I recently saw Mandela Long Walk to Freedom (Republic of South Africa, 2013). The film features the black townships during the Apartheid era, but mainly as a backdrop to the biopic of the famous leader. The political complexities of these black ghettos and of the wider struggle in which they played a leading role were missing from the film. However, the film falls into a long and varied series of treatments of these now iconic settings. The article below was written in 1995, the point at which history and the new Mandela film enter a new phase for Southern Africa. I have added this introduction and a final coda.
Movies and the black townships under Apartheid.
A discourse can be defined as a mode of speech, which has evolved to express the shared human activities of a community of people. Discourses are ideological, expressing the dominant or consensus values found in the community that uses them. This article will examine how differing filmic discourses responded to a particular political and social situation – township life under the Apartheid State in South Africa.
There have been a number of films that represent in some way the life of black people in these townships. Some were produced outside South Africa and gave an outsider’s comment; some came from within and expressed, as far as they were able, an indigenous voice. The historical events they represented were intrinsically related to the development of South African capitalism and the organisation of class divisions, largely along lines of racial classification. This included specialised jerry-built housing for black workers. Such housing dated back to the gold and diamond mine exploitation of the nineteenth century. Then, emerging capital used liquor both as a social opiate and an additional profit margin, a phenomenon to be repeated in the new townships of the twentieth century. (Onselen 1976)
In the late 1940s townships expanded under the contradictory pressures of demand for black labour and pressures for separation of the working class black majority population. This led to the erection of Apartheid from 1948. These concentrations of black people, poverty, social deprivation, crime and dissent have provided a dramatic environment for feature films. Some merely use Southern Africa as an exotic backdrop, a good example is Gold (1974). This British film features sabotage in a South African gold mine. The black characters provide material for displaying the liberal sentiments of the hero, Rod Slater (Roger Moore), and an act of self-sacrifice at the film’s climax. However we never see the actual life of the black miners, only a Zulu dance and a Christmas football match.
Other films do take a closer look at black characters. These include Hollywood and British movies, and films made in South Africa. Of the latter, a large number have never been seen in Britain, a few only on video or Satellite TV. However, those films available, with their disparate sources – movie moguls, white liberals, exploitation cinema and black activists – provide an interesting set of variations on this one theme.
Cry the beloved Country (1951)
One of the first films to depict the new black township life, Cry the Beloved Country was an adaptation of the novel by Alan Paton, a white liberal South African. Published in 1947, it tells the story of a black father who travels from the countryside to Johannesburg to search for his son. Paton’s book uses the search structure to draw both a picture of the appalling living conditions for black people and the mixed responses of whites. Some are concerned and anxious for improvement, others fearful and demanding even greater separation.
The film presents us with two fathers and sons: Stephen Kumalo, the black minister, and his son Absalom who lives in a shanty town and drifts into crime, and James Jarvis, white farmer and his son Arthur, a young engineer who lives with his family in the white suburbs. Arthur (unlike his father) argues for improvements in the treatment of black people, supporting such activities as youth clubs. In the book Arthur appears only as a victim of a shooting by black housebreakers, and in the memories of him among his family and friends. It is Absalom who shoots Arthur, and the moral of the book is in the responses of the two fathers to this crime. At the novel’s end, back in rural Ixopo, each father cares for his grandson, reminder of the lost son, but also a harbinger for the future. James Jarvis, having undergone a conversion in attitude, supports the work of the church and the agriculture of the black village. This is a message of black and white harmony and co-operation, but also of white paternalism.
The 1951 film was co-produced by Zoltan Korda with Alan Paton, who also wrote the screenplay. While the main narrative and much of the dialogue are transferred directly from the book, there are significant changes. Whereas the book first presents the story of Stephen and his search, with the white family’s story following in part two, the film has integrated then into one chronological story. So while the book presents Kumalo’s discovery of his son’s crime as the end of his search, in the film the murder scene is followed directly by the breaking of the news to the white parents. Thus theirs is the first, significant, grief. This is a privileging of white characters, which is dominant in films set amongst black people. The film does still include long sequences devoted solely to black life and action. And Stephen Kumalo’s trauma is given a certain force by receiving almost the entire sparse musical accompaniment in the film.
