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Tsotsi South Africa / UK, 2005.

Posted by keith1942 on February 19, 2014

Filming Tsotsi in Soweto.

Filming Tsotsi in Soweto.

This 2005 joint South African/UK film production was a widespread success. It was the fourth-placed foreign language film at the UK Box Office in 2006 and it achieved the distinction of winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in the same year. The film uses English, Afrikaan, Zulu and Zhosa  [some of the last three combined in the township dialect of Tsotsi-Taal], partly translated into English subtitles. The award and accompanying critical praise set a seal on the developing film industry in the new South Africa.

The drama focuses on a young gangster or ‘street thug’ (the meaning of the film’s title) in a black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The film fits into a long-­running cycle of ‘black township’ movies but is also an adaptation of a novel by one of the country’s major writers, Athol Fugard. The film stands as a successful entertainment as well as being a political statement on the contemporary post­-Apartheid society. However, I want to argue that its fuller meanings become clearer in the context both of the township film cycle and the original novel.

There have long been film dramas set in the black townships of South Africa, both from indigenous filmmakers and mainstream film companies abroad. Generally they have, to varying degrees, provided a critical look at the exploitation and oppression of the black majority under the Apartheid regime. The concentration and brutal treatment of the masses of people herded into the makeshift slums where they provided cheap and casual labour for the white dominated economy epitomised the dark face of  ‘separate development’.

The earliest film in the cycle dates from the first years of the Apartheid regime. Cry the Beloved Country (1951) was a British film adaptation of a novel by Alan Paton, starring the young Sidney Poitier. It followed the book in depicting the poverty and oppression endured in the black shantytowns. It also posited black and white reconciliation through the friendship of two grieving fathers. The theme of reconciliation was the reason the novel was re-filmed in 1995, as the first post-Apartheid South African feature. Interestingly, this later version seems to give more attention to the white protagonists than the earlier film.

Over the years a number of films offered stories based in these black slums. Nearly all dramatised the conflict through black and white relations. Thus one of the better-known films, Cry Freedom (1978), used actual people in the shape of white newspaper editor Donald Woods and black activists Steve Biko. The film typified the approach of mainstream films made outside of South Africa, with the dramatic moments of the film focused on the white characters and ending with their departure from the country and its oppression. The independent production Friends (1994), supported by Film Four, took the opposite line when the central female characters, black and white, met up in an African township at the film’s closure.

A recurring motif in the films has been the young person, usually a black male, drawn into crime and violence. In Cry the Beloved Country a young black man is hanged after murdering a white man in a robbery. Tsotsi makes this issue the centre of its drama with its young criminal protagonist the leader of a township gang. Early in the film we see them rob and murder a black worker on a train. Tsotsi appears a ruthless and dangerous street thug. Later he shoots a middle class black woman whilst stealing her car. At this point the narrative shifts into a drama of conversion and redemption. ‘His life will be changed for ever’, as the trailer puts it. Tsotsi finds the woman’s three-month old baby in the stolen car and is faced with the demands of caring for this apparent orphan.

The central section of the film concerns the efforts of Tsotsi to care for the child and the impact that this has upon him. He displays an increasing vulnerability, and flashbacks show the audience his early life, including family break-up and his effective orphaning. Clearly Tsotsi’s thuggish activities result from childhood deprivation, a familiar trope in gangster films. Tsotsi’s travails with the child are paralleled by scenes showing the efforts of the distraught parents, the mother wounded and in hospital, to get police action and the rescue of their child. The two strands converge at the climax when the police surround Tsotsi as he returns the child to its mother, now in a wheelchair. The father intervenes to prevent police violence, and as mother and child are reunited, Tsotsi is taken into custody.

Parents and child

The director, Gavin Hood, in his commentary on the DVD, suggested this rather open ending allows audiences to debate possible futures for Tsotsi. The film does lack the usual closure found in mainstream movies. However, Tsotsi is not only clearly redeemed at the film’s closure, but there is at least some hint of a better future for him. In his struggle to care for the child, Tsotsi has forced a young widow in the township, Miriam, to feed the child with her own milk. In their final scene together Tsotsi asks, “If I take him back can I still come here?” The young woman does not answer but offers a half-smile of ‘maybe’. This moment is one of those privileged in the trailer. It can, I think, be read by the audience as a hint of a future relationship. In fact, Tsotsi has shot one of his own gang in an abortive robbery. However, he shot the gang member, Butcher, in order to prevent the murder of the child’s father. One might assume this would be evidence in his favour and lead to a custodial sentence of not too severe length. The reformed criminal taking his punishment with the promise of a stable life and romance after imprisonment is a staple of crime films.

