The Coloured Gangster

This review of the film Noem My Skollie, first published in 2018, is reproduced here following the passing of screen writer John Fredericks in July 2019.

John W. Fredericks. Image credit Penguin Random House.

The gangster, especially the coloured (“mixed race”) gangster, is a loaded cipher in South Africa. He is, simultaneously, a figure of panic, an outsider, loser, avatar of moral decline, byproduct of apartheid’s negative effects, defiant outlaw, and, more recently, a reflection of the deep, systematic failures of the twin promises of postapartheid and capitalist society, as well as a neoliberal entrepreneur. The gangster has baffled academics, mostly sociologists and historians, tabloid journalists, and filmmakers alike.

The new film, Noem My Skollie (in English, Call Me Gangster, or Thief), released in 2016, explores some of these themes. Noem My Skollie (NMS) is set in 1960s Cape Town, and the action moves over a ten-year period between Kewtown, a section of Athlone township, and Pollsmoor prison, an infamous institution on the southern edge of the Table Mountain next to a white suburb and vineyards. The protagonist, Abraham, or AB, is molested as a teenager, forms a gang to take revenge on his attacker, gets arrested for a robbery, along with a close friend, Gimba, and is sent to Pollsmoor. Inside the prison, AB encounters “the Number,” which is how the country’s prison gangs collectively are known. It comprises the 28, 27, and 26 gangs. There, to fend off the 28s (a gang that uses sodomy as a means of power within the gang), AB presents himself to cellmates as a storyteller—becoming the “prison cinema”—and as a letter writer. The plan works; Gimba is not so lucky. On AB’s release, he starts a new life as a writer and finds love, only to be framed for another murder, which builds to the film’s dramatic denouement.

The gang history recounted in NMS has deep roots in South African history and culture. The Number includes the most violent and also the most mythologized gangs. Gang history is also as old as modern South Africa. The Number traces its origins to the discovery of gold in the 1880s in the Witwatersrand region, specifically, to a band of black men, led by a Zulu migrant, who robbed and killed colonists and whites and who extorted black migrant workers. By the middle of the twentieth century, the Number—which developed its own lexicon, a polyglot of South African languages, as well as a complex rank structure of order and punishment mimicking colonial and Afrikaner armies of the Boer War—had grown to dominate South African prisoners. Outside prisons, and in the wake of large-scale urbanization of blacks, were turf gangs, drawing inspiration from American crime films, and formed from the social disaffection of young men. They mostly preyed on their fellows. Drum magazine’s black writers in the 1950s—the South African equivalent of the Harlem Renaissance—covered the exploits of these gangs in detail in the black, coloured, and Indian parts of the cities of Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban. The gangs even developed a certain kind of glamor. They included the Gestapos, the Vultures, the Berliners, and the Americans. After a while, some gangsters turned to the word, as did the poet Don Mattera, of Italian and Tswana descent, who would go on to write about his gang exploits in inner-city Johannesburg.

But it would be in Cape Town that gangs would come to dominate social and economic life for the city’s mostly coloured working class. More than criminal in general, the city has hundreds of thousands of organized gang members and boasts the country’s highest murder rate as a result. Much of this violence is contained on the Cape Flats, the vast, inhospitable floodplain beyond the central city to which, in places like Manenberg, Kewtown, and Hanover Park, its mostly coloured population had been resettled. More recently, some of the violence has spread to the city’s mostly white suburbs.

Gangs thrived in Cape Town’s creolized suburbs, such as District Six, Kirstenbosch, Newlands, and Claremont, on the edges of Table Mountain, in the first half of the twentieth century, before these neighborhoods were “sanitized” by apartheid for whites after 1948. The Mongrels, a notorious Cape Flats gang, had their start in District Six. Though the Mongrels were certainly violent, older Capetonians remember these gangs fondly, noting that they became particularly violent after forced removals to the Cape Flats. By the 1970s, newer gangs, like the Hard Livings (HLs) and the Cape Town version of the Americans, made their presence felt on the Flats. (One curiosity is gangs’ insignia: the HLs swear to the British flag). Apartheid police were notorious for cooperating with coloured gangs, spying on activists and on occasion soliciting them for political hits.

Gangsters were always a staple onscreen, even under apartheid. In films like the liberal, Hollywood-infused Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), Absalom, the gangster brother of the lead, was used to moralize. In the more radical Come Back Africa (1959), the sociological and historical causes of gangsterism come through. These were films set in Johannesburg, so the gangsters were black. (Coloured gangsters still served as a comedic device in musical revue films like Zonk! [(1950]). It is, however, Mapantsula (1988), with its exploration of the short life of Panic, a gangster pulled between loyalty to his police handlers and growing admiration for activists in late 1980s Soweto at the height of the last phase of anti-apartheid resistance, that has stood as the most complex portrayal of a gangster up to that point and since. The film was a joint project of white director Oliver Schmitz and black writer/lead actor Thomas Mogotlane. (Even the exiled “cultural desk” of the African National Congress [ANC] felt compelled to debate the film in its journals. They could not agree on its cultural merit.)

