The Redemption Trope in South African Cinema

The politics of three prominent South African films: the classics 'Come Back Africa,' late-1980s 'Mapantsula' and Oscar winner 'Tsotsi.'

Zacharia Mgabi in 'Come Back Africa.' Screenshot.

The films Come Back Africa (dir. Lionel Rogosin), Mapantsula (dir. Oliver Schmitz) and Tsotsi (dir. Gavin Hood) mark three distinct eras in South African cinema. The oldest of the three, Come Back Africa, shot secretly in the late 1950s, shows the routine violence of the apartheid state. The viewer experiences the monotony of social exclusion through the life of Zachariah, a man displaced by rural economic hardship and forced to find work in Johannesburg. The director, through his clandestine approach, captures the apartheid city functioning as intended. Surplus black labor swirls amidst menial jobs in mines, restaurants and luxurious homes. The white faces are appropriately villainous, spitting racial epithets and enjoying the social and economic privileges of apartheid rule. By the 1980s, the unmooring had begun.

The Johannesburg of Mapantsula is more chaotic and uncertain. Viewers are introduced to Panic, a petty criminal, turned possible police informant. Apartheid is presented as untenable, as protests erupt in the townships and jails swell with political prisoners. If the fall of apartheid is anticipated in Mapantsula, the uncertainties of the post-apartheid state are captured in Tsotsi’s ambivalence about the new trajectory of the “rainbow nation.” In Tsotsi, black urban wealth exists alongside the poverty of black townships, and the gatekeepers of privilege are no longer exclusively white. While differences among these films abound, they are unified by tropes of redemption enacted through the figure of a black, male anti-hero. I conceive of redemption as a move toward personal salvation, attempting to right perceived wrongs or failings. In what follows, I demonstrate how concepts of redemption found in these films are implicated in the wider national history of South Africa.

Come Back Africa opens with a series of movements, bodies moving here and there, in and out of shadows. This opening is apt for the narrative arc of the film. The protagonist, Zachariah, embodies the perils of movement under apartheid. At the start of the film, Zachariah is forced by drought from his home in the countryside. He leaves his wife and children to find work in Johannesburg. This forced migration leads Zachariah to various jobs, including as a mine worker, a housekeeper and a waiter. Through a series of mishaps instigated by racial antagonism, Zachariah is forced to move from job to job. But the work is low paying and often hard to come by. Zachariah also lives in constant fear of being arrested for having insufficient working papers. Despite these events, Zachariah continues to see work as his path to salvation. Here, work is not merely about material survival—though that is important. Work emerges as a way to rationalize one’s position, and it is linked to ideas about redemption. Zachariah aims to redeem himself as the provider for his family through work, and he continues to promise his wife that life will be better once he finds a steady job. Indeed, Zachariah’s aversion to his wife taking a job reveals the way work acts as a means for him to redeem his masculinity. However, the mechanisms of apartheid have stacked the odds against him, and Zachariah’s attempts to find long-term employment are continually thwarted. Zachariah’s unrelenting faith in the redemptive power of work demonstrates how the processes of apartheid were rendered livable. In this environment, the daily grind of attempting to secure work routinizes life. Here, visions of salvation are contracted, as concerns about the next pay check transform into attachments to fleeting moments of stability. The black apartheid subject is redeemed by (making apartheid) work.

Historian and philosopher David Theo Goldberg describes aspects of this lived experience of apartheid in “A Political Theology of Race (On Racial Southafricanization).” Goldberg describes the period following the 1948 codification of apartheid laws as one of perceived triumph (“triomf”) for the Afrikaner regime (300).

