A Silverton Siege movie is coming

An archival image of the police outside the Volksbank Bank during the siege    PHOTOs: Media24 library, The writing studio
An archival image of the police outside the Volksbank Bank during the siege PHOTOs: Media24 library, The writing studio

It will be the first film to dramatise the infamous 1980 hostage standoff and it aims to be a hostage thriller unlike anything we have seen before

Kalushi director Mandla Dube is currently working on the first feature film about the 1980 Silverton Siege.

The first South African event to be covered live by the media, the siege saw three Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) members – Stephen Mafoko, Humphrey Makhubo and Wilfred Madela – hold 25 people hostage in a Volkskas Bank in Silverton.

The three were on their way to sabotaging a Total petrol depot in Waltloo, just outside Pretoria, in retaliation for the killing of MK member Solomon Mahlangu, when they realised they were being tailed by police.

They ran into a building, which turned out to be a bank, and a standoff situation ensued between them and police.

The trio demanded a meeting with then state president John Vorster, the release of Nelson Mandela and a man called Mange, as well as R100 000 in cash and an aircraft to fly them to Maputo.

After a gun battle between the trio and an elite police unit, all three men were killed before any of their demands were met.

Two hostages died after being injured by a hand grenade, let off by Mafoko.

Dube says that creating the film is part of his legacy series called Legends of Freedom, which comprises Kalushi, The Rivonia Trial and the Silverton Siege.

While lecturing at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Dube mentioned his series to his students, and a happy coincidence occurred.

“I was teaching cinematography at Wits and one of my students was Wandile Molebatsi, now a famous actor and a co-founder of the Coal Stove production company.

“It just so happened that Wandile’s uncle is George Molebatsi, the commander for the Silverton Trio. They belonged to an association called the Transvaal Urban Machinery, which oversaw all the MK operations in the Transvaal at the time.”

Wandile recounted over the phone to City Press how he remembered his uncle hiding in the roof of their family home for a month while the police were looking for him.

George was eventually arrested in the 1980s and was incarcerated.

For safety reasons, George divulged as little as possible to his family about what he was doing: “He would always speak in parables. He tried to always give it a comical tone, because a lot of what he had seen was quite horrifying.”

One of the biggest demands the trio made during the siege was to ask for Mandela’s release. During the siege, the trio taught the hostages freedom songs.

“And this is actually where the Free Nelson Mandela campaign started,” says Dube.

“It became an international call. There were concerts at London’s Wembley Stadium and Hyde Park, all demanding the freedom of Mandela.”

Dube says they found another Silverton Trio relative during a reading of their script at The Market theatre.

“After the reading, a young woman stood up. Her name was Nosi Mafoko and she told us that she was the daughter of one of the Silverton Siege trio. She said he was a pilot, which is why they requested the plane. We were just amazed and found out so much from her.”

The acquisition of the script for the film was another happy coincidence.

While Dube was shooting Kalushi, Wandile gave him a call and told him that a writer called Sabelo Mgidi had approached Coal Stove with a completed script for a movie about the Silverton Siege.

“I read the script and I thought it was amazing,” says Dube. “I decided that we should collaborate.”

Mgidi is the author of three books and taught himself screenwriting. He told City Press over the phone why he started writing a script about Silverton.

“Basically, I stumbled upon the story when I was doing research for a web series about two years ago. When I read the article about the Silverton Siege, I was just drawn to that story. It was two or three sentences, but something clicked in my head to say that this would make a great film.

“It is the story of a few men who decided to put their lives on the line for a cause bigger than themselves.”

During the script’s development process, Dube used Sechaba Morojele for editing – the two had studied together at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.

“We studied under Frank Pearson, former president of the Motion Picture Academy [best known for its annual Oscar awards] and the writer of Dog Day Afternoon, which was directed by Sidney Lumet,” says Dube.

Dog Day Afternoon is about a bank robbery in Brooklyn that develops into a hostage situation.

“Me and Sechaba both analysed that script and film in detail and ... it just made sense that he edit the script, and everything fitted so perfectly.”

The film is being funded by the National Film & Video Foundation and will be distributed by Indigenous Films.

It is using a department of trade and industry rebate under the Emerging Black Filmmakers’ Transformation Fund.

The film is currently in production and at the casting stage. Dube says it will be an all-South African cast.

“It will be shot in Pretoria,” he adds. “We really want to create a film where the city of Pretoria is foregrounded and becomes a character.”

Dube and Mgidi say they do not want to make a political film, they want to make a highly entertaining and thrilling heist film.

“We want it to be an entertaining story besides the politics. What hasn’t been done before in South African film is a hostage situation in this genre. It is going to be something completely different from what audiences have seen before.”

Mgidi says the film will be about 60% factual and for the rest, they will use creative licence.

“We did research using archives provided by the department of arts and culture. The process is factual, but we are trying to make this an entertaining story, not a documentary.”

“Mandla is determined to have this story resonate with young people,” says Wandile. “Sometimes we feel it was old people involved in the struggle, but a lot of the time it was young people getting involved. We are trying to get our heritage to be seen as exciting and the people involved as heroes.”

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