Nelson Mandela’s release and the negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid state opened up further portrayals of gangster life on film. Artists were now comfortable tackling subjects other than exile and struggle. Cape of Fear, a 1994 documentary film by British director Daniel Reed about two coloured HLs, the twins Rashied and Rashaad Staggie, and their violent rule of Manenberg, should receive partial credit for the torrent of postapartheid interest in cinematic depictions of coloured gang life (including on television). The film not only focused on the Staggies but also gave a wider sense of the structural effects of apartheid on coloureds—the destitution, cramped housing, high unemployment, sexual violence—and the role of religion, especially Christianity, as redemptive ideology in the community. The film provided an unabashed glimpse into the daily struggles of gang life. Cape of Fear achieved cult status. The film was screened on a local cable channel, but those who did not have a subscription passed around bootlegged VHS copies in neighborhoods and workplaces in Cape Town (which is how I, too, came into possession of it, via my sister, who worked at a shoe factory in Cape Town). The Staggies would later be the target of the anti-crime group PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs) whose members burned Rashaad alive and then shot him to death in front of his house. Cape of Fear suggested, more than anything, that gang life on the Cape Flats was a subject worthy of serious exploration. By the early 2000s, coloured gangsters were sensationalist tabloid fare (gruesome and gleeful stories of gang assassinations and the high life) in the local press. They had also quietly and strategically taken control of extortion rackets and were now in open warfare with older, more established crime syndicates, who extracted protection money from the lucrative restaurant and nightlife in Cape Town’s city center.

Meanwhile, feature films like Hijack Stories (2000), Tsotsi (2005), which won an Oscar, and Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema (2008) covered aspects of gang life in Johannesburg. All three films were directed by white directors. Tsotsi, for all its significance, individualized crime and reflected white liberal politics about the end of apartheid; Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema came across as a South African knock-off of Carlito’s Way (1993). But these were more morality tales about crime, and their political message appeared forced. (A documentary film that went under the radar was late photographer Peter McKenzie and French codirector Sylvie Peyre’s film What Kind … ? [2007], in which McKenzie returns to his childhood home, Wentworth, a coloured township in Durban, to interview his now middle-aged childhood friends years after they were released from prison over a mid-1980s gang killing).

In 2013, the filmmaker Ian Gabriel (he had also made a film about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Forgiveness [2004]) directed the film Four Corners (2013), the story about a chess prodigy and his family connections to the 26s and 28s. The film received mixed reviews, mostly for adding very little to themes already explored in films such as the Brazilian film City of God (2002) and the 1994 American film, Fresh. Since the release of Four Corners, depictions of South African gang and prison lives seem to be everywhere in local (and international) media—in short films, documentaries, books, photography, and so forth. It would not be a harsh judgment to argue that only two other pieces of media have since come close to the honesty and empathy of Cape of Fear: the documentary film The Devil’s Lair (2013) by Riaan Hendricks, about his high school friend turned gang leader in Mitchells Plain, Braaim; and the journalist Rehana Rossouw’s novel What Will People Say (2015), set in working class Hanover Park.

NMS has some familiar elements and is not a bad film, though some critics may fault it for being overly sentimental. If it seems that way, it may be because much of it is real life. The script for NMS was written by John W. Fredericks, a seventy-year-old former security guard, who lives on the Flats and has for years written plays to be performed in community halls around the city. The film is based on his life. Fredericks has also made documentary films—most notably, one about a local rapper, Devious, who was fatally stabbed by a gang in Mitchells Plain in 2004.

Despite its familiar elements, Noem My Skollie attempts to break with the gangster film genre. As one of the executive producers, Moshidi Motshegwa (she starred in Hijack Stories), put it to a journalist: Noem My Skollie is not about “the Number.” Its makers want to avoid the sensationalism attached to “the Number” and instead to explore human drama. The producers picked a young, coloured director, Daryne Joshua. It was Joshua’s first film. The art direction, which painstakingly tries to recreate 1960s Cape Town, was the responsibility of another coloured artist, Warren Gray. And Kyle Shepherd, a young Cape Town jazz pianist often favorably compared to Abdullah Ibrahim wrote the film score. Like Cape of Fear, Noem My Skollie was well received by the audiences Fredericks had in mind. The film played in prisons, in schools, and in community halls before its release in local commercial cinemas. One of the actors who played the leader of the 28s in prison had to fend off members of the 28s who attacked him on the street, mistaking acting for real life (James de Villiers, “‘I Don’t Know if It Was 28s or Drunk People’ Assaulted Noem My Skollie Actor,” News24, December 14, 2016). The film was also submitted as the South African entry for Best Foreign Language Film to the 2017 Academy Awards, although it was not nominated in the end.

Noem My Skollie is not a perfect film, and its critics may easily point to some of its shortcomings, but that should not be the focus of critiques or debates about import. It has more value as a piece of South African cinema history and for what it says about film production in postapartheid South Africa. The film is a production of Maxi-D TV Productions in association with cable network M-Net, cable channel kykNET, the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) and the government Department of Trade and Industry. One of the production companies, kykNET, has been accused of trafficking in white nostalgia for colonialism and apartheid, so its decision to support NMS is seen as a way to counter that perception. The dialogue is mostly in Afrikaans and brings to the center the voices and experiences of the bulk of Afrikaans speakers, that is, coloured Afrikaans speakers, but Noem My Skollie stands out for how it depicts a real social and political problem in working-class communities on the Cape Flats: the gangs are real, so is that social world, and so are gangs’ effects on people lives. Gangsters from the Cape Flats are rarely humanized, their histories worthy of being accounted on film. Noem My Skollie, for better or worse as a work of fiction, begins that process.

This post first appeared as a review in The American Historical Review (2018) 123 (2): 534-536, doi: 10.1093/ahr/rhy006. It is reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association. Please visit.

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