The apartheid government succeeded in compartmentalizing nearly every aspect of black life and it rendered social exclusion commonsensical and livable. For Zachariah, the consummate 1950s black apartheid subject, redemption is ultimately elusive. Two scenes in the film underscore this point. The first moment occurs when Zachariah encounters a group of South African intellectuals and activists in a bar. Their conversation begins to broaden his understanding of the intricacies of life under apartheid. This scene is supposed to be a moment of politicization, where Zachariah discovers the merits of the struggle. However, the director does not take the obvious trajectory here. Zachariah does not join the would-be revolutionaries, and he does not dive headlong into the anti-apartheid movement. His response is more subtle and representative of the 1950s time period. Zachariah speaks of an innate feeling that activists’ words have resonance for his life. He says, “I don’t understand, but I like it.” The concluding scene of the film is where the trope of work as redemption is irrevocably severed. Zachariah’s wife is murdered after a violent altercation with a fellow township resident. When Zachariah returns home, he is distraught. His final cries of anguish, which conclude the film, reveal the pervasive cycles of violence birthed by apartheid—all are affected, even those who attempt to find avenues to make apartheid livable. Ultimately, Zachariah’s efforts to make apartheid work, to essentially play by the rules of the system, do little to protect his family. His vulnerabilities as an “everyman” are exposed as the film closes.

“Mapantsula” still.

Mapantsula also shatters the image of apartheid as a workable system. Set in the late 1980s, the film follows Panic, an anti-hero engaged in a life of petty crime, while the city of Johannesburg and the surrounding townships convulse around him. Panic spends his days robbing white South Africans and his nights drinking in the local bars. His life is essentially adrift, with little purpose or direction. Yet, the residents of his township are growing increasingly militant, engaging in violent standoffs with police forces. Goldberg describes this period of apartheid’s denouement as one of widespread political action with growing support for the outlawed African National Congress. Mapantsula illustrates this moment in South African history. Temporally, the film is disjointed and it is told through flashbacks of Panic’s life. Eventually, the viewer learns that Panic has been arrested following a protest in the township. State police attempt to obtain information about the unrest from Panic because of his previous involvement as a police informant. Throughout the film, police officers alternate between cajoling and threatening Panic. Like Come Back Africa, the momentum of Mapantsula builds to its final scene. After unending torment, Panic refuses to cooperate with the police. This scene is by extension a refusal to honor the legitimacy of the apartheid state. Panic’s form of redemption is very different from Zachariah’s. Mapantsula’s anti-hero is redeemed through a commitment to the struggling collective. Unlike the wailing Zachariah, the Panic of Mapantsula’s final scene is stoic and resolved. He has left the petty-mindedness of temporary gain and has allied himself with a quest for liberation.

The reorientation of Panic is indicative of Goldberg’s assessment of how the changing political tide of the 1980s brought together groups of unlikely allies. The trope of redemption found in Mapantsula maps onto popular narratives about the nature of South Africa’s revolutionary struggle. The morality of the movement is positioned as so strong that it had the power to transform even the “amoral” characters in South African society. There is something faintly biblical about how the story of Panic is told, where the film’s protagonist emerges as the wayward son who eventually comes home to the nation. This narrative mirrors larger discourse about the ANC itself. In its decades long struggle to end apartheid, the ANC assumed a mythic character. It was positioned as the literal and figurative savior of South Africa. Similarities between the figure of Panic and ideas about the ANC are also linked to the subjective position of the criminal in South African historical memory. Prominent members of the ANC were jailed and declared criminals by the state, yet they were eventually absolved by the righteousness of their cause. Similarly, Panic’s previous sins are figuratively forgiven at the moment he decides to defy the state and support the cause of liberation. Thus, if Come Back Africa ends on a note of despair, then Mapantsula ends on a note of hopefulness. The path forward is presented as clear, and in Panic, the promise of the nation is represented by a black subject redeemed through political consciousness.

Scene from “Tsotsi.”

The political overtures of Tsotsi are more subdued than in the other two films. This is perhaps appropriate for a film that considers what Goldberg calls “apartheid’s afterlife.” The title character is a criminal, like Panic, however, unlike the latter, Tsotsi’s targets are primarily black. Set in the mid-2000s, the film highlights an era of black access following the disassembling of formal apartheid structures. But, as Goldberg’s characterization suggests, exclusion and social stratification live on. In the film, Tsotsi steals a car from a wealthy black couple and finds himself in possession of their infant son. Tsotsi soon grows attached to the child, which reminds him of his own tormented childhood. Tsotsi is eventually redeemed through his affection for the child, and he attempts to make amends with those he has wronged in life. Though the state is largely absent from this film, the narrative of the nation is once again told through the story of a black, male figure. The baby in Tsotsi’s care becomes a symbol for the promise of what the nation could be, and that discovery is what ultimately saves Tsotsi from his life of crime.

