DIFF: Revenge of the Zulu cowboys

2014-07-15 10:00

A rudimentary shack made out of old wood and more old wood stands against a wild green hill. A cowboy enters the frame. He is black and his costume is clearly strung together from an idea of the old West – second-hand, accessorised with a costume-shop Stetson hat. He speaks to another cowboy.

“Hawu ngizozama njenge ndoda,” he says.

They enter the tavern, the shack, which is far bigger inside than it appeared from the outside. A bartender cleans glasses and the two men sit. A third cowboy enters. There is an indeterminable amount of talking to compensate for the lack of plot. There is a gunfight, a damsel and a horse.

The film plays out like a memory of a film reframed. No matter how much restoration it goes through, it is distinctly from a certain time: late apartheid South Africa.


The film is Umbango. It’s directed by Tonie van der Merwe and stars Innocent “Popo” Gumede, Hector Mathanda and Kay Magubane. It’s being painstakingly restored in a Cape Town studio, along with hundreds of other films made under the highly questionable B-Scheme subsidy.

From 1972 to 1989, an apartheid film fund existed that produced an estimated 1?500 to 2?000 features in mostly isiZulu for the “black” market. A conservative estimate is that these films were seen by at least 250?000 people a week. It could’ve been as many as 750?000.


Heyns Films operated a mobile cinema unit of 18 trucks that drove from community centres and school halls to tents and sports centres across the country. Admission was 10c, eventually rising to about 80c. This was often split between the mobile cinema staff and the exhibition venue. Schools sometimes used the profits to build classrooms or to pay teachers.

The film makers took no money. They were paid 14c per ticket sale by the apartheid state, with a production cap of R30?000 in 1972, which eventually peaked at R80?000 in 1989. In order for the film maker to profit, the films were produced below the cap.

They were made in six days, sometimes less, sometimes way less. Their plots were mostly copycats of Clint Eastwood and James Bond films, but they were all in isiZulu or isiXhosa – anything but Afrikaans or English. It was how you qualified. And the Afrikaner film makers, who had been bakers or accountants months before, who knew nothing about film making and very little about African languages, let the actors create their own dialogue.

There was such an overwhelming number of films being made, the censor board basically gave up on monitoring them. In the deluge of Westerns, skop skiet en donner, creature ­features and back-to-the-homeland stories, there emerged an unintended consequence.

At the height of the war against the soul of the black man, the apartheid government was unwittingly paying for people to depict the black man with soul, agency and purpose.


The first of these films, Joe Bullet, was banned instantly. An innocuous tale of the kidnapping of two soccer players and their subsequent rescue by all-round badass Ken Gampu was too much for the apartheid censors, mainly because its hero was black, and he carried a gun and kicked ass.

The banning was overturned two years later, but by then the film’s producer, the same Tonie van der Merwe who directed Umbango, had moved on.

He owned a construction company and had conceived of making films for his workers as entertainment while they laid Telkom cables between Durban and Joburg in the early 70s.

Long weeks in the middle of nowhere meant no entertainment and Van der Merwe had noticed something when screening foreign action movies to his 200-man-strong crews on weekends.

“Most of them sat there with a radio next to their ear while they watched a movie?...?They didn’t follow the English dialogue.”

He enlisted Louis De Witt, then a rising star director of Afrikaans A-Scheme subsidy films with Heyns Films. Over the course of 18 months, they made Joe Bullet.


Today, Van der Merwe works in Paarden Eiland, an industrial area in Cape Town, at a second-hand car dealership. He’s a big man, his construction past etched into his hands and face. He shrugs and says: “Everything in that film is the construction company. All the cars was mine, the aeroplane was mine. The offices we used was mine, the bulldozers, the trucks, everything was mine and I had enough cash those days to do it.”


After the unbanning of Joe Bullet, Van der Merwe ­approached Ster-Kinekor about making films for the black market. “I thought it’s a market for the future?...?They thought I was crazy.” Ster-Kinekor’s reticence probably came from the fact that black South Africans were not ­allowed in white cinemas, and there were very few cinemas in the townships, a situation still unrectified.

But the film-making bug had bitten hard. “After Joe Bullet I thought why don’t I make a movie in Zulu because that’s the most popular and really close to Fanagalo.”

Together with De Witt and Thys Heyns of Heyns Films, they lobbied the relevant ministers and managed to expand the existing Afrikaans film subsidy to a B-Scheme for films in African languages. The mobile distribution system was a later stroke of genius.

“We shot with Ken Gampu again. He played an SAP. Going to college and getting a car, becoming a cop, and it was good against evil and good always wins.”

Good always wins. The state information machine had a specific definition of what this meant. The purpose of the B-Scheme subsidy was to subdue the masses, to sell them a narrative of being a “good native”.


In a twist of history, Van der Merwe’s actor – the cowboy in Umbango, Popo Gumede – is today the director of Boynton Investments at the Platmin mining company. He says of the time: “The government then wanted to use film and television to tell certain stories, that crime doesn’t pay, that you must stay in the homelands, that it’s better to be calm, to be subdued, to be a good kid. It was an attempt at indoctrination, to make us more calm. But it turned out to be much more empowering than they could have anticipated. These were black people who were like you, that kids could identify with ... It showed that we too could be protagonists in our own stories. It created, very subtly, a yearning for more ­freedom.”

Gumede worked with Van der Merwe for most of the 80s, after having been a host on Jikelele, one of the early black SABC shows. The films Van Der Merwe made were, for Gumede, “bold and exciting”. He added: “It was raw cinema, a cinema of limited resources. You know, it was a golden age of raw talent. It was the age of typecasting, you had the face of a star, you played the good guy, you had a scar, you had a township look, by nature you played a villain, if you were not too difficult to coach, you didn’t need to act. And in that era of raw cinema, icons were created.”


Inadvertently, the regime’s B-Scheme helped initiate an on-the-job trained black film industry – technicians, directors and actors such as the stars of the scene, Cynthia Shange and Roland Mqwebu. In the 70s, leading black theatre actors struggled to find work and the B-Scheme kept many above the breadline.

Heyns Films would produce director Simon Sabela, whose uDeliwe is considered a classic of the period. Later the B-Scheme would even produce Gibson Kente’s How Long, as well as Oliver Schmitz and Thomas Mogotlane’s Mapantsula.


Over 18 years, Van der Merwe directed more than 400 films. “Back then, I wrote a story quickly. Action, action, action. That’s what it was about. We would type up the script and the actors would translate it into isiZulu. Whether it’s correct translation, I haven’t got a clue…

“Obviously the security police raided our offices a couple of times. I don’t know what they were looking for, but they thought we are involved with the communists or underground people and stuff like that.”

The police would confiscate film from the crews.


The industry was unregulated. “If you check carefully, Joe Bullet, when he was lying on those stairs and they rolled that drum, the drum actually hit him on the head,” Van der Merwe says. “He was in hospital for a couple of weeks. He was nearly killed.”

Proving how many people watched your film was also unregulated. Van Der Merwe says he campaigned for quality control as 80s profiteers began to realise they could cheat the system by filming plays, all from one angle. “Or they go and film a soccer game and release it as a movie.” Venues and film makers started cheating the reporting system. In 1990, the film subsidy was scrapped.

It was the end of the movie star road for Van der Merwe and Gumede. Some of the films wound up in the national archives. Most of them were badly stored in people’s garages and have long since rotted. Gumede went to the University of California, Los Angeles, worked in Hollywood for a while and then came back to join the corporate world. Heyns and the De?Witts moved into serial TV.


Joe Bullet is about to be rereleased, premiering at the Durban International Film Festival. Benjamin Cowley of Gravel Road Entertainment Group came across Van der Merwe and set out to restore his films. Through road trips across the country, they have uncovered about 400 ­B-Scheme films that are being restored, sometimes frame by frame.


Reflecting on where South African cinema is now, Gumede says: “Everyone has DStv, but still you leave those 239 channels behind and you watch a film. And you come home and those channels are still there, but you are talking about the film you just watched. There is something about going to a cinema with people that is different to TV. It can really bring people together. We have hundreds of community halls across the country. They are white elephants.”


There is a temptation to impose one’s own hopes for the future on events lost to history, to wax lyrical. As much as the B-Scheme distribution system was flawed, open to ­exploitation and corruption, it also created a microeconomy, and allowed those oppressed to imagine themselves as ­protagonists in their own stories.

And in some strange twist of fate, these B-grade films are possibly the closest thing we have to a National Cinema.

» Joe Bullet screens at the Durban International Film Festival between July 17 and 27. See durbanfilmfest.co.za for details of screenings

» For other films being restored by Gravel Road Legacy, visit retroafrika.com

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.