The Story of South Africa As Told By Its Movies

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Takunda Aaron Chimutashu (Zen The Master)

Cinema has long held the incredible ability to simplify complex ideas. Through the power of films, we can travel to other countries and gain insight into everything from culture to socio-political realities, all from the comfort of our seats. Through this medium, countries like South Africa show foreigners the truth about their nation, known globally for its journey from a racist hellscape to a prime example of African enterprise.

With the racist Apartheid regime in the past, South Africa has grown into a rainbow nation that, to date, serves as a shining beacon of possibility in the southern African region. Through characters such as Leleti Khumalo’s Sarafina (Sarafina, 1992) and Morgan Freeman’s Mandela (Invictus, 2009) the world has learned about the heroic sacrifices and deliberate mending that created the nation. Despite their box office success and star-studded casts, these movies barely scratch the surface of what South Africa truly is. To truly understand South Africa, one must seek out films that dig deeper into the mind of ordinary citizens and steer clear of conventional storytelling:

Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema

Such a journey starts with an early 2000s movie like Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema (2008). Directed by Ralph Ziman, Jerusalema bombed at the box office, making back a meager 20% of its production budget. Its commercial failure, however, was contrasted by its critical acclaim as the film’s story attracted attention. The film’s approach to the notoriously high crime rate in South Africa may give onlookers pause but it gets the job done. The plot follows the main character Lucky Kunene who goes from a student aspiring to college, to a hardened gangster spurred on by injustice. With no attempt at subtlety, viewers watch on as Lucky, a young black boy living in a post-apartheid, poor, South African township, quickly realizes that the option of furthering his education is a pipe dream.

We watch on as he quickly turns to crime and, despite multiple attempts at legitimacy, ultimately becomes a crime boss and a thorn in the authorities’ side. Lucky’s reality is shared by many South Africans struggling to leave the township and make lives for themselves beyond poverty. In the film, Lucky turns to crime to simply feed his family and quickly takes it upon himself to seize the life he dreamed possible instead of continuing his futile attempts at earning it legitimately. Whilst mainstream movies portray an image of post-apartheid victory for the oppressed, Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema offers the stark and unfortunate reality.


The story doesn’t end there though as a shift in genre reveals even more about South Africa in the form of the adored movie; Chappie. Released in 2015, this Neill Blomkamp sci-fi vehicle was met with critical and audience praise. Set in a near-future Johannesburg, the movie portrays crime as a problem that has gotten entirely out of hand, prompting the creation of an automated robotic police force. The trouble begins when one of these robots gains sentience but is raised and trained by the criminal element to be like them. At first glance, Chappie achieves the same goals as Jerusalema, but in reality, this film does its own thing.

Chappie tackles the lofty ideals of “Nature vs Nurture” and the relationship between race and crime, all whilst laying bare the incredible technological possibilities of a motivated nation. South Africa has long been a substantial contributor to world technological advancements and is, by all means, staying on that path. Companies such as UViRCO, the creator of an entirely South African multispectral imaging technology that’s used to detect electricity leakage, keep the nation at the forefront of technological development and help defy the idea of Africa being technologically defunct. Thus, the idea that South Africa could facilitate the creation of a fully automated police force or even create the world’s first sentient AI is not far-fetched at all.

District 9

Chappie’s gritty, realistic tone grounds us firmly in this reality whilst also taking the time to make us fall in love with an unusual character in the titular robotic misfit, much like the next film on this list; District 9. What if aliens visited our planet in an enormous spaceship? This question has long held ominous connotations in pop culture, spurred on by films like Will Smith’s Independence Day. District 9 takes this exact idea and puts a unique twist on it. The aliens in this movie aren’t some sort of conquerors, they are, in fact, refugees.

Standing as yet another Neil Blompkamp Sci-Fi film, District 9 was released in 2009 to a largely warm reception. Using the found footage format, the film follows Wikus, a man who works for the authorities in charge of a freshly established refugee camp. The film does not mince words as it shows its main character being blatantly abusive to the disenfranchised aliens. Forced to live in horrid conditions, the aliens, referred to as prawns (one can only assume it’s a slur), harbor a strong dislike for humanity and frankly, no one can blame them. They are treated poorly, basically imprisoned, and worse still experimented on; a fate contrasted starkly by Wikus’ comfortable life. The movie takes an interesting turn when, after some antics, Wikus begins to mutate into an alien and soon learns how the other side lives.

South Africa has some of the most beautiful infrastructural development of any African country and a quick trip to any of their cities would prove this true. However, the country still plays host to some of the world’s largest slums and the conditions there don’t differ much from those exhibited in District 9. Despite the abolition of racial segregation, South Africa still deals with this problem. You can find cities that are visibly segregated with most black people struggling to make a meager living and survive whilst a white minority still lives in relative luxury. To their credit, South African authorities are wasting no time in upgrading these slums with the establishment of programs and initiatives aimed at providing these settlements with equal access to city infrastructure and amenities. The people aren’t sitting on their haunches either with many people installing solar panels for themselves and finding innovative ways to get the necessities they lack.


South Africans are far more than meets the eyes and no film illustrates that better than the next one on the list;
Tsotsi. The word “Tsotsi” literally translates to “criminal” in 5 of South Africa’s 11 official languages. Created by director Gavin Hood, the film is based on a book of the same title by Athol Fugard. The movie was released in 2005 to lukewarm reviews and highly positive audience reception. Tsotsi follows the titular character, Tsotsi, who starts as an emotionless criminal and slowly regains his humanity after mistakenly kidnapping a 3-month-old baby and being forced to take care of him. The film opens with a sequence that culminates in a gentle old man getting stabbed in the heart by largely remorseless gangsters but slowly wins the audience back in what can only be described as masterful filmmaking.

One could see this movie as Jerusalema in reverse. True as that may be, that is not the only way this movie could be digested. Tsotsi committed atrocious crimes because he couldn’t see his victims as people beyond what he stood to gain from them. As the movie progresses he slowly begins to appreciate how complex each person he harms is. This is embodied in a scene where he plans on killing a beggar who insulted him. As Tsotsi follows the man, he watches him interact with friends and then he finally catches up and confronts the beggar. In the ensuing conversation, Tsotsi slowly realizes that this beggar is more than just the money he possesses and the insults he uttered, but is in fact a person. Tsotsi’s journey is one of learning that his victims were just as human as he was.

The perspective of Tsotsi isn’t merely one of the criminals of South Africa, it is actually ours; the people who view South Africa from the outside in. Much like Tsotsi, we simply skim the surface of what the nation of South Africa truly is. We see statistics and what there is to gain (tourism, fun facts, inspiration) and forget the millions of complex lives that make up the population of this enormous country. South Africa is far more than mere crime statistics and press statements, it is a beautiful country filled with complex ideologies and people. It would benefit us greatly to go the way of Tsotsi and give South Africans the consideration they are worth.
In the end, these films paint an image of a nation with a painful past, a brilliant future, and a present population hard at work to make that transition possible. South Africa continues to release more films reflecting their present lives and acting as a commentary on their society and the world would benefit greatly from giving the movies on this list, and all future South African movies, a shot.

Takunda Aaron Chimutashu aka Zen the Master is a Film Director, Writer, Photographer, and Pan African with a background in Engineering, Entrepreneurship, and Social leadership. He is currently working as the co-founder, COO, and resident Film Director of award-winning production house Visual Sensations Media. As a self-titled “Universal Creative.” Zen loves to explore art in all its forms and seeks to investigate all the amazing ways art can influence and inspire our society for the better.

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