In this, and other ways, the film draws attention to the lack of autonomy in black lives. However, it unthinkingly reinforces this lack in the privileging of a white discourse. A key scene is where Stephen, angry and grief stricken, vents his feelings about his son’s crime. It is the white Father Vincent (Geoffrey Keen) who calms him and reminds him of the efficacy of prayer, rather than the black Theophilus Msimangu (Sidney Poitier). Stephen’s brother John also lives in Johannesburg, a successful carpenter. In the book he is a black politician, discredited because of his opportunism. This political portrait is missing in the film. However, he is still discredited, after shaking his hand Msimangu asks, “where can I wash my hands?” This is part of the film’s representation with a range of good and bad black characters. But there are really no bad white characters, apart from expressions of prejudice.
The Wilby Conspiracy (1974), Cry Freedom (1987)
In the intervening decades several films made in the UK and Hollywood have featured black townships. In 1974 United Artists distributed The Wilby Conspiracy, directed by Ralph Nelson from a novel by Peter Driscoll. Like his film Soldier Blue (1969), this is a morality play, dramatising the oppression of black people. In a classic scenario we have a white mining engineer, Jim Keogh (Michael Caine), literally tied to black activist Shack Twala (Sidney Poitier again). They journey through the underworld of black townships pursued by Major Horn of State Security (Nicol Williamson). The positive ending hinges on two scenes. One showing the conversion in attitude by Keogh, who expresses his support for the black activist by shooting Major Horn in the final confrontation. However this confrontation only occurs because black villagers, led by Shack, have downed Horn’s helicopter. The latter scene is an example of black action rarely seen in liberal films. The fact that it is villagers rather than township people may be an oblique comment on the way these institutions are seen to disempower black residents.
Something of the same unease with black township life is seen in Cry Freedom (1987). the film version of Donald Woods’ account of his friendship with black consciousness leader, Steve Biko. Our visits to the black townships are always in the company of one of the white characters. At the start of the film a raid illustrates the massive police violence against black people. Later Steve Biko takes Woods to see the actual townships. A black activist tells him, “before you arrived, many generations ago we had our own culture. We had many, many villages – small, everyone known to everyone.” The implicit critique of the townships is emphasised in the third example. As Woods carries his book about Biko to freedom he recalls the Soweto school student uprising and resultant massacre.* This powerful and brutal scene shows the carnage wreaked by the white state security. The film ends with Woods and family flying to freedom in the west whilst a roll call of names shows the black activists dead or imprisoned. Whatever its liberal motivation, the film reinforces ideas of whites rescuing black people, rather incongruous in a film supposedly dedicated to the life of a black consciousness leader, who emphasised autonomy and self-action.
The same problematic can be seen in subsequent mainstream forays into South Africa. A Dry White Season, (1989) despite a black director (Euzhan Palcy), is centrally from the white perspective. The discourse in these films reflects certain ideological and political strands in western thought. It is also a manifestation of traits and motifs that are typical of Hollywood. All the films have recognisable melodramatic traits; they follow predictable patterns of story and continuity; and they are built round easily identified `star’ actors and actresses. Thus there is a marriage between intellectual and cinematic discourses that are imposed on the experiences of black people fictionalised for the purposes of the film story.
Racist parallels can be seen operating between such western liberal products and the mainstream, white-dominated cinema in South Africa. Its products go back to the days of silent film. As a market mainly dominated by Hollywood, few of these films have been seen in the west. In his book, Keyan Tomaselli (1989) describes and discusses these films. He notes a cycle of “back to the homelands” films, which “usually begin with the hero, a well-dressed urbanite carrying a suitcase on his way ‘home’… Once ‘back’ from the city, the ex-migrant workers progressively discard their Western urban ways and Ire-adapt’ to tribal life, wearing skins and beads.” One can see here both racist attitudes about the `natural savagery’ of black people, and a suppressed desire for them to go back, back being elsewhere, anywhere else. These attitudes cross over with the western liberal films, which tend to privilege rural life, as more moral and less corrupting.
Several independent films offer something different. The most recent, Friends, is from Film on Four. It comes up to date with the freeing of Nelson Mandela from jail and the new elections. The story tells of the friendship of three women, a white liberal, a white Afrikaans and a black woman. It moves from their graduation from university in 1985 up to the recent free elections in 1994. The central position of women characters is a refreshing change. Cry Freedom, for example, downplays the role of Wendy Woods in recognising the significance of ‘black consciousness’. (Farrar 1987) Friends also grapples with the question of the division amongst whites between English-speaking and Afrikaans. In most western films the Afrikaners are racist villains, the only liberals are English-speaking. This film concentrates on the white liberal who embraces violent action in the anti-apartheid struggle and much of the film is about the agonies of the conscience-smitten whites. However, as the movie nears the present the black presence grows. At the end the three women re-unite in a black township, a symbol of the centre of the new South Africa, and a rare positive image for these townships.