However, the onus for change in Tsotsi seems misplaced. If, as Goldberg argues, the structures of apartheid persist through institutions like healthcare, housing and employment, personal redemption is insufficient to stem the tide of dispossession. (Goldberg refers to this as the “spiraling apartheid of class.”) Tsotsi is somewhat successful in its representation of class fissures in contemporary South Africa. The world of the couple whose baby is taken is far removed from that of Tsotsi, his family and friends. Scenes of their large house replete with expensive wares and topnotch security are juxtaposed with imagery of Tsotsi’s small township shack. Yet, it is the latter, not the former, who must seek redemption and better himself. The narrative of the film suggests that waywardness of Tsotsi’s life is the product of mere circumstance and a structural critique is noticeably absent.

A type of liberal, self-help ethos is present throughout the film, and this is reflective of the current era in South Africa. In her article, “Liberal or Liberation Framework? The Contradictions of ANC Rule in South Africa,” political scientist Krista Johnson describes the post-apartheid environment as one dominated by forces of Western capital and hegemonic neoliberalism (200). The push toward privatization in many aspects of life also facilitates a climate of personal responsibility. Despite its strengths as a film, Tsotsi falls prey to this type of thinking. Thus, in the film’s climatic closing scene, Tsotsi returns to give the stolen baby back to the couple. He is scared and frightened, as police cars surround him. Yet, the sacrifice is portrayed as worth it. Tsotsi has seen the errors of his ways and he stands ready to accept whatever punishment is meted out by the state. For their part, the wealthy couple is largely silent. Again, their status and privilege is unquestioned in the film. Tsotsi is the one who must redeem his life. This disavowal of imbedded structures of power and privilege and the film’s unwillingness to engage questions of political circumstance weaken its overall effectiveness. However, both these weaknesses do much to locate the film within a very specific moment in South Africa, full of uncertainty about how to address the lingering apparitions of apartheid.

All three films contribute to a better understanding of South African history and politics. Viewing these films attuned to tropes of redemption further demonstrates how the nation has been conceptualized at different moments. During the 1950s of Come Back Africa, the state has consolidated power, marking the boundaries of social and political belonging, while also restricting the freedom of movement for certain populations. This moment of triumph for the apartheid regime is represented by the life of Zachariah, a displaced laborer. For Zachariah, work becomes the mechanism through which he can craft of life under the constraints of racial terror. For most of the film, his attachments do not extend beyond this limited scope of finding a job. Yet, the film’s conclusion demonstrates the folly of this thinking. The murder of Zachariah’s wife highlights the prevalence of violence, the unworkability of a system that demonizes people, robs them of their humanity and redirects animosity toward their fellow sufferers. For 1950s South Africa, redemption remains elusive. The world of Mapantsula in the 1980s is more hopeful, if also more chaotic. Apartheid is no longer able to function and the path toward liberation is increasingly clear. In this moment, even criminals are swept up in the fervor. Panic’s refusal to cooperate with state forces speaks to a local and global refusal of apartheid’s continuation. Thus, Panic emerges as a redeemed figure. He leaves a self-centered life of personal gain and becomes part of a collective uprising. The hopefulness was not meant to last, though. By the dawn of the 21st century, formal apartheid was gone, but vestiges remained. In Tsotsi, issues of class are brought to the forefront, with black comfort existing alongside black misery. However, the film falls into a cynical trap of liberal self-help. Tsotsi does not have a movement or a cause through which to discover a path toward redemption; all he has is a baby. The baby, as a representation of what the nation could be, leads Tsotsi to personal salvation but not liberation. South Africa is left as a nation of possibility with no clear path forward.

Further Reading

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Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.