Come Back Africa and
South African film history

by Ntongela Masilela

from Jump Cut, no. 36, May 1991, pp. 61-65
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1991, 2006

"The initial wonder that characterized descriptions of pictures that moved on a screen was very soon replaced in South Africa by a comparative negligence on the part of the Press...Interest in films as historic documentary material was, with most unfortunate results, very slight in South Africa. As early as 1919...owing to their low wage level, the provision of special cinemas for non-Europeans could not be contemplated for many years." — Thelma Gutsche, The History and Social Significance of Motion Pictures in South Africa: 1895-1940.

In South Africa economics is directly determinant. The evolution, structure and ideological complications of South African cinema begin in the context of the history and social contradictions that developed as a result of the mining revolution. This revolution in South African economic history occurred following the discovery of diamonds and gold in the 1860s and 1880s in Kimberly and Johannesburg respectively. The effect of this discovery was the industrialization of the country through the mining industry, and it had consequences nationally and internationally. Internationally, it facilitated British national capital's deeper penetration into the country, where British exploitative ventures continue today protected by conservative ideology.

Nationally, the effects of this historical event were even more profound. It made possible the accumulation of capital from the surplus extracted from labor, particularly black labor. It transformed the demographic composition of the country qualitatively and quantitatively, shifting the population from rural areas to the cities. In other words, the economic revolution impelled by mining created the context in which British imperialism, supported by other European imperialisms, cemented its stranglehold on the many strands of cultural formation which were then emerging. It altered the country's cultural coordinates in immeasurable ways. Specifically in relation to film, music halls changed into cinema halls, thus making way for the penetration of a new film culture.

The first serious theoretical formulations of the ideology and philosophy of apartheid, which has had horrendous consequences on South African film culture, found expression in mining publications.[1][open notes in new window] Apartheid ideology completely shaped the structure of South African films. From the moment of its emergence, South African cinema has been obsessed with the ideology of apartheid — not in opposition to it but rather attempting to imprint it on the historical imagination and consciousness of black people (Africans, Indians and so-called Coloureds). In contrast, South African cinema in exile has contested such an imposition of cultural hegemony.

Although films were shown on a permanent basis in the country from about 1909 on, the first film was shown in Johannesburg, Monday, May 11, 1896.[2] The cultural formation of the audiences for early films had been prepared for indirectly by the mining industry. The cinema audience in mining compounds consisted of two large groups: a black peasantry in the process of being proletarianized into mineworkers, and white agricultural workers in the process of being transformed into an industrial proletariat. Miners had previously been entertained through the musical hall art forms. Film now destroyed the previous art forms and colonized that cultural space. Many immigrants also constituted a large portion of the audience, especially Jews from Eastern Europe fleeing constant pogroms who had come to South Africa seeking fortunes in the mining industry. In the major towns, the emerging white middle class patronized film; some of their wealth came from the developing manufacturing industries, industries which were given impetus by the diversification of expanding mining capital. In other words, it was the mining industry which gave impetus to the development of film culture in South Africa.

The mining revolution also led to the outbreak of a modern imperialist war in Africa. It was modern in the sense that it was not over land and territory but rather over who controlled the State and industrialization processes. The Boer War of 1899-1901 between British imperial interests and Boer (Afrikaans) national interests provides the historical context in which perhaps for the first time South African propaganda films were made. Major British film companies (British Mutoscope and Biograph Co., R.W. Paul, and the Warwick Trading Company) and various other companies (Pathé, Gaumont, Gibbons, Edison and others) were at the center of this propaganda warfare. As Elizabeth Grottle Strebel, social historian of films, writes, the British film companies were merely interested in perpetuating "the myths and symbols of British imperialist iconography."[3] Two kinds of films were made during this imperialist war: raw documentary films and staged propaganda films. As Strebel continues, these anti-Boer propaganda films had the same preoccupations as those present at the birth of cinema: the realism of Lumière and the magic of Mélies.[4]

The early, marked influence of propaganda filmmaking has had profound consequences for the development and history of film culture in South Africa. First, this is a particular form of the imperialist transplanting of film culture. That is, if we look at film as the battleground of iconographic representations and interests, we will see that until recently film production in South Africa was never considered an artistic creative act but rather as a propaganda instrument against what one perceived as one's enemies. If in 1900, imperialist British film iconography depicted Afrikaner people and culture as the very essence of "barbarism," from 1910 (the date of the political formation of present day South Africa), the very same Afrikaaner people, now to defend white state interests, have developed a complex film iconography at whose center Blacks (Africans, Indians and so-called Coloured) are depicted as demons. In other words, South African film iconography has a history constructed on lies and falsehood, not on authentic representations. Hegemonic film culture in South Africa is currently controlled by the Broederbond, an elite cultural organization whose intent is to perpetuate the hegemonic control of Afrikaans culture and the dominance of white nationalism.

