VERY LONG ROAD TO FREEDOM? South Africa at the Africa in Motion Film Festival in Glasgow and Edinburgh

The Glasgow Africa in Motion festival ran from from October 30th – November 9th 2014. South Africa at 20: The Freedom Tour, the touring programme of South African cinema, continues in the UK until April 2015.

By Lynnda Wardle

In 1985, President PW Botha declared a State of Emergency in South Africa. This was not the first time that that the apartheid government had clamped down on political dissent. The previous State of Emergency had been in 1960, just after the Sharpeville Massacre. I knew about Sharpeville when I was growing up, but only in a sort of mythological and fearful way; it never made its way into school history books.

Growing up in the heyday of the cultural boycott and the dominance of the white man’s version of history, I had seen some movies about South Africa: éLollipop (1976) was the saccharine tale of a friendship between a white boy and a black boy set in the Lesotho Mountains ( far away from the difficulties of real apartheid struggle), released in the year of the Soweto riots. Then there was the endless stream of Leon Schuster movies, starting in 1986, which was no coincidence considering that the State of Emergency meant that culture was just as tightly gagged as political life. Schuster, that winning combination of rugby player turned prankster, made his films and his money by playing school boy pranks on the public; and how we all laughed at You Must be Joking 1986, You Must be Joking Two 1987, Oh Shucks It’s Schuster 1989 and so on. These films were the biggest box office smashes that South African cinemas had ever known. In mainstream cinema there was nothing that reflected the political reality of apartheid and oppression that communities were living with at that time.

This year the ninth Africa in Motion Film Festival, which screened in Glasgow and Edinburgh, had the theme ‘Looking Back, Reaching Forward’. The festival programme explained that “this year’s festival will present retrospectives of the past, expectations of the present and the future of Africa.” This big ambition was reflected in the range of films chosen. The festival was founded in 2006 by African film researcher Lizelle Bisschoff and aims “to introduce Scottish audiences to the brilliance of African cinema and to overcome the under-representation and marginalisation of African film in British film-going culture.” The offerings this year were consistent with these aims. The Africa in Motion short film competition featured entries from Ghana, South Africa, Senegal, Ethiopia and Malawi; in addition there was a diverse range of full length documentaries and features from all over the continent.

At the heart of this year’s festival was South Africa at 20: The Freedom Tour, showcasing the best of South African cinema across the UK. Included are anti-apartheid classics, silent films, animations and documentaries. Three films stand out as highlights, each uniquely reflecting an historical time in their styles of narration and in the way that the characters are allowed to reveal the realities of what life was really like for a black man at each of these moments in South Africa’s troubled history.

Come Back AfricaCome Back, Africa (1959) directed by New York filmmaker, Lionel Rogosin, tells the story of Zachariah, a man who has come from rural Zululand to find work in the Johannesburg mines. This scenario is a departure from the cultural narrative of the time. Black men’s voices were not heard and were not considered to have stories worth telling. This take on the life of a migrant labourer struggling in the big city is such a typical experience that Zachariah becomes a kind of Everyman journeying through the hostile wilderness of Johannesburg.

Shot in black and white, the streets of Johannesburg, often viewed from above, are empty of traffic or people. Tall buildings line the deserted streets, casting long shadows.When there are people, they pour from trains, streaming to work and streaming away again, thousands of worker ants servicing the State. It is a constructivist vision of the city as prison. These shots of the city contextualise Zachariah’s struggle to find and keep a job. It is no surprise to discover that Rogosin’s initial motivation in making this film was that he wanted to expose fascism in all its guises.

Zachariah is employed as a domestic by a white couple, the wife a shrewish caricature of racist bigotry, her husband a limp wristed liberal who can’t be bothered to tackle the dissent in his own home. In those days, black workers had to be in possession of a passbook (Dompas) at all times, and Zachariah has all the attendant problems of getting his pass renewed, stamped, endorsed and repeatedly thumbed through by employers, police and petty officials. The Sharpeville Massacre, which will occur the year after this film was made, was the direct result of a protest about these Pass Laws.

Bloke Modisane, a South African journalist and writer working for Drum Magazine at the time, was involved in the script, and has described the clandestine way in which the film had to be made.[1] Rogosin himself was subjected to harassment from the apartheid state and eventually, in order to get permission to shoot, convinced the authorities that he was making a film about African music, showing the happiness and optimism of black people. They filmed in secret with cameras under blankets, organising shebeen scenes in blackout conditions where Rogosin himself had to provide the alcohol. If he had been caught supplying liquor to natives, that would have been the end of the movie; he would have been deported and the black men would have been jailed.

The film is also unusual for its time because it is virtually unscripted. All the main characters are played by non-actors. At a time when black people had no voice, either politically or in the media, it was a daring piece of filmmaking putting the voice of the black man at its heart and refusing to tamper with local dialogue or voice. In some places, like the scene in the shebeen where singer Miriam Makeba gives a luminous performance, this lack of scripting shows sometimes in a raggedness of dialogue and timing. Ultimately however, it is probably the most authentic screening of Sophiatown life ever shown, precisely because the film relies on real people to tell the tale.

Mapantsula 2Fast forward twenty-eight years and a new State of Emergency is in force. This time the apartheid regime is struggling to keep control in the townships and the military wings of the ANC and PAC are emerging as real contenders for power in the country. Mapantsula (1987), directed by Oliver Schmitz, was allowed only limited release due to restrictions imposed by the powerful Publications Control Board and was not seen by the majority of people whose lives it set out to show.