Sarafina (1982), Cry the Beloved Country (1995)
An indigenous cinema subsidised by the State has developed in South Africa since the sixties. This enabled the mainstream film to survive, but also supported films aimed directly at black audiences.
“The van der Merwes… are the first family of South Africa’s made-for-blacks film industry, having cranked out more than 200 between them since Tonie’s first productions in the early Seventies. In fact, it is not difficult to make 100 of these films in seven years. Preparation is minimal. Scripts are the barest synopses, left to the actors’ improvisational skills. Shooting time varies from two to ten days, editing never more than two. Much of the footage is pinched from earlier features… “The blacks aren’t fussy,” says Gary van der Merwe. “Most of our audiences are rural. Some of these people have seen a motor car before, let alone a movie. They’ll take anything you give them.” Their work – like that of the entire local film industry that produces knock-off black-exploitation films – is bankrolled by the South African government through a byzantine system of subsidies. (Powell, Fisher)
This and the black audiences have created white, multi-millionaire film producers. The first black film producer (`coloured’ in Apartheid-speak) was Anant Singh: In 1984 he teamed up with young white director, Darrell Roodt, to make a film that treated directly the oppression of black people in the countryside, Place of Weeping. Singh and Roodt have continued with a series of critical films, most famously Sarafina, a film adaptation of a stage musical. It was written by black African activist Mbongeni Ngema and originally performed outside South Africa in New York.
The film is set in Soweto during the school student rebellions of the mid-1980s. In the film the musical numbers sit uneasily with a film drama, which provides a view of the township experience through the eyes of school students. There is also a mismatch between the personal story of Sarafina (Leleti Khumalo) and the more collective sequences depicting the suppression, imprisonment and torture of the rebellious school students. There are still many powerful and moving sequences in the film. At its centre is Sarafina’s admiration for Nelson Mandela and her politically conscious teacher, Mary Masombuka (Whoopi Goldberg) who practises resistance but who says “don’t ask me to kill”. Sarafina is imprisoned after a school rebellion and an execution of a black policeman.
The film ends as Sarafina is released from prison and visits her mother Angelina (Miriam Makeba), a domestic servant with an affluent white family. She tells her mother, who she had previously criticised as subservient, “I was a stupid child…”. Later she throws away a gun she has been hiding into a marshy lake, a familiar motif from films where the hero/heroine forsakes violence for peace. The final sequence sees her performing `Freedom is coming’ as she imagines the release from prison of Nelson Mandela. Made after Mandela’s release from prison in 1992, the film emphasises a non-violent response to apartheid violence of that period. Exemplified by the Truth and Reconciliation process.
This discourse re-appears in Singh and Roodt’s more recent project. Their 1995 film Cry the Beloved Country, is the first film to emerge from the new South Africa. In going back to the fifty year old classic they consciously aimed to dramatise a message of reconciliation between black and white (see Miramax Press Pack, 1995). So, for example, the scenes of anger in the earlier version, such as Stephen’s outburst over his son, are missing. The film, shot in colour and modern wide screen, has a similar narrative to the 1951 version. The white father, James Jarvis (Richard Harris), is seen early in the film at the railway station as Stephen Kumalo, the black father, leaves for Johannesburg. Jarvis is meeting his daughter-in-law and grandson who are visiting his farm. It is there that the news of Arthur Jarvis’ death is broken to the father and to the audience. This is part of the film’s emphasising of the black/white contradictions, with less time devoted to the search of Kumalo for his son. As in the 1951 version this gives greater prominence to the white discourse, especially as the depiction of white prejudice is even more muted than in the book.
The black discourse is strengthened by the use of a voice-over by Stephen Kumalo, as he comments on South Africa and white racism. In the book and 1951 film the message is placed in an article written by Arthur Jarvis and read by his father after his death, the instrument of James Jarvis’ conversion. In this remake we hear little of Arthur’s thoughts, what matters are two scenes where James encounters black people – first at the boys club organised by Arthur in a township and later in a personal encounter with Stephen.
This leads to the final reconciliation, sealed by the plan to rebuild the rural church and symbolised by the arrival of the rains, for which the black subsistence farmers have been waiting. As in the earlier version the story provides space for black township life. At the end a powerful sequence shows the execution of Absalom intercut with his father’s prayers on a hill overlooking Ixopo, and the birth of his son, Stephen’s grandson. Against this must be set the film’s repetition of a range of black characters, from saintly Stephen to his manipulative, populist brother, with no corresponding variation in the white characters. James Jarvis is converted from prejudice to sympathy, with an only faint demur from a family friend. The nearest to a depiction of the real racist violence is in the prison and court where, interestingly, the guilty characters all appear to be Afrikaners. The centre of the film is exemplified by the role of Leleti Khumalo who plays Katie, Absalom’s common law wife. Her sole function appears to be producing the grandson of Stephen, a far cry from her powerful presence in the earlier Sarafina. There is a replication of the discourse of the novel; racism is to be overcome by black acceptance and white sympathy and good works. A rather feeble rejoinder to the systematic racism and violence detailed in films like Sarafina, and rooted in the structures of South African society through institutions like the black townships.
One set of oppositional films (in the 1970s) were cinematic versions of the dramas associated with Athol Fugard. Other oppositional filmmakers, connected with movements such as the ANC and PAC also made independent films. These tended to be documentaries, a mode suitable to films that were openly propagandistic. They also stem from the penchant for documentary in the ex-British colonies, as opposed to feature filmmaking in the ex-French colonies. One of the most famous is Last Grave at Dimbaza (1974), a powerful indictment of apartheid, ending on a shot of the most recent grave of a black child in a resettlement camp. But the film suffered from the usual problems of distribution for independents and from the unthinking racist censorship of the times. “In the face of the evidence presented in the film, the BBC’s decision to show a mere twenty seven minutes of it, (originally running for 54 mins), `balanced’ by a film of the same length compiled from seven South African propaganda documentaries, bespeaks a discouraging political naivety…”. (Glaesner 1975)
However, changing political conditions and changes within the South African film industry in the 1980s created other spaces for black filmmakers. The exploitation cinema provided one pair of filmmakers with opportunity. Oliver Schmitz and Thomas Mogotlane’s Mapantsula, released abroad in 1988, appeared to the censors as an example of the gangster genre. “To meet the restrictions of the Internal Security Act, the filmmakers simply deleted every political reference before passing it on for approval”. (Goldman 1989) Within that the film developed a powerful story of black militancy and consciousness.
Panic (Mogotlane) is a small-time crook in Soweto. He is picked up by the police during a funeral procession which becomes a demonstration. In prison he is clearly demarcated from the black activists also arrested, who regard him with scorn. During his imprisonment a police interrogator, Stander (Marcel Van Heerden) attempts to to make Panic incriminate a black political activist Buma (Peter Sephuma). Whilst the interrogation proceeds the audience are privy (as Stander is not) to Panic’s memories of how he became caught up in the funeral. This includes his relations with his girlfriend Pat (Thembi Mtshali), who works as a maid to a white family, notable for their petty racism. His relationship with Buma, a black activist, who tries to help Pat when she is sacked. And with Ma Mobise (Dolly Rathebe) his next-door neighbour whose son has disappeared in an earlier police roundup.
These memories unfold in parallel to the interrogation, in a complex flashback structure, which owes much to the montage theories of Eisenstein, revealing to the audience
not just parallel events but parallel political ideas. The ending echoes a scene from Eisenstein’s own film Strike. Here the film cuts between police video of the funeral and Panic’s own memories; the contrast is between the white police version, visually accurate but totally uncomprehending, and Panic’s version, personal but powerfully political. It not only indicts the apartheid system, but engages with the political consciousness of black people. There is no running back to the countryside in Mapantsula, it is a call to resist and struggle.
The finished film recognised as a powerfully political tract was banned, only available on video and then with an age restriction of 16 years. It apparently was widely viewed on video in the townships in halls, churches and community clubs.
In the new South Africa the ANC leads a coalition of parties directly based on the black majority. However, they operate within a negotiated settlement that retains much of the structure of apartheid South Africa. Some integration has taken place, but there are new forms of segregation, with white-only suburbs still surrounding the now open city of Johannesburg. The economic structure remains capitalistic and dominated by the same companies that did so profitably out of apartheid. The new series on BBC, Rhodes, details how this imperialist organised a monopoly of South African diamond mining, using exploited black labour, an exploitation that led directly to the black townships. The conditions of that monopoly exist in almost the same form today. Paton’s foreword actually named Ernest Oppenheimer, mining magnate, as ” one… able to arrest the deterioration described in this book.” Films like Darren Roodt’s Cry The Beloved Country reproduce that liberal discourse of fifty years earlier. The more radical black cinema represented by Mapantsula or the earlier documentaries have yet to find a space alongside this. The most recent example dates from 1994; (i.e. under the old system) the C4 co-produced Soweto. This was a documentary providing a visual history of the townships.
The competing discourses manifested in the different films are dependent on the economic power that fuels them. The developing situation in South Africa does not seem to offer much promise for the more radical discourse. The changes in filmmaking and film-going promise to extend the dominance of mainstream capitalist cinema, i.e. Hollywood.** Roodt’s most recent production features Ice Cube as a returning African-American tackling the drugs problem; a recognisable Hollywood product with a South African location. It suggests the townships will become (once again) exotic locations for stories concerned solely with entertainment.
In 1995 South Africa held an International Film and Television Conference to discuss its future. One proposal was for `Maxi Movies’, screening facilities in the black townships which, however, would use video rather than celluloid, to save capital costs (Moving Pictures International November 1995). The purchasing power of the black majority is still very small; they can only afford a poor imitation of the western multiplex. The production features in the report were of upmarket, partly western funded features, with Hollywood stars, e.g. James Earl Jones and Ice Cube. It would seem to offer little opportunity for a pure indigenous cinema or openly political cinema.
In terms of the categories set out by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino Gold is clearly an example of the mainstream, dominant cinema. Cry Freedom would seem to fall between the mainstream and an auteur cinema. A film like the second version of Cry the Beloved Country represents a national cinema. But all remain ‘trapped within the fortress’. We have to look to a film like Mapantsula for a genuine positional film.
The contemporary output of the South African film industry remains small and only a limited amount can be seen in the UK market. The new Mandela Long Walk to Freedom follows the conventions of the Hollywood biopic and is full of the reformism of the earlier ‘liberal films’. There has been one notable and fairly critical film, Tsotsi (2005), that benefited from winning the Best Foreign Language Film Award at the 2005 Hollywood Oscars. The film uses a combination of English and township dialect, hence the subtitles. It is adapted from a novel by Athol Fugard, which was set at the end of the 1950s. The film updates the novel to the post-Apartheid South Africa. Crucially it also changes the ending. The basic plot focuses on the title character, David (nicknamed Tsotsi), a petty thief. By accident he steals the baby of a black middle-class couple. Whilst the film ends on a note of ambiguity it does suggest, through the return of the child to the black couple, a note of class conciliation. The title translated as ‘thug’ in English recalls Mapantsula. And the sequences in the township are powerful and revelatory. However, the resolution lacks the political punch of the earlier film. I certainly felt to me that this weakened the more radical note of the book.
In fact, in many ways the most radical film to emerge from post-Apartheid South Africa seems to me to be the science fiction film, District 9 (2009). The film depicts townships filled, not with black people, but oppressed aliens. It is as if the surrealists had taken the situation and transformed it into one of their subversive morality tales. Alongside the macabre violence of the film is a strong strand of desire, both among the aliens and the key white South African character. And like all good horror films there is also a potent ‘return of the repressed’. The way that the film plays with generic conventions, both science fiction and protest melodrama, makes it a powerful and critical voice.
- The effect of Hollywood mores can be seen by comparing the funeral depicted in Cry Freedom and the news footage of the actual event, shown in Biko (C4 1989). A similar comparison can be made of the school student rebellion in Cry Freedom and photographs of the actual event in Soweto (C4 1994). In both cases the commercial film images are smarter and glossier.
- The latest report on the South African film and television industry appeared in Screen
International on October 11 1996 and showed `local’ film production with 1 % of box-office (as against 92% for Hollywood).
Max Farrar (1988) `Biko on the big screen’ in Where and When, January 14-28 1988
Verina Glaesner (1975) Review of `Last Grave at Dimbaza’ Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1975.
Steven Goldman (1989) `Panic and Protest’, Guardian January 14 Charles Van Onselen (1976) Landlords and Rotgut’ in History Workshop, Issue 2
Alan Paton (1948) Cry the Beloved Country London: Jonathan Cape Powell, Ivor and Fisher, William (1989) `White Mischief’ Independent Magazine 27 May
Keyan Tomaselli (1989) The Cinema of Apartheid, London: Routledge.
This article originally appeared in itp Film Reader I 1996. Reproduced with kind agreement of the Editor.