Not surprisingly, the "national culture" is one of mediocrity. No film of outstanding quality has emerged from imposing the ideology of white supremacy on cinema. Interestingly and paradoxically, the two most important film features made in the history of South African cinema, were made by two U.S. film directors. (They will be referred to in a moment, for they represent the two opposed extremes apparent in South African film history. They both indicate clearly that the history of our film culture is Janus-faced.)

The second major factor in South African film history is the penetration of U.S. and British film companies from the very beginnings of a national film-viewing culture. The transformations in our film culture mentioned earlier were effected by many of these foreign companies. Between the closing phase of the Boor War in 1901 and the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, mostly by British companies made many short films, especially documentaries. South Africa was still in many ways a British colony, though the provinces of Transvaal and Orange Free State had already become independent republics in the second half of the nineteenth century. At this moment, the British film company, Warwick Trading Company, dominated our film screen through production, distribution and exhibition. The first feature film in South Africa, THE GREAT KIMBERLEY DIAMOND ROBBERY, was made in 1910 by the Springbok Production Company.[5] The film's tide indicates the importance of the mining revolution to the then developing historical imagination in our film culture.

In fact, historical imagination characterized the film which begins South African cinema: DE VOORTREKKERS/ WINNING A CONTINENT. This 1916 film was produced by a South-African-owned company, African Film Productions Limited, under the directorship of I.W. Schlesinger.[6] The formation of this film company and the making of this film were shaped by the historical conditions of the First World War. During the war period, because of blockages and shortages, Hollywood's dominance in supplying films to the world market was seriously affected. In Russia the war created the material and cultural conditions which facilitated the emergence of the cinema of Dziga Vertov, Pudovkin, Kuleshov and others, however much they drew their inspiration from the work of Griffith.

At a lower level of intellectual inspiration and cultural richness, the war ended the dominance of foreign film companies in South Africa. The market for films was expanding while the supply of films was contracting. This was the historical logic in founding companies like African Film Productions Limited and making blockbuster films like WINNING A CONTINENT. Unlike in Russia, which developed intellectual capital in the process of building socialism, in South Africa, as capitalism consolidated itself, the capitalist market itself needed an absence of originality in our historical imagination.

This poverty of historical imagination is in full display in WINNING A CONTINENT, which defines our (both black and white South Africans) cultural origins in cinema. The film reveals the shortage of intellectual capital then which continues to the present. The making of DE VOORTREKKERS/ WINNING A CONTINENT necessitated importing a U.S. film director, Harold Shaw, who earlier had worked for Edison. The film itself has been a subject of many essays.[7] The racist iconography blighting this film was modeled on Griffith's BIRTH OF A NATION. Whereas for the Russians what was fascinating about Griffith was his invention of a new film grammar and syntax, our white compatriots were most fascinated with his racist iconography. This iconography would poison the whole film culture in South Africa for approximately four decades (until another U.S. independent film director was to overturn the terms of its dominance). DE VOORTREKKERS articulates the complex structure of South African history in Manichean terms, a Manicheanism so characteristic of the philosophy and ideology of apartheid. It assumes an unending struggle between the forces of civilization (read, white South Africans) and the demons of barbarism (read, black South Africa). DE VOORTREKKERS reveals the fragmentation and distortion of South African history, even much more than it reveals British imperialist ideology or Afrikaanerdom.

This fragmentation of South African history corresponds to the fragmentation of our social reality, in class and racial terms. The ideology of apartheid dictated that there should be separate and distinct cinemas for the "different" public spheres in South Africa. In this way we have a cinema which can best be designated as apartheid black cinema. It was founded in 1920 on the suggestion of a U.S. pastor, Ray Phillips of the American Board of Missions.[8] Black apartheid cinema was originally directed at the African public sphere in the mining compounds; it had the intent of "sublimating criminal tendencies." The Chamber of Mines and the Municipal Native Affairs Department took an interest in developing this kind of cinema. With time the apartheid government was to fund it extensively through various ministerial departments.

Apartheid black cinema is made by white South Africans (directors, cameramen, editors, etc.) on the basis of the dominant ideology of apartheid and fed to the black public sphere. With the passage of time, it has extended its diabolical tentacles from mining compounds to black urban areas and Bantustans (Homelands). While the production side has been absolutely controlled by whites, who reap enormous profits, the performers are usually Africans. Recently, Africans have also entered the production side. These films are usually made in the Zulu language. The specific aim of apartheid black cinema is to corrupt and demobilize the historical and political imagination of black people. Such a cinema reveals another way in which the ideology of apartheid has spelled mediocrity and disaster for South African cinema.[9]

Parallel with this making of apartheid black cinema was the making of Afrikaans-language cinema. On the whole, the structure of films in this tradition, as Keyan Tomaselli has convincingly argued, depends on a dialectic of insider versus outsider.[10] According to Tomaselli, the fact that the gold mining industry was dominated by British imperial interests against Afrikaaner national interests, the theme of xenophobia pervades this cinema. With time, xenophobia became projected against blacks. Originating in the economic sphere (white versus white), this xenophobia moved to the political plane (white against black), where it remains. In its essentials, xenophobia was part of the ideological shield of Afrikaanerdom (white nationalism).

In contrast, thirty years ago a film was shot secretly in South Africa which, with the passage of time, has prefigured what an authentic national cinema in our country could possibly be. COME BACK AFRICA, by the independent U.S. film director, Lionel Rogosin, is undoubtedly the highest achievement of film culture in South Africa. The film was banned in 1959. It was indeed a momentous occasion on May 1, 1988, when Rogosin's film made its first public appearance in our troubled country.[11]

Lionel Rogosin's first film, ON THE BOWERY (1955) depicted New York City's skid row. It made possible the emergence of the New American Cinema of Jonas Mekas, John Cassavettes, Fredrick Wiseman, and the consolidation of the British Free Cinema of John Schlesinger, Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz. One has only to consult Basil Wright's superlative praise of Rogosin's first film at its premiere, even comparing it to Dovzhenko and Dostoeyevsky, to understand what a momentous occasion its appearance was.[12] Its poetic intermixture of documentary and fiction was a culmination of Flaherty's documentary tradition as well the beginnings of a lyrical experimental documentary form that was to find supreme expression in the work of Santiago Alvarez.

One of the things that makes COME BACK AFRICA one of the serious documents of our cultural history is that it is the last intellectual snapshot of a brilliant literary generation before its destruction in the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. In the film we encounter Bloke Modisane, Lewis Nkosi, Can Themba, Miriam Makeba and others. Lewis Nkosi, who wrote the script of COME BACK AFRICA with Lionel Rogosin and Bloke Modisane, and who acted in the film, was always aware of the film's historic importance. In an article immediately following the film's international premiere, Nkosi, one of Africa's foremost literary critics, praised it in the following terms:

"The film is not great by any standard. There are too many technical weaknesses in the development of the story. However, with all these faults, the story emerges as a powerful document of social truth such as no other producer's camera has unfolded in this country."[13]

On the linguistic plane, as much as in its historical projection of reality, the film displays its certainties and certitudes. Linguistically, the film employs three South African languages which are at the center of our historical and cultural experiences. Zulu is spoken by workers in the mining compound. Afrikaans is spoken by policemen arresting Africans. And English is spoken by African intellectuals in a shebeen and also by businessmen. In other words, the film projects the Zulu language as the language of class solidarity, the Afrikaans language as the language of coercion and repression, and the English language as the language of commerce and intellectual exchange. Though in a sense the film's imaginative designations are simple, they nonetheless capture an element of historical truth. For example, iconographically, the film opens with a silhouetted scene of the mining compounds to which the miners are coming. This opening reveals Rosogin's intuitive brilliance, for as the present essay has attempted to indicate, the mining revolution was at the center of the South African historical experience. In other words, the film opens on the question of labour and capital. It is the dialectic between the two which determines the structural working out of the film.

Still on the iconographic plane, COME BACK AFRICA uniquely displays a positive image of Africans on the screen from beginning to end. It does not offer a romanticization or distortion of black imagery but concretizes Black cultural forms. From the first appearance of Zacharia, the chief protagonist, among a group of workers, to the closing moments of the film, when crying in despair at the death of his wife, he bangs the table, we sense the film is attempting to convey the sense and structure of South African history. The film equally attempts to draw attention to the tension between city and country, the latter supposedly the center of traditionalism and the latter the locale of cosmopolitanism. In the famous shebeen scene, if Zacharia represents the force of traditionalism, then Lewis Nkosi playing himself represents the pole of cosmopolitanism. Can Themba in the film represents anarchism; no doubt, Miriam Makeba represents spirituality. In other words, the film is a rich tableau of representations, of historical and iconographic contrasts. The true significance of COME BACK AFRICA is that since its making thirty years ago, and its first appearance on the public screens today back at home, it poses one fundamental question: What ought to be the nature and structure of an authentic South African national cinema?

One wishes that this film by an independent U.S-Jewish film director had been made by Lionel Ngakane, the father of South African cinema. A film like COME BACK AFRICA compels us South Africans to pose to ourselves a critical question concerning Lionel Ngakane: Why has he been unable in exile to establish the guideposts of the South African cinema, despite the fact that he is its unacknowledged father. What are the historical blockages which have prevented Ngakane from constructing a solid historical vision in our cinema! We cannot answer this question right now for we do not possess adequate intellectual instruments with which to unravel its intractable complexities. With the passage of time, however, this question will become crucial in our cultural history.

In the meantime, within the past decade, an independent film culture has been flourishing in South Africa. Undoubtedly, still more outstanding things are still to be expected from the post-Ngakane independent filmmakers like, Barry Feinberg, Harriet Gavshon and others. The new film culture's defining center is its unmitigated hostility to the cultural politics of apartheid. With the unbanning of COME BACK AFRICA and its historical rendezvous with that film, this emerging independent film and video movement will find its cultural history mirrored in this older work. Judging by the quality of films and videos shown in Amsterdam in a two-week festival, "Culture in Another South Africa," from December 8 to December 21, 1987, in a few years time an independent film culture in South Africa will command world-wide recognition.


1. Belinda Bozzoli, The Political Nature of a Ruling Class (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981). pp. 111-125.

2. Thelma Gauche, The History and Social Significance of Motion Pictures in South Africa, 1895-1940 (Capetown: Howard Timmins, 1972), pp. 95,13.

3. Elizabeth Grottle Strebel, "Primitive Propaganda The Boer War Films," Sight and Sound 46.1 (Winter 1976-77), 45.

4. Ibid., p. 45.

5. Keyan Tomaselli, "Capitalism and Culture in South African Cinema," Wide Angle 8.2 (1986), 43.

6. Thelma Gutsche, p. 312.

7. The article by Keyan Tomaselli referred to above; Hannes van Zyl, "De Voortrekkers: Some Stereotypes and Narrative Conventions," Critical Arts 1.1 (March 1980); Elizabeth Grottle Strebel, "The Voortrekkers: A Cinematographic Reflection of Afrikaaner Nationalism," Film and History 9.2 (1979).

8. Harriet Gavshon, "Levels of Intervention in Films made for African Audiences in South Africa," Critical Arts 2.4 (1983), 14.

9. Keyan G. Tomaselli, Class and Ideology: Reflections in South African Cinema," Critical Arts 1.1 (March 1980). Tomaselli's criticism of Thelma Gutsche's book, a text which founded film studies in South Africa and which this essay attempts to honor, is unfounded. We, who follow after her, stand on her shoulders.

10. Ibid, p. 7.

11. In a private letter of April 18, 1988, Lionel Rogosin indicates from London that the film will open today, May 1st, at the University of Witwatersrand and in Johannesburg and also in Cape Town. Michel Lazarus of Osprey Films in Cape Town, in a private letter of March 11th, 1988, alludes to this date mentioned by Rogosin. For over a year Michel Lazarus struggled with the censors to lift the ban on COME BACK AFRICA.

12. Basil Wright, "ON THE BOWERY," Sight and Sound 26.2 (Autumn 1956), 98.

13. Lewis Nkosi, "Come Back Africa," Fighting Talk, February 1960, no pagination. This source was given, for which I'm thankful, by Professor Jacques Alvarez-Pereyre in Grenoble.