Authors: Calum Waddell
Abstract:South Africa was once a nation of legal racial segregation. Africans, Indians and Chinese residents were subjected to different laws than those of the ruling white minority – beginning with the introduction of what became known as ‘apartheid’ in 1948. Black people, in particular, bore the brunt of this period, facing violence and being prohibited from even sharing a public bus, beach, cinema or street bench with those of a different skin colour. This troubled and controversial era only came to a conclusion in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela to the country’s presidency. However, what is not known is that, during this turbulent period, film production was prevalent. Indeed, only recently has an entire library of exploitation pictures been unearthed – each of which reveals elements of the apartheid identity via a series of provocative and often formulaic genre titles; from westerns to slapstick comedies and from gangster movies to kung-fu action epics. The reason for this activity is because of the government of Prime Minister B.J. Vorster which spent millions on lobbyists and secret propaganda campaigns to ‘normalise’ apartheid to the outside world. According to Ron Nixon’s revelatory book Selling Apartheid: South Africa’s Global Propaganda War, the government in the 1970s embarked upon ‘A global public relations programme… Millions of rand would be needed to fight the information battle’. As such, even some African-American politicians in the USA would be lured into supporting a system that was sold as ‘progressive’. In addition to such political measures, funding was made available for white directors to produce ‘black films’ for ‘black audiences’, who were then segregated into such notorious townships as Soweto and Victoria. The films were designed to show the outside world that there was a black identity in the country’s cinema – whilst offering entertainment so that attendees would be less likely to organise illicit political gatherings. When the Information Act scandal erupted in South Africa in 1977 it brought down the Vorster government and led to P.W. Botha succeeding him as State President. In the meantime, the films were considered to be ‘lost’ – with few of them ever managing to screen outside of South Africa. Only recently have titles such as Joe Bullet (Louis de Witt, 1973), a Pretoria-produced version of Shaft which was banned by the apartheid government only shortly after it was released, and Black Terrorist (Neil Hetherington, 1977) become available for viewing. What they reveal is a country torn in identity: heroic black protagonists fighting against villainous black antagonists or white people ravaged and confronted by an ‘outside’ racial identity that they do not understand nor seek to comprehend. On the one hand the films remain ambivalent about what is really happening in the country of their production – based in an alternative South Africa where apartheid is not explicitly acknowledged, but race-fueled violence is nonetheless sometimes prevalent. The unmentioned horrors of segregation and eugenics, however, cannot help but add a tense and unpleasant background to watching these narratives unfold. In this paper, therefore, I want to take a more formalist approach to the newly discovered ‘cinema of apartheid’ – drawing upon the idea of a paracinematic cult in film studies that actively attempts to understand and contextualise motion pictures that require a more serious understanding of their cultural and political backgrounds. I plan to ask what these films tell us about this important period in history, their various genre motifs and inspirations and, to conclude, answer why I believe that a country’s exploitation cinema is often the most valuable form through which to ascertain its wider identity politics.
Keywords: South Africa Exploitation Cult Paracinema Apartheid Racism Black consciousness Rhodesia Pretoria Sconce B-movie