Poppie Nongena

Clementine Mosimane in 'Poppie Nongena'. (Photo: Melanie Cleary)
Clementine Mosimane in 'Poppie Nongena'. (Photo: Melanie Cleary)


Poppie Nongena tells the moving story of an isiXhosa mother whose life revolves around finding stability for her family during a period of insufferable upheaval in the country, as African women are forced, by arrests, fines and forced removal, to leave their homes and resettle in remote areas designated as black homelands. When her husband, Stone, becomes too ill to work, Poppie was deemed by the law to be an “illegal” resident in a neighbourhood of her own country. She engaged in a desperate struggle, using every means at her disposal to remain with her children.


Walking out of the cinema after watching Poppie Nongena, I felt a pang of guilt. It weighed heavily on my chest throughout the film and had crushed me completely by the end.

Although I had not read the book by Elsa Joubert, on which the film is based, or seen the stage adaptation – I knew the story of Poppie Nongena.

I knew the story because as a white Afrikaans-speaking man growing up during apartheid, I was part of Poppie’s story, but not on the right side of it. I might have been a child and did not fully comprehend the magnitude of the inhumanity of the government at the time, but I was part of the problem whether I knew it or not.

Facing that reality on a big screen in front of you is a bitter pill to swallow. Poppie’s struggle to keep her family together in apartheid South Africa is horrifying, heartbreaking, and a devastatingly difficult one to watch unfold. But we can’t afford to hide comfortably behind our blissful ignorance when it comes to the reality of our past.

At first, I was hesitant about whether I should even be the one to review the film, or for that matter if Christiaan Olwagen, also a white man, should be at the helm of a film that tells the story of a black woman’s struggle.

I believe people should be allowed to tell their own stories, through their own lens and not the distorted view of another that can’t even start to comprehend the magnitude of what it meant to be black in South Africa during apartheid or even today.

But, with being white in South Africa comes a lot of privilege. Opportunities, funding, and platforms that tip the scale in our favour. We have access and latitude that afford us advantages. We have a responsibility to use this advantage to not only tell, talk, or write about our own white experiences but rather to lever this access to invite in diverse voices who don’t have the same systematically implemented headstart.

Olwagen, whose previous work includes hits like Kanarie and Johnny is nie dood nie, worked closely with the team of women that lead this film to tell an authentic story on the big screen in a grippingly beautiful way that I hope every South African gets the opportunity to watch.

But the stage truly belongs to Clementine Mosimane who takes on the lead role of Poppie Nongena. Clementine carries this film with such power and bravery that it will hit you in the gut and leave you breathless. Her portrayal must be one of the most soul-stirring performances ever delivered in a South African film. The roaring standing-ovation this iconic actress received at the end of the screening was proof that I was not the only one that was completely entranced by Clementine’s telling of Poppie’s story.

Poppie Nongena is a tour de force, a cinematic feat, a South African story told with empathy, grace, bold ferocity, and fearlessness. It’s a powerful fist in the air that shows defiance of our past, a reminder that we have a lot to heal from, and there’s still a long path ahead of us. It’s the film that reminds us that we’re all human, that we fail, that we fall, but that we can get up and rise against those that want to see us down.

For me, it plucked me from my comfort zone, from my unintended ignorance of my part in this story. It was two hands on my shoulders, shaking me to wake up. It’s a devastating reminder of the monstrosity of our past and the strides that still need to be taken for our future.

I rise from my seat and applaud everyone involved in this project and encourage others to watch this film so that more stories like these can see the light.


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