Producing South Africa's first audio drama podcast imparts hope and a spirit of determination for others

An impressive cast of some of South Africa's best voice actors recreates an obscure and almost forgotten chapter in South Africa's apartheid history to impart hope and a spirit of determination in today's youth who face bigotry and find it difficult to navigate a non-inclusive world.

Thomas W E Budge, formerly detained as a teenager for objecting to South African conscription in the apartheid army, reflects on why he produced the audio drama podcast Stripped. Old apartheid South Africa and the Watchtower Society both exerted control over the young Jehovah's Witness boys growing up in the country in the early 1970s. Stripped isn't about self-pity or heroism, but is about helping others trapped in similar systems. Societal changes allow this story to be told now, and the themes are as relevant today as they were for the youth back then who, as young individuals, fought bigotry and had difficulty navigating a non-inclusive world. Stripped is a story of self-advocacy, and is also a reminder to the world of an almost forgotten chapter in South Africa's apartheid history.

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I cannot begin to count the number of times people have asked the question, Why dramatise your time in detention as a nineteen-year-old? — and it's a question that I have had to repeatedly ask myself too.

Producing the audio drama podcast Stripped happens to mark the 50th anniversary of my release from military custody but this occurrence is purely coincidental, and not by design.

It is true that when I was much younger, what happened to me made me bitter and angry, and there were times when I sought some form of retribution. I became disillusioned by apartheid South Africa's abuse of us boys, using us like pawns in a game, to support the heinous national belief in segregated communities, stripping citizens of our basic human rights, and instilling racial fear and loathing into the impressionable minds of us kids at the time. In parallel, I have also longed to awaken my family to the way the Watchtower Society has shaped their minds. Both systems seeped themselves in a marinade of mind-control and manipulation: one at a level of national patriotism and Eurocentric ideology; and the other as a cultish devotion to God.

I had hoped in vain of getting an apology from government and from the Jehovah's Witnesses, yet this was always an unreasonable expectation that I knew in my heart would never materialise.

In more recent times, my beliefs and expectations have matured. I now understand how the apartheid government manipulated the people who incarcerated me into believing that what they were doing was the right and proper thing to do, just as the Watchtower Society manipulated my family into believing that their shunning of me was God's will. The people in both camps are byproducts of systems to which they surrendered themselves. As this notion slowly dawned upon me, and as I slowly came to accept that fact, a serenity settled, making it easy for me to forgive my prison wardens and my family, even though I still struggle to exonerate the now defunct apartheid regime and the Watchtower Society, finding myself incapable of liberating them from the culpability of their respective crimes against humanity.

It has never been my intention for Stripped to be a self-indulgent wallowing in the miseries of my past, nor do I want it to be an egoistic need to elevate myself to heroic status, because both notions are repugnant to my being. While this story is about me, in the broader sense it is not about me. Instead, I feel compelled to tell this story so that it may serve those who currently find themselves trapped under the yoke of similar bigoted and autocratic systems.

Stripped is not a story that one could have dramatised thirty years ago. It is only because societal norms have shifted enough, making one feel comfortable and safe enough to tell this story now. Even though Stripped is set a half a century ago, the themes are universally applicable today. Young folk still find it difficult to stand up to the bigots and autocrats who are intolerant of anybody who dares to be different. Young LGBTQ+ persons must still find ways to cope in a society shaped primarily by heterosexual narratives. Similarly, there are tens of thousands of amazing individuals who live as outcasts because their philosophical and spiritual views dare contradict the tunnel-visioned views of zealots across the religious spectrum.

Not only is this a story about standing up for oneself, no matter the consequences, it is an important dramatisation of an obscure and almost forgotten moment in South African apartheid past. The world is well informed about a nation's liberation from apartheid, yet few know of the tortuous way the state punished young dissidents such as us conscientious objectors, and even fewer know of how the Watchtower Society, fretting over their precarious legal standing during apartheid, abandoned us boys to our own fate.