The director reinforces the aspect of redemption at the film’s end in the use of mise en scène. The night before the baby’s return we see Tsotsi and a gang member, Boston, in his shack. Tsotsi is asking Boston for forgiveness for a beating that he gave him. A stream of light through a window accentuates the religious style of the image. The point is reinforced when Tsotsi changes his clothes for the journey of return, and now appears in a clean white shirt and black slacks, presumably symbolising a new found innocence. He certainly appears far less threatening than when he is eyeballing township passers-by in his leatherjacket.


Gang members in a shebeeen.

So the film of Tsotsi offers a drama of salvation and reconciliation. It is extremely effective. Visually the film is very well produced with frequent images of the slums where Tsotsi and his gang reside. It provides powerful and emotional scenes, both in the form of Tsotsi’s memories of his childhood, and in the contemporary angst of the wounded black mother. In true Hollywood fashion Tsotsi occupies the centre of the film and is a dominant part in the narrative. His actions tend to drive forward events. And it is his emotional development that leads to the film’s resolution. It has a modern shooting style, with fast editing. There are approximately 1150 shots in the entire film, about a cut every five seconds and it makes good use of a limited colour palette and high and low key lighting, enhanced at some points by digital work. The soundtrack includes kwaito or township hip-hop music, though the lyrics are not translated.

In producing this effective and conventionalised drama the film has moved a long way from the source novel. Gavin Hood, who both scripted and directed the film, remarked in an interview (at the Göteborg Film Festival) that he went to Hollywood to learn the proper way to write scripts. The unstated point here is that this assumes the conventions of Hollywood writing are the proper form for film scripts. Certainly, with the exception of the use of native languages, the film is clearly within the conventions of Hollywood. In the DVD commentary that accompanies deleted scenes Hood explains that he cut one scene, part of the back-story of Boston, because he felt it gave it a more universal meaning. This is a staple of the Hollywood mainstream film. But in removing particular detail filmmakers often remove the sense of a very specific context in which the story is grounded. My feeling in viewing Tsotsi was whilst the key characters were carefully delineated, the township environment remained rather generalised. When we turn to Athol Fugard’s novel, we find a rather different drama with a very different form.

“Written in 1959-60, when he was drafting his first success, the play The Blood Knot, this novel is the one work that was bypassed as his life in the theatre unfolded. Stored in a suitcase of manuscripts, on loan to the National English Documentation Centre in Grahamstown, Tsotsi remained in manuscript form until recently. It is a powerful, turbulent book, dealing with another side of Johannesburg life from the one we know … life across the tracks in Sophiatown … Tsotsi is a record of a lost period in the South African urban happening.” (Stephen Gray, Johannesburg, 1980. Note Sophiatown was destroyed and cleared to make way for white housing in the late 1950s).

So the book describes an actual township, Sophiatown, now gone. Within this township Fugard presents the young thug, Tsotsi. Many of the plot events are common to book and film. The robbery and murder, the abduction of the baby, the break-up of the gang, and the nursing provided by the young widow Miriam, feature in both. One important difference is the ending.

In the book Tsotsi is never able to return the baby. He has been hiding it in some nearby ruined houses. These are the effect of compulsory slum clearances: one of the oppressive acts of the regime documented in the book. On the final morning Tsotsi hears the demolition teams and races to the ruin:

“He got there with seconds to spare. He had enough time to dive for the corner where the baby was hidden, before the first crack snaked along the wall and the topmost bricks came falling down, time enough even then to look, and then finally to remember. Then it was too late for anything; and the wall came down on top of him, flattening him into the dust.

They unearthed him minutes later. All agreed that his smile was beautiful, and strange for a Tsotsi, and that when he lay there on his back in the sun, before someone had fetched a blanket, they agreed that it was hard to believe what the back of his head looked like when you saw the smile.”

This is clearly a far more downbeat ending than that of the film. And adaptation softened the book in a number of ways. The sheer unpleasant and unsanitary nature of the township existence is missing from the film. Whilst it still shows incidents such as the use of newspaper for nappies, or ants crawling over the baby, the look is much cleaner than the sense given in the book.

But there is a far more important aspect, which is different. The bourgeois parents of the missing child are absent from the book in which Tsotsi attacks a woman in the night and is left holding a shoebox:

“The lid had slipped off in the sudden impulse of her generosity. Tsotsi had found himself looking at a face that was small and black and older than anything he had ever seen in his life: it was lined and wrinkled with an age beyond years. The sound that had stopped him, and saved the woman, was the cry of a baby.”

