By Beverley Angus, African Studies Librarian, UCT Special Collections
Beverley Angus manages the African Studies Film Collection Learn more about film and footage available at UCT Special Collections
All the films mentioned in this article are available in the African Studies Film Collection in Special Collections.
Some memorable titles from the Retro Afrika Bioscope Series: (from left to right) Fishy Stones (1990) and Umbango (1985) were directed by Tonie van der Merwe. Gone Crazy (1990) was directed by Tony Cunningham. (Images courtesy of Sound View Media Partners.)
Film in Apartheid South Africa
The emergence of the South African film industry was linked to the development of a white Afrikaans identity, with the first state subsidy for film in 1956 aimed at this demographic. By 1972 the Department of Native Affairs recognized the entertainment and propagandist value of films for African audiences; the B-Scheme subsidies were introduced to produce films for black consumption. It was seen as a way of moralising black South African leisure time in a society anxious about the effect of the criminal and violent nature of popular Hollywood films and for the apartheid government to exert control on black society at a time when resistance movements were ramping up protest to the apartheid regime.
Construction boss Tonie van der Merwe, who had provided special effects for filmmakers Louis and Elmo de Witt, spotted an untapped market, having seen the enjoyment by his black employees of the American action flicks at Saturday night screenings. He lobbied the government to set up a subsidy for the production of films for the African market. Together with Steve Hand, a teacher, he established Tugela Films in 1975. In 1981, A-Scheme films for white audiences could earn up to R1.2 million in funding, while the limit for a B-Scheme film was R80 000 and subsidies were only paid out retrospectively based on ticket sales. Van der Merwe produced some 400 titles under the scheme, including the Zulu language film Umbango (The Feud) in 1986.
Films like Charlie Steel (1984), directed by Bevis Parsons, were not permitted to be screened in Apartheid South Africa. It was re-released in 2018 by Gravel Road Entertainment. Revenge (1986) was directed by Coenie Dieppenaar and features Roy Dlamini, Vusi Gudazi and Alex Ngubane. The Comedians (1980) was directed by Japie van der Merwe and starred Moses Makhathini. In late 2019 Retro Afrika released these films as a box set.
Afrika Bioscope series
To qualify for the subsidy, 75 percent of the dialogue had to be in an indigenous African language and 75 percent of the cast had to be Black. Approval of scripts was not required but the Censor Board had the final say. For the predominantly inexperienced white male producers it was simply a business, so artistic merit was not a priority. Film quality suffered from poor lighting, sound and editing, minimal costume changes and recycled and excessive action scenes. Genres covered action, adventure, martial arts, cowboy, comedy, drama and the conflict between traditional and modern life but, in the end, good always triumphed over evil, and the moral of the story was that crime did not pay. In this way, apartheid ideology was promoted in the guise of entertainment; films could cover different forms of indigenous culture and traditions (often done in an offensive manner) but never address political, economic and social issues.
Heyns Films employed black directors, Simon Sabela and Matthews Monika, whose films, although of a higher standard also had to adhere to subsidy dictates. In Sabela’s uDeliwe (1975) the rural environment (as opposed to the urban) is represented as the African’s natural habitat where his ethnic identity can thrive.
This is a film adaptation in isiZulu of a popular 1964 Radio Bantu serial by Mandla Sibiya. It was historic because for the first time in South African film history, a black filmmaker directed. It was one of a number of films in the 1970s and 1980s financed by the State Department of Information through Heyns Films and was circulated exclusively at ‘black only’ venues. The film looks at the moral structures of family and the freedom urban life was offering young black people, especially women. Sabela, an actor of some international repute and Cynthia Shange, a beauty queen, gave the film iconic status and made it popular with the black public. Its genesis and circulation form part of the debate on blackness taken up by Drum Magazine for instance in the 1970s with its Black Consciousness movement and the cracks that were starting to form in the Nationalists’ separate development ideology. Despite the acclaim, by the late 1970s Heyns Films was outed as a front for state apartheid propaganda machine through its involvement with the Information Department.
Reviving The Retro Afrika Bioscope
Flatbed trucks loaded with projectors toured South Africa’s rural areas. Thousands would come from miles around to attend the screenings, often in the open air. Some 1500 films were made between 1973 and1989, when Home Affairs took over the scheme. An investigation into its management revealed operational and administrative corruption. Distributors had been inflating attendance numbers, films were being recycled under different titles – eventually the scheme was abolished.
In 2013, in a chance meeting, Tonie van der Merwe told Benjamin Cowley of the Cape Town production company, Gravel Road Entertainment Group that he still had canisters of his old films. Cowley was eager to digitise them.
Learn more about the Gravel Road Distribution Group – Retro Afrika Bioscope – Behind the Scenes
In 2014 Retro Afrika Bioscope premiered its first restored B-Scheme film, Joe Bullet. Restoration and digitisation took fourteen weeks using special software which, frame by frame, removed scratches, dust, splice marks and other imperfections. This was Tonie van der Merwe’s first feature production in 1973 and tells the story of a local soccer team caught in the web of the criminal underworld. It had an all-black cast, including singer Abigail Kubeka and Ken Gampu as Joe Bullet, a strong black South African action hero – something almost unheard-of in the South African film industry during apartheid.
Modelled on something between Shaft and James Bond, Joe Bullet had Gampu drinking, doing karate, driving sports cars, throwing knives, climbing up mine shafts and shooting guns. Mr. Bullet’s enemies were the chain-smoking gangsters of South Africa’s seedy criminal underworld – not the white government. The movie was a big hit in Soweto but the censors decided that this swish thriller portrayed black people in far too aspirational a light and it was banned after just two screenings on its release in 1973.
These films offer a fascinating prism into the history of South African filmmaking, especially within the discourse of postcolonial studies. The fact of their existence; the nature of the productions, the content and the (imagined) audience for whom they were made, make them fascinating artefacts of South African cinema history. Cowley says that interest in the films has been much bigger in Europe and the United States, where fanatical and perhaps less critical cultural interest in cinema exists. However, in her 2009 thesis, Gairoonisa Paleker, laments the role that the B-Scheme subsidies had on suppressing the emergence of an indigenous African film culture in South Africa.
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For an in depth discussion on the film uDeliwe see: Modisane, Litheko. “Propagandistic Designs, Transgressive Mutations: uDeliwe” (1975): pages 75-96 in South Africa’s Renegade Reels: the Making and Public Lives of Black-Centered Films. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013 (BA 791.43 MODI).