Conscription and Community

Glen Biderman-Pam

Young local actor Glen Biderman-Pam will soon appear in the play Somewhere on the Border at the Baxter Theatre. He discusses the production, his role as a Jewish conscript and the impact of conscription on the South African Jewish community.

“Written by Anthony Akerman in exile, Somewhere on the Border was intercepted in the post and banned by the apartheid regime,” explains Glen. The play, which looks at the experiences of white South African conscripts, “brings together seven young men from different backgrounds into a ‘forced’ situation where fear is the common denominator that draws them together, despite their various political and religious views. The play acknowledges the trauma of white conscripts during the 1970s and 80s.”

Indeed, “when South Africa started exorcising its political past at the TRC, one chapter was not entirely explored. That was the way young white men had been subjected to compulsory military service that was a brutal enforcer of apartheid,” said one review.

Now, Somewhere on the Border is bringing this reality to South Africans — many of who are either unaware of it or would choose to hide those horrors from memory. When the play was performed at the Grahamstown Arts Festival, there were varied reactions: “The younger generation respond in a lighter manner as the play is written with a lot of wit and humour, but it was also an eye-opener for them to see what their parents went through during their harrowing time in the army,” says Glen. “That generation has been deeply jolted and reminded of these hardships. The responses were generally that people were moved in one way or another, many reviews deeming it ‘the play of the festival.’”

A Jewish soldier
In the play, Glen plays Jewish conscript David Levitt. How is this character’s perspective different to that of other conscripts — does his Jewishness play a role? “Yes, definitely,” answers Glen. “Being Jewish, he is immediately an outsider. Levitt is constantly trying to fit in and seek out some sense of belonging. He deals with his fear by trying to hold onto a relationship back home. It is a constant struggle for him as he falls victim to antisemitism, racism and raw discrimination.”

To research his role, Glen read books and articles about the border war: “An Unpopular War by JH Thompson was a fantastic source because it includes journal entries by guys who were there at that time, and I could relate so much of that to my experience in the play. I also had conversations with as many people as possible who were in the South African Defence Force — particularly those who fought on the border and are from the South African Jewish community.”

In terms of the impact conscription had on the community, Glen emphasises that the effects were destructive and traumatic. “Young Jewish conscripts were faced with extremely difficult choices. Each choice questioned Jewish values in one way or another. To join the army and ‘get it over and done with’ was to give in to inhumane Nationalist ideologies and suffer the consequences of fighting an unjust war,” he says.

“To flee the country was another option but was destructive from a community perspective — families and friendships were broken as people chose not to contribute to a military regime that was based on similar human rights criminality to the Holocaust. This play is a catalyst that facilitates a hugely important talking and healing point among communities in South Africa.”

Meanwhile, Glen, who was chosen for this role even before he had finshed his drama degree at UCT, offers the following advice to other aspiring actors: “I think in this form of art, hard work is far preferred than relying on raw talent. If you can integrate the one into the other, I think you’ll find yourself going a long way.” Glen certainly has adopted this approach, so keep an eye on this rising star!

Somewhere on the Border will run at the Baxter Theatre from 24 February — 17 March. Book through Computicket.