We never find out any more about this woman. It is not even certain that she is the mother of the abandoned child. And Tsotsi’s motivation in caring for the child is far more complex than in the film. The baby strikes unexpected resonances in Tsotsi:

“Something had happened that he had guarded against a long time. He had remembered. It was a strange memory. It was also ancient – going back further than he had even thought time itself went. The baby had brought it. That was also obvious and easy. The moment he had looked down, almost the exact moment of seeing it, he had remembered . . . He knew his curiosity as a froth of futile questions that came to his lips. He wanted the answers, he wanted the answers very bad, but he did not have them. That was when he decided to take the baby … Something urged him to kill the baby and leave it, warning him that he was playing a game he had never dared before. But Tsotsi was obsessed now, a longshot fool who had rolled the dice and had his first win, and then dared the lot because he wanted more. Tsotsi wanted to know everything.”

Unlike the film in which, as the trailer suggests, he encounters ‘the past he has forgotten’: in the book Tsotsi’s memories have been suppressed because of the traumas of his childhood. The baby enables him to recover his memories, his identity as David Mandla and his humanity together with a sense of other people’s humanity. So Tsotsi dies, not as a gangster, but as a human being. Hence the final smile.

The lack of any representation of the mother ties in with Tsotsi’s traumas that he has repressed. His mother was taken away in a police raid on a township. His returning father, away working like so many township Africans, gives way to anger at the trauma and beats the family dog. This bitch, pregnant, dies producing stillborn puppies. Here we have oedipal trauma piled on oedipal trauma, and the young David runs away to be adopted by a gang of child scavengers whose homes are in old pipes. The apparent repetition of the traumas with the young child that he finds provides a trigger for ‘recovered memories:

All this is lost in the film, as the mother and father of the baby become not only actual, but also are important plot factors in the story. We still get Tsotsi’s memories in the form of flashbacks. But there has been a less than subtle alteration. The film’s flashback has no police raid, but a sick mother (apparently from AIDS) and an angry father. Presumably the father’s violence to the dog (not pregnant) is occasioned by the mother’s sickness, but it does look rather like the stereotypical black male violence. He is swigging from a bottle as he beats the dog. This aspect is reinforced with the portrayal of the police team. At one point the white senior officer (who I take to be an Afrikaner) cautions restraint on his over-excited black subordinate Zuma.

The Afrikaan police officer.

The Afrikaan police officer.

The reduction in Fugard’s presentation and descriptions of white racist violence are considerable. The book stays determinedly in the black environment: the other ‘white man’s world’ is there only in the conversation or experiences of the black characters. The two white characters, a well-meaning white clergyman and his housekeeper, are based in the township. Both treat the black Africans like children. Fugard’s representation of the oppression and violence of apartheid is extended and mainly presented through the experience of characters that Tsotsi encounters. Much of this is reduced to a few lines of biography in the film. However, in the book the reader is given extended explanations about characters. In the centre of the book is the encounter between Tsotsi and Morris, the cripple. This runs to 30 pages in a book that only has 168 pages all told. In the film Morris, who lost his legs in a mining accident, has a wheelchair, but in the book he drags     himself along by his hands. Morris is important because he is part of Tsotsi’s increasing awareness of his humanity. Whilst this is in the film, what is going on in Tsotsi’s head does not seem that clear. In the book Tsotsi spares the cripple who then tells him:

“Mothers love their children. I know. I remember. They sing us songs when we are small. I’m telling you, Tsotsi. Mothers love their children.” After this there was silence for the words to register and make their meaning, for Tsotsi to stand up and say in reply: ‘They don’t. I’m telling you, I know they don’t’, and then he walked away.”

Tsotsi and cripple

Clearly Tsotsi is working through a childhood trauma. In learning mothers do love children, Tsotsi learns about humanity. The importance of Miriam in this situation is as a mother. This does work in the film in that she displays this love by mothers for the child abducted by Tsotsi.

The exchange with the cripple is part of a slow, developing process for Tsotsi. In the book memories and experiences are floating to the surface of Tsotsi’s consciousness and changing the way he sees the world. The reader learns these matters at the same time as Tsotsi. We watch his changing consciousness. This has a markedly different impact from the film where the flashbacks merely show us what Tsotsi remembers. It appears as if he does not think about these things, rather than presenting the trauma that has suppressed them.

