame under apartheid from its inherent entanglement with the white supremacist project apartheid was.

Black queer people who watch this film are, in effect, asked to build bridges of empathy and understanding without even the slightest examination of how, for white gay men, surviving apartheid's war depended on them playing their part in the ruthless destruction of Black and queer, and Black-and-queer lives.

In a social landscape where queer experience is still divided along racial lines, this seems like a bridge too far when the work of reckoning with the baggage of apartheid is still overwhelmingly carried by us. They are able to relive the erotic horror of apartheid through cinema, and we continue to live with its horrifying consequence at home.

Moffie is a gripping and deeply affecting film. It opens a window to the unspoken pain and consequence of apartheid on the sexuality and identity of a generation of queer men. But, for all its accomplishments, its success lies in a cinematic experience for which Black people are probably not the target market.

Sekoetlane Phamodi is a media development specialist currently based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He writes about media, culture and society.

Photo by David Mesfin

Africans Are Taking Surfing Back

We sat down with Ethiopia-American director David Mesfin to discuss the importance of knowing where you come from, and his upcoming surf doc 'Wade In The Water'

For so long, Black and African communities have been made to believe that the water was our enemy, often citing the traumatic history of African slaves drowning at sea during the Atlantic Slave Trade. But, what certain people with certain agendas failed to add was the fact that the slaves had such a powerful understanding of the ocean that slave owners began to torture them into fearing the thought of it.

Keep reading...Show less
Photo by Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images via Getty Images

8 Queer-Owned African Fashion Brands to Check Out For Pride

In honor of pride month, we highlight eight African queer fashion designers and brands putting queer stories on the global map through fashion.

In the last decade, there have been an emergent of fashion designers who aren’t just queer but have aligned their fashion vision with their identity, creating demystifying collections and criss-crossing their concepts and ideologies to represent the inscape of non-conformity, fluidity, queerness and androgyny — whilst maintaining a quick balance with their cultural roots. Despite the numerous fabric experimentations and collections, these designers never forget to tell stories that align with them, especially those that resonate with queer people in queer unfriendly countries.

In honor of pride month, OkayAfrica highlights 8 African queer fashion designers and brands putting queer stories on the global map through fashion.

Rich Mnisi

South African designer Rich Mnisi is part of a new wave of designers putting African stories on the global map. Founded in 2015, the brand Rich Mnisi is immersed at offering fluid expression to gender, celebrating youthful excellence and exploring extremist design elements with minimalist cultural tailoring. For pride month, the brand released a limited edition capsule titled “Out." The capsule visualizes a fine-line between elegance and fluidity whilst boldly emphasizing on the act of struggle and resilience as an outfit.


For a fashion brand like Udiahgebi, identity is very important. And offering that form of visibility to femme queer Nigerians is not just a form of visual activism but a detailed story of essence. The brand was founded by Emerie Udiahgebi, a gender non-forming fashion designer who wanted to give queer, non-binary and non-conforming individuals more options to express themselves fashionably. Udiahgebi’s fashion concept is extremely bold, fierce, and unconventional.

Lagos Space Programme

Designer Adeju Thompson fuses traditionalist concepts with genderless possibilities. Founded in 2018, Lagos Space Programme is a gender-neutral fashion brand that enveloped aesthetic designs using local craftsmanship. The brand appreciates West African unique fabric and communicates compelling stories of identity, gender and queerness — a ideology that has garnered them not just audience but earned them a spot at the LVMH prize.


Patrick Muyishime is a fashion innovator. Not only does he know how to source excellent fabrics but his designs are authentically vibrant. Founded in 2016, Muyishime is a Kenyan fashion label that introduces conversations surrounding androgynous and explores aesthetically fabric inventions that commands fluidity, feminine wiles and constructive elegance.

Bola Yahaya

Founded in 2019, Bola Taofeek Yahaya's fashion label aligns thought provoking pieces that elevate the discusses around queer representation, sexuality and feminity. The brands merges sustainability and explore eccentric fabric experimentations.

Nao Serati

Founded by South African designer Nao Serati Mofammere in 2014, the fashion brand Nao Serati explores the versatility of gender and the fine margin of sexuality whilst finding its balance with their South African heritage. Mofammere wants his brand to explore masculinity and the different ways it takes to wear a fragile look.


Lolu Vangei has different recipes to gender fluidity and she has used fashion to express that. Founded in 2018, Vangei is a fashion label that unites modern ideology of afro-centricism to produce pieces that dismantle cliched ideas about gender.


There is no explaining the sort of talent Emmanuel Tobiloba possesses. Founded in 2020, Mayetobs' eccentric approach in reinstating androgynous norms is interesting. From oversized pants that speaks of fabric maximalism to fast flowing robes, the fashion brand is an ode to redefining modern masculinity.


The 6 Songs You Need to Hear This Week

Featuring Kizz Daniel, Tekno, Focalistic, Ckay, Davido, Mayorkun and more.

Every week, we highlight the top releases through our best music of the week column. Here's our round-up of the best tracks and music videos that came across our desks.

If you like these music lists, you can also check out our Best Songs of the Month columns following Nigerian, Ghanaian, East African and South African music.

Keep reading...Show less
(Photo by Timothy Norris/Getty Images for Coachella)

Black Coffee & Tresor’s Work On Drake’s New Album Speaks to the Rise of South African Music

Unlike the Kendrick Lamar-curated Black Panther: The Album or Beyoncé’s The Lion King: The Gift album which had hints of South African flavours on them, Honestly, Nevermind is imbued with them.

On the 16th of June, news that rap superstar Drakewas dropping a surprise album first hit the internet. As with any of his releases, the announcement sent people into a frenzy. Leading up to the drop, the OVO camp, as part of a subtle and timely album rollout, put out a track list. Included in it as one of the album’s executive producers was South African super producer, DJ and artist Black Coffee. His name was listed amongst Drake’s regular collaborators and business partners, Noah 40 Shebib, Oliver El-Khatib and Noel Cadastre.

The two artists have previously collaborated on the remake of Black Coffee’s seminal 2009 hit “Superman.” Drake’s take on the instrumental and composition, “Get It Together,” was released almost a decade later on his 2017 playlist More Life. When the song dropped, the reviews and public reactions were split because of the original vocalist Bucie being replaced by then-burgeoning British singer Jorja Smith.

Fast forward to 2022, Black Coffee has a ‘Best Dance/Electronic’ Grammy award for his 2021 album Subconsciously, and has played at the biggest stages across the globe. It then shouldn’t come as a surprise that when putting together his experimental dance album, Drake tapped the South African producer to oversee and shape the sonic and creative direction of the album.

Keep reading...Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox


Afro-Colombian Francia Marquez's Ascendance Is Historic

The single mother and former cleaner captured many as they voted her and President-elect Gustavo Petro in to redirect the South American nation's path.

Magixx Wants to Speak for a New Generation of Nigerians

The Mavin Records signee talks to us about his come-up, signing to Mavin Records and his debut self-titled EP.

Black Coffee Brings South African Magic to Drake's New Album, 'Honestly, Nevermind'

The star South African DJ, alongside his son Esona Tyolo and singer Tresor, give Honestly, Nevermind that classic South African house music flair.

The 5 Songs You Need to Hear This Week

Featuring Black Coffee x Drake, Ladipoe, Ayra Starr x Sun-El Musician, Gyakie and Tay Iwar.


Watch: Kendrick Lamar Celebrates His Birthday With A Love Letter To Ghana

The American rapper teamed up with Spotify to document his recent and first trip to the West African country.