The limits of the cop drama

A bleak new television drama, ‘Donkerbos,’ explores secrets in small town South Africa, but fails to offer alternatives to the tropes of good vs evil.

Still from Donkerbos © Nagvlug Films.

In the sinister woods outside the fictional town of Donkerbos (Afrikaans for “dark bush”), police uncover a mass grave of murdered children, whose corpses are surrounded by cryptic symbols and grotesque adornments. “Many people are killed in this country… many children. But all of them at once?” says a stunned archivist, tasked with helping the police with their investigations. The South African media seizes on this horror as proof of child sacrifices committed by  “satanists” and “witches.” But as the investigations of brilliant, but troubled South African Police Service (SAPS) detective Fanie Van Wyk (Erica Wessels) and her equally talented and messed up partner Tsedza Tshivenga (Sanda Shandu) begin to reveal, these savage crimes are rooted more in mundane reality than the supernatural.

The discovery of the bodies dredges up the past of the protagonists, such as Fanie’s extramarital affair and distant relationship with her husband and severely depressed teenage son. As they dig deeper into the case, it becomes clear that the true danger to the local children are often their own caretakers, such as an neglectful mother who leaves her daughter in the care of a partner who has previously been convicted of abuse.

Rather than an idyllic rural retreat, Donkerbos is pierced throughout by incipient violence, religious fanaticism, and intimate abuse. With mist-shrouded cinematography and uniformly miserable characters, who speak in portentous dialogue about the all-pervasive evil of the world, this Afrikaans, English and Venda drama is very explicitly framed as a South African variant of the dark police investigative drama.

Somber tales of detectives unraveling shocking crimes, often occurring in supposedly quiet towns that hide nightmarish secrets, have become runaway hits in the era of VOD streaming. This includes the wave of Nordic Noirs, such as The Killing and The Bridge, Scandinavian productions which were later given American remakes. As screens become ever larger and brighter it seems that audiences, however, are ever more attracted to stories that are defined by narrative and visual bleakness.

In the last century, the detective fiction genre was associated with escapism, with cops or police-affiliated private investigators, like Agatha Christie’s Poirot, solving crimes among the upper-classes. While the American hardboiled style, initiated by writers like Raymond Chandler and  Chester Himes, was more cynical about the social order—often portraying both the wealthy and the police as dysfunctional and corrupt—they nevertheless offered the vicarious thrill of two-fisted characters fighting injustices and exposing secrets.

But, in the 21st-century detective fiction has increasingly become a form of social realism, focused on anatomizing the violent aftermath of crime on communities. This fascination with investigation reflects a cultural mood where people feel inundated with news of political and financial corruption, but powerless to take any actions to stop them. Nico Scheepers, the creator of Donkerbos, echoes this pessimistic worldview, claiming that it reflects a need to feel that there are “brave people standing between us and the darkness.”

With scenes featuring power outages and dilapidated municipal buildings, Donkerbos taps into a  widespread sense of disillusionment about the state of South African society. The series has aired in South Africa amidst an ongoing power crisis, where corruption and mismanagement in the country’s electricity monopoly lead to 1,900 hours of “loadshedding”—a euphemism for rolling blackouts—in 2022 alone. The shots of closed buildings and trash strewn streets highlight the ongoing collapse of local government. According to the government’s own figures, 59% of the country’s 257 municipalities are bankrupt and unable to provide regular services. Criminality and social violence—and the police’s apparent inability to control it—are evidenced by the sickening regularity with which the media is inundated with stories of child abduction, abuse, and murder.

But the show also indicts both the news and religious institutions and how they cynically use the publicity around crimes for their own ends. The town’s pastor attempts to leverage the discovery of the bodies  to draw followers to his church. In another scene, an ambulance-chasing TV reporter advises the mother of a murdered child: “Pro tip, people love tears, so don’t hold back.” The show also looks at how the powerful influence of Christian fundamentalism structures the reporting and policing of crime itself. The sadism and brutality of many criminal actions are seen as so terrible that they cannot be simply the work of human malice.

The SAPS, itself, retains an Occult Crimes division, founded in the waning days of apartheid by Christian fundamentalist Kobus “Donker” Jonker, who regularly appeared in the press spouting  outrageous claims, such as telling the Mail & Guardian newspaper in 1995 that the country had “20, 000” active Satanists, who had put hexes on police officers to cause martial and financial problems. The Occult Crimes division categorizes everything from horror movies to traditional African religious practices in league with the forces of evil, and unsurprisingly has done little to reduce the murder rate, because its focus is on evangelizing for an extreme religious world-view rather than the actual practicalities of solving crime.

Mass media is always ready to spice up crime stories with hints of satanic involvement. Between 2012 and 2016, a small cult called Overcomers in Christ committed 11 murders  in the town of Krugersdorp, just outside Johannesburg. Despite ample evidence that these killings were motivated by theft and revenge, much of the media erroneously described these as “satanic” murders.

In the hyperbolic 2021 documentary series Devilsdorp (also produced by Showmax), interviewees regularly express shock that small-town, conservative white people could be responsible for such criminal carnage. The use of spooky music and editing suggests the influence of hidden, diabolical forces, but the omitted, however, is the fact that these very same conservative values underpinned the systemic crimes of apartheid. Violent crime, it’s implied, is something associated with the urban and the pathologized “other.” Donkerbos challenges this cultural trope, with the investigation uncovering the physic ooze that suppurates under the quiet dorp (small town) mythology. The pervasive violence fueled by unresolved historical traumas and contemporary misgovernance, and subconsciously validated by reactionary gender ideologies about male domination of women and children means no space is fully exempt from the horrors of South African existence.

Although the show is a serious attempt to wrestle with a truly disturbing reality, its adherence to other genre conventions reflects an artistic conservatism. While it is certainly not uncritical of flawed police protagonists, it adheres to the idea that the police are ultimately a force for good. Cops are the line between civilization and chaos, the only real protection from the horrors.

Despite its commitment to grit, the depiction of the SAPS fails to capture the sordid reality. Contrary to the show’s obsessively committed officers, South African cops have an infamous reputation for failing to properly investigate abuse and gender-based violence. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that the police are a labyrinth of criminality, with officers working for organized crime gangs, and whistleblowers being assassinated. Donkerbos misses a chance to drill into the baroque networks of power and paranoia within the state.

As with its Showmax predecessor, Reyka, the series sees the function of crime fiction as a  quasi-theological witnessing of the evils of the world, without holding out the promise that any kind of social change could improve things. But the global tradition of crime fiction also has a counter-current of anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment narratives, which actively criticize dominant forms of political and economic power and conventional morality. There are as many stories of outsiders and outlaws working outside of the system as the stock police protagonist.

If we look at some of Donkerbos’ contemporaries, such as South Korean noirs A Bittersweet Life (2005) and Burning (2018) offer acerbic commentary on class and personal alienation in late capitalism. The American show Yellowjackets (2021) shares a forest setting with Donkerbos, but substitutes its  melancholic tone for a wild story of supernatural weirdness and bad behavior. By prioritizing visual and narrative flamboyance, these works offer a different perspective on contemporary social reality, while alluding to the potential for upheaval and transformation.

While it has many merits on its own, watching Donkerbos made me question whether South Africa needs more cops vs evil stories. The surreal reality of contemporary life warrants fictions that subvert tidy notions of law against disorder and that go beyond just detailing dysfunction. The hopeless tone of the series is a response to a very real sense of despair that is pervasive in the country, but this gloom prevents us from feeling a sense of agency and thinking of the political and cultural alternatives that could transform a scared, broken society.

Perhaps, instead of hoping for people to save us, we need narratives about how to do it ourselves.

Further Reading