Of course, this exploration of consciousness is easier in writing than on film. And it is not very productive to criticise a film for not being a book. But there is a film in the township cycle that manages something similar to that which Fugard manages in his novel. This is the 1978 South African film, Mapantsula, scripted by Oliver Schmitz (director) and Thomas Mogotlane (who plays the protagonist Panic). This earlier film parallels the novel Tsotsi in several ways. Panic is a sneak thief (the sense of the title). He is hard and ruthless and is feared in the township where he lives. Panic is arrested after a political demonstration. In gaol he is interrogated and pressurised to incriminate a union and political activist. However, whilst in prison Panic reviews the experiences that led to his arrest. As in Fugard’s novel the audience accompanies the protagonist as he remembers. In this case Panic’s change of consciousness results in an act of defiance, probably at the cost of his own life.

The film was produced in the South African apartheid exploitation cinema. It successfully subverted the censorship system by appearing as a mere genre movie. On release though, it was banned from theatrical exhibition. The authorities recognised the political power as audiences accompanied Panic in his consciousness raising story. Complex editing with both visual and aural flashbacks produced this effect. The film was effectively using montage in the manner recommended in the famous 1929 Soviet sound manifesto. This, of course, made the film rather unconventional and less than straightforward viewing.

Whilst Mapantsula used the conventions of the gangster genre, in many ways it was an example of a film ‘that confronts the system’. This is the idea of Third Cinema as set out in the famous 1960s Manifesto. The same Manifesto defined the Hollywood style film as the dominant cinema. And I would argue that, despite its use of native languages and its palpable sympathy for the oppressed black South Africans, both formally and ideologically the film of Tsotsi fits into the conventions of the mainstream or dominant cinema. The Time Out review of the film commented:

“Of course what distinguishes Hood’s film from the novel is history itself. Since Fugard wrote ‘Tsotsi’, the policy of apartheid has peaked and crumbled; democratic elections have arrived; and, crucially, the sharp disparity of wealth in South Africa has, at least partly, lost its racial edge. The townships remain, but a new black middle class has emerged. Hood confronts this division head-on. Tsotsi’s victims – from a homeless man in a wheelchair to a wealthy suburban couple- are black. It gives his film immediate, difficult relevance.”

In rewriting the film Hood has not only changed the period, he has moved the value system. In his commentary Hood states that Fugard ‘was happy with the film’ and then comments that he hopes he has been faithful to the book ‘thematically and spiritually’. The spirituality may remain, but I do think Hood’s film has moved away from the themes in the novel. The film of Tsotsi seems replete with the ideas of black accession to economic power and the bridge building represented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, (as with Time Out’s comments). It is worth noting that Tsotsi entered the Academy Awards as the official South African entry. It bears the stamp of official approval.

However, the view that there is economic change or real effective reconciliation in the new South Africa is a matter for serious debate and argument. The wealth holders remain very much as before, with a few (token?) black bourgeois. The film industry has been quickly assimilated into the global market, which is dominated by Hollywood. And the reconciliation process endured a serious deficit. P. W. Botha, who ruled over some of the most vicious violence against the black majority, and whose personal responsibility was well attested by evidence from the security forces, declined to attend the Commission. His contempt sentence was suspended and he was never forced to make an appearance. He was able to enjoy his remaining years of ill-gotten wealth and influence undisturbed. The endemic violence depicted in Tsotsi, part of the legacy of that apartheid rule, is mainly endured by the majority black population. The massacre of striking miners in 2012 is clear evidence of what forces are dominant in the new South Africa.

The rewriting of Tsotsi appears to support an official view of positive change. This is far removed from Fugard’s scathing depiction of the experience of oppression for black people in the late 1950s. Moreover, as Time Out also commented, “Fugard’s overriding interest was in disaffected black youth and the reasons behind their violent crimes.”

The movie version merely recycles generic explanations which may enthral audiences, but which hardly enlighten them.


The camera with the widescreen letter-box.

The camera with the widescreen letter-box.

Tsotsi is now available on DVD: extras include a commentary, deleted scenes and the alternative endings. Note however, in the UK Momentum Region 2 DVD the film has been cropped to 1.78:1 from the original theatrical 2.35:1; although the deleted endings are letter-boxed close to the original theatrical ratio. A Miramax Region 1 DVD, accessible on the Internet, does provide the original aspect ratio. The filmmakers appear to have centred the action with an eye to small screen presentations, so the main action is clear on the cropped version.

Athol Fugard’s novel Tsotsi was published by AD. Donker, London 1980. His notes and diary entries from the period when he was writing the novel were published in Guardian Review January 11th 2006. There is a discussion of the township cycle of films in ‘Discourses of Tears’, ITP FiIm Reader, 1996.

‘Towards a Third Cinema’ is a manifesto by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino. You can find out more at Third Cinema Revisited.

The original article first appeared in the Media Education Journal, Issue 41. My thanks to the Editor to agreeing to this being publishing on the Blog.

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