The central character Panic a small time crook and sharp wheeler-dealer in the streets of Jo’burg, played with sure-fire wit by Thomas Mogotlane, is a character that has not been much seen in South African movies. He is the underdog (mapantsula can be translated as “petty gangster”) and is a small time criminal, an anti-hero. The story is told in a series of flashbacks. We alternate between the infamous John Vorster Square prison where Panic is being questioned and cajoled by the suave police interrogator Stander and various scenes from his life leading up to this moment. We learn of Panic’s relationships with his girlfriend Pat and with Ma Modise, the solid representative of the conservative “don’t rock the boat” generation. We also learn about his crimes and scams, including a hilarious shoplifting caper in which he steals a suit by wrapping the pants and jackets around his legs before waddling his way to freedom.

Every incident, however, leads Panic to one transformative moment. He shares a cell with highly politicised United Democratic Front prisoners. Their world is one of political resistance and struggle and, importantly, comradeship. His world consists of petty crime, struggle, and isolation. This is a movie about conscientisation in the true sense of becoming aware of one’s status as subject within the pervading political ideology of the time. Panic comes to realise what it means to be a black man in a white man’s world, and the responsibility that he carries to join other comrades in the Struggle. All his previous actions are useless rebellions against the machine of the apartheid state. Having realised this, there is only one thing Panic can do: He has to align himself with the Struggle, and now that he has seen the light, he is required to act. In the final scene, — arguably the least believable moment in the film — Panic raises his fist, looks Stander in the eye and bellows: “No!”

This year’s Four Corners (Vier Hoeke) directed by Ian Gabriel, makes its appearance twenty-seven years after Mapantsula and twenty years after the democratic elections of 1994. It shows the maturity of a film industry bold enough to tackle the big themes of poverty and class, violence and gang culture without being evasive or resorting to tired Hollywood tropes. Four Corners refers to the four corners of the prison cell, but also to the four points of the compass and concerns four characters whose lives are threaded in parallel until one explosive event brings them together and reveals their connections. The opening scene, set in Pollsmoor, the notorious Cape prison, cuts between the build-up to a prison riot and the openings of a chess game. The die is cast for the movie: the themes of choice and rules (and breaking the rules), life inside and outside the four corners, and brotherhood are set before us in this explosive opening.FOUR CORNERS Ricardo-Jezriel-Skei-and-his-friends-hang-out-on-the-Cape-Flats

In the Cape Flats, two of the oldest prison gangs called respectively 26 and 28 , or the Numbers Gangs, are bitter and deadly rivals and yet, as the director explains to us after the screening, there is a poetic mysticism to the number gangs that gives them power and makes leaving them impossible.[2] The gangs date back to the 1880s, as does Sabela, the hybrid mixture of Tsotsi language, Cape Afrikaans and English dialects spoken by gang members and prisoners in the film. Once in the gangs, a man is tattooed with a number that claims him as one of the brotherhood and from which there is no escape. Farakahn, one of the main characters, attempts to liberate himself by burning off his tattoo with an iron, but it makes no difference. Everyone knows who he is. He is ‘n agt, an eight, and he can never escape this legacy and his destiny as a gang member.

Like Come Back, Africa, this film employs non-actors to play several of its main characters. Parallel to Farakahn’s attempted renunciation, we have the coming of age story of Ricardo, played with dazzling confidence by Jezriel Skei, dealing with themes of loss, family, honour, and love against the turbulence of life in the Cape Flats. Gang members and prisoners are played by ex-Pollsmoor inmates.

Like Come Back, Africa and Mapantsula, Four Corners attempts to give the voice of the narrative back to the people whose story it really is. The stories of marginal communities and oppressed people are rare in South African cinema. The commitment to keeping the camera at the level of the street and not to tidy up the language for middle class audiences is reminiscent of The Wire, and the popularity of the film with the communities it represents is evidence that this depiction is as real as it is raw. Worthy of mention also is the moody, moving soundtrack by South African composer Marcus Wormstorm; a hybrid of original score and found music that provides an edgy soundscape for the unfolding of the story.

Spanning over fifty years, these three films are markers of the change in the living conditions of black men in South Africa. These films are about class and poverty, about the destiny of being born poor and the impossibility of escape. Viewed in this way, one has to ask: What has really changed for the poor in South Africa? Ricardo, although living in the free and democratic era of the Rainbow Nation, is as oppressed by poverty and violence as Panic was, and has as little chance of getting a job not linked to crime as was Zachariah. Whether in the era of the repressive Dompas, the turbulent State of Emergency years, or in the post-election realities, all three characters are trapped in the prison of poverty. The three films show clearly that the rules of class oppression are still firmly in place; the new South Africa inherited the apparatus of the old. We have had some Rainbow Nation window dressing, some Hollywood moments of a President in a Rugby jersey, but objectively for the poor (and that is the majority of people of South Africa), as these films reveal, life remains nasty, brutish and short.

Look out for Four Corners coming out on general release in March 2016.


  1. Bloke Modisane on the making of Come Back, Africa.
  2. More information on the Numbers Gangs in this Cape Times article.

3 responses to “VERY LONG ROAD TO FREEDOM? South Africa at the Africa in Motion Film Festival in Glasgow and Edinburgh”

  1. […] ‘Very Long Road to Freedom‘ looks at some of the films made during the apartheid years and  their relationship to more recent films like ‘Four Corners‘ arguably South Africa’s ‘The Wire’ set in the ganglands of the Cape Flats. […]

Leave a Reply


The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is an online journal which publishes critical reviews, essays and interviews as well as writing on translation. We accept work in any of the languages of Scotland – English, Gàidhlig and Scots.

We aim to be an accessible, non-partisan community platform for writers from Glasgow and elsewhere. We are interested in many different kinds of writing, though we tend to lean towards more marginal, peripheral or neglected writers and their work. 

Though, our main focus is to fill the gap for careful, considered critical writing, we also publish original creative work, mostly short fiction, poetry and hybrid/visual forms. 

Find us on: