Provost's Film Series

September 15, 2007



Athol Fugard, the South African playwright, wrote only one novel and then buried it.

In 1959, the 27-year-old Fugard sailed to London to study the theatre and to strengthen his acting and playwriting skills, and he spent many free hours cobbling together a tale about a “tsotsi,” or a street brute, from the townships outside Johannesburg.  Set at one of the bleakest hours of apartheid rule, Fugard’s tale follows the life of a nameless orphan, who is robbed of memory and transforms his inner rage into fierce acts of violence.  Uneasy with his “prose,” however, the playwright soon decided that it was “fundamentally wrong” for him to forgo the theatre for fiction, and he tossed the unpublished manuscript into a suitcase.  It would take nearly two decades for the forgotten draft to be rediscovered and re-edited for press.  It would take another twenty-five years for the novel to be made into the movie that won South Africa’s first Academy Award.

The 46-year journey of that tale—from youthful draft to an Oscar-winning film—transverses the history of apartheid’s fiercest hours, its collapse, and its troubled legacy.  Each of the three versions of the story—Fugard’s draft, the published novel, and the film by director Gavin Hood—catch the South African people at different stages in their political struggles, and each rendition reshapes the simple tale to address moral and political contours of the moment.  By the time Fugard’s rough drafts had become Hood’s screenplay, a youthful parable about the destruction of Sophiatown had been transformed into a post-apartheid tale where social class, rather than race, defines the deepest chasm between peoples.  Released in 2005, Hood’s film must confront some of the failures of the post-apartheid nation to ameliorate the despair of its township poor.  At the same time, the film still strives to sustain some of nervous hope of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Hood’s Tsotsi endeavors to take the young Fugard’s bleak vignettes and recast them into a redemptive melodrama for Nelson Mandela’s South Africa.


Athol Fugard

Born in Middleburg, South Africa, of a white father and an Afrikaner mother, Fugard worked as a merchant marine and as a journalist, in both cases long enough to witness the cruel face of racism.  Not long after his marriage to Sheila, an actress, he and his wife discovered a community of writers and artists who met in the shebeens, the illegal but tacitly accepted drinking quarters of the townships.  His story, written in many drafts during his short stay in England, was scribbled on the backs of virtually any scrap of paper that he could find, including carpet inventories, lists of record sales and a Dairy Maid ice cream order.  For a brief season, after he won early fame for his play The Blood Knot, he tried to brush up Tsotsi to meet a publisher’s interest, but in 1962 he tossed the novel into a suitcase and set it out of his mind.

When Fugard began his tale in 1959 the “Pass Laws” and other restrictions prevented township blacks from venturing outside their shantytowns.  Two decades earlier, the lead-up to World War II had accelerated South African urbanization, as the expansion of industry in the cities drew workers to the metropolitan areas.  Johannesburg, a town of 400,000 in 1931, swelled to more than a million by 1950.  As more and more black workers congregated around cities, white leaders became increasingly anxious about maintaining their economic predominance, and the crowded, often sordid conditions of the townships fed the black workers’ anger.  Gangsterdom grew rapidly.  The tsotsi—an Afrikaner word meaning “hoodlum” or “gangsta”—was generally vindictive and misanthropic, given to random violence rather than the political activism and resistance of revolutionary groups, such as the African National Congress.  In his autobiography Mandela recalls these days in the 1940s when “life was cheap”:  “Gangsters—known as tsotsis—carrying flick-knives or switchblades—were plentiful and prominent.”  Over time, the term tsotsi became less narrowly associated with enlisted gangsters and was embraced by street youth, most willing to resort to violence to escape idleness and hunger.



Just one year before Fugard began his story, the black township of Sophiatown had been bulldozed to make room for Triomf, an upscale white suburb. The razing of Sophiatown was one more domino following the passage of the Bantu Self-Government Act, which called for the removal of blacks to their own “homelands,” regions that were quarantined and designated for tribal and ethnic groups that, while within South African borders, deprived residents of South African citizenship.   The destruction of Sophiatown was the backdrop to a few of the most influential films shot in South Africa during the middle of the twentieth century.

In Fugard’s aborted novel, Tsotsi’s sudden discovery that he must care for an infant provokes his spiritual awakening. He finds a child in a box on the edge of his shantytown, and, despite all of his anxiety, anger, and ineptness in caring for the baby, his bond with the child is inescapable.  He has discovered an infant who, like himself, has been abandoned, and that kinship actually prompts some recovery of his memory.  In caring for a child, he imagines something of the love that was shown to him by his long deceased mother.  At the end of the novel, however, he and his young ward suffer the same tragic fate when they are crushed in a drainage pipe where they have been living.  What the two orphans had begun to recover in their shared community is annihilated by the bulldozers leveling Sophiatown for Triomf.  The Tsotsi and child are both equally dispensable in the eyes of the state.   “They unearthed him minutes later,” Fugard writes at the end.  “All agreed that his smile was beautiful, and strange for a tsotsi . . . it was hard to believe what the back of his head looked like when they saw the smile.”  This final image is bitterly elegiac, a refrain about human dignity that lacked prospects for social hope.   The last lines evoke something of the “courageous pessimism” that the young author admired in the work of Albert Camus.


Same Story, Different Story

Much changed in South Africa in the forty-six years between Fugard’s first sketchings on his novel and the release of director Gavin Hood’s 2005 film.  The apartheid regime tightened, earned international rebuke, and then collapsed.  Actually, when Fugard’s novel was first printed in 1980, it caught the wave of international outrage just beginning to foment against the apartheid policies and to spark crusades for disinvestment in South Africa.  But much, sadly, did not change.  Economic conditions in many townships have actually deteriorated since the apartheid government ended in 1994.  In Soweto, site of the most famous anti-apartheid protests, more than half of the adult population remained unemployed.  At the thirtieth anniversary of the Soweto uprising, the socialist Percy Nygonyama lamented the “slave wages” offered to township youth by government initiatives and rebuked the former ANC youth leaders who had become the new “black petty bourgeoisie.”  The passage of Tsotsi from Fugard’s rough drafