Unlikely beneficiaries

2008-07-07 00:00

South African National Cinema by Jacqueline Maingard provides an overview of more than a century of film watching and filmmaking in this country from the late 19th century to the present.

The films Maingard highlights are those “that invoke a sense of ‘the national’ ” and how that sense has changed during the course of our turbulent history. Not surprisingly the issue of race plays a key role and Maingard demonstrates how film interacted with politics to construct a white national identity pre-1994, detailing the role film played in the creation of Afrikaner nationalism in the thirties and forties, and how the subsidy system buttressed apartheid in the sixties and seventies.

The subsidy system, established in 1956, was aimed at developing the film industry and to “especially bolster Afrikaans filmmaking. This was supported by the injection of Afrikaner capital via Sanlam, an Afrikaans insurance company, into Ster Films, which was the beginnings of one of the major distribution companies in South Africa, Ster-Kinekor.”

The subsidy system helped finance productions that “would cinematically replicate apartheid”, says Maingard. Films were made for black audiences and for white audiences. The series of “border war” films were aimed specifically at whites, while the films made for black audiences tended to extol the virtues of life in the “homelands”. “In these films the city is a space of temporary sojourn,” says Maingard, “from which the black hero retreats ‘back to the homelands’, discarding his Western attire and adopting ‘tribal’ tradition.”

Ironically, these “black” films were largely made by white directors, although black people were frequently involved as technical crew and, in some instances, as writers and directors as well as actors. Two key black figures in South African cinema emerged during this period, Simon Sabela and Ken Gampu.

Sabela was both an actor and director. From the early sixties he was seen in several international feature films such as as Diamonds are Dangerous (1961) and Death Drums Along the River (1963), a version of Edgar Wallace’s Sanders of the River in which he played the role of Bosambo that had been taken by Paul Robeson in the 1935 version. Sabela then played in Zulu (1964) and later its follow up, Zulu Dawn (1979), in which he featured in the central role of King Cetshwayo kaMpande. His other credits included Gold (1974), e’Lollipop (1976) and Shout at the Devil (1976). He also starred in the television series Shaka Zulu and John Ross — An African Adventure.

As a director, Sabela worked for Heyns Films, one of the key studios making films for black audiences. Sabela was apparently unaware that the studio was receiving government funding from the Department of Information to make films reflecting and endorsing apartheid.

Sabela first directed uDeliwe (1975) for Heyns Films, a production house that made a further 13 films for black audiences before its exposure in the Info Scandal of the late seventies as one of the Department of Information’s front companies. uDeliwe was based on a radio soap and Sabela also took the male lead in the film version, which tells the story of a young Zulu woman who goes to Johannesburg, regrets it and finally returns home.

After uDeliwe, Sabela directed Inkedama (1975) about a young man’s struggle to make a success of his life. In 1976, he directed iKati Elimnyana (literally: the black cat, but also colloquially: a very dark person), in which he plays the main character, Lefty Ndaba, a businessman whose shady deals finally catch up with him.

In his later career, Sabela appeared in what Maingard describes as “the most significant anti-apartheid fiction film to emerge prior to the first democratic elections in 1994”, Mapantsula (1988). This story of a small-time gangster forced to face the political realities of the day, “made a special impact because it expressed the social realities of the South African context in a way that fiction film had not done before”. Sabela died in 1994.

Gampu, who died in 2003, often co-starred with Sabela in feature films, including Gold, Tigers Don’t Cry (1976), e’Lollipop and Zulu Dawn.

Gampu first appeared on stage in 1958 in Athol Fugard’s No Good Friday. Thereafter, a role in the hit musical King Kong took Gampu to London when it toured at the end of the fifties. Gampu’s first film role was in Tremor (1961), about a mining accident, and his first international feature was The Naked Prey (1966), where a white man (Cornel Wilde) is pursued by black warriors somewhere in Africa. Gampu plays the warrior leader. He appeared in several other feature films including Dingaka (1964), The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), The Wild Geese (1978) and King Solomon’s Mines (1985).

In local films, Gampu played the lead role in Joe Bullet (1974) “about a Bond-type black hero, the first film made for black audiences, produced by Tonnie van der Merwe, one of the key players in the industry. Gampu directed at least one of the ‘black’ films, called Ngomopho (1975), for this producer.”

As Maingard points out, Gampu’s life as an actor spanned three decades, including the post-apartheid era of South African film, this saw him in in Fools (1997), “an important entry in the history of black South African filmmaking,” according to Maingard, and in Totsi director Gavin Hood’s first feature, A Reasonable Man (1999).

The films made for black audiences have not become forgotten relics of the apartheid past, says Maingard. In 2002 and 2003, the SABC broadcast several on Sunday evenings — “a strategy geared towards meeting local-content quotas but probably also attracting viewers to images of South African-based black identities”.

South African film might have moved on towards an inclusive national film culture, as Maingard’s book concludes, but the films made under the subsidy system still have a nostalgic pull. The fact that you can purchase DVDs of some of them, including iKati Elimnyama, from the SABC shows there is still a market and an interest in these titles and their stars.

• South African National Cinema by Jacqueline Maingard is published by Routledge.

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