Review: ‘Silverton Siege’ Brilliantly Pays Homage To South Africa’s Unsung Heroes

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On 25 January 1980, three armed activists of the ANC’s uMkhonto we Sizwe (“spear of the nation”) wing walked into a bank in Silverton, Pretoria and changed the course of history forever. Brave enough to fight apartheid at its height in South Africa, Stephen Mafoko, Humphrey Makhubo and Wilfred Madela took over a bank with 25 hostages in exchange for some demands including the release of Nelson Mandela. At the time, Mandela had already served 16 years of his life sentence. After a six-hour standoff with the police, the security officials stormed the bank killing the trio and a couple of civilians in the process. Still, their actions led to the start of the Free Mandela movement; he was released 10 years later after the events of the film in 1990. 

This is the inspiration for Netflix latest’s local addition. Like the real event, Silverton Siege is set in 1980s Pretoria. The movie follows three young freedom fighters on a botched mission to destroy a plant in order to destabilize 1980s Apartheid-era South Africa. Running away from the police, they end up holding a bank and its occupants’ hostage in exchange for the release of Nelson Mandela. Exploring the opposing belief systems that probably existed at the time, the Mandla Dube-directed thriller begins with the activists and their ideologies set against the security officials convinced that stopping them is the right thing to do.

As you watch on, the movie delves into the backgrounds and motivations of the characters. You begin to understand why the activists are hell-bent on fighting against the unjust imprisonment of Mandela and apartheid policies. The movie also digs into the different perspectives of the hostages in the bank; some support the movement and others see the activists as bandits. By the end of the 100 minutes long, some characters surprisingly change their minds while others hold on to theirs.

The Good 

The cast is brilliant. Aldo (Stefan Erasmus), Calvin (Thabo Rametsi), and Terra (Noxolo Dlamini) play the three antiheroes. Rametsi bodies his character. Every scene with him transports you to the apartheid era and makes you feel like doing all you can to join the fight. Noxolo is believable as a vengeful, wild card Terra who is ready to shed blood for the cause at the slightest provocation. Then, there is Arnold Vosloo, who is famously known for his role in The Mummy. Playing against Clavin as Johan Langerman, he takes us on a journey from the cop who believes he is on the right side of the justice to who comes to respect and maybe support the activists’ idealism. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that he is a South African-American actor, which might explain why his accent was relatively good to a non-native speaker’s ears. Justin Strydom is extremely good at playing the role of the racist white cop that you find yourself hating whenever the camera pans to him. His role is inspired by South Africa’s “Big Crocodile” prime minister and apartheid strongman PW Botha. It is safe to say that everyone brings their A-game to this project.

For non-South African viewers who may have never heard of these ‘unsung’ heroes, Silverton Siege is a powerful history lesson that raises awareness about this intriguing event. All credit goes to the South African director Dube and the actors who bring the tension of over 30 years of boiling oppression and political strife in South Africa to life. This movie makes the case for the need for more authentic movies told by the owners of the stories. I can honestly say Silverton Siege makes me want to see more movies from South Africa and the rest of the African region. We need more African stories told by Africans on international platforms.

The Bad

While Silverton Siege is a movie made by a lot of South Africans, it fails to escape the Hollywood treatment as well known tired cliches still find their way into this crime action-thriller. As we have seen in several Hollywood movies, the film has a good guy who happens to be a white guy. Pitted against the activists and the racist cops, the good cop named Johan Langerman (Arnold Vosloo) aka the white savior is determined to save the day. The movie gets a two-for-one special with the light-skinned government minister’s daughter. Despite her rich background, she chooses to work at the bank in an assistant-managerial position. She holds on to her opposing liberal views until the end when she loses her life.

While it is disappointing to see these tropes in an African movie, it’s important to add that these few flaws do very little to distract you from the point of the movie. Silverton Siege remains a great movie that deserves to be seen by everyone — if only to better understand South Africa’s history and heroes. It is currently streaming on Netflix today to coincide with South Africa’s Freedom Day, which marks the country’s first democratic elections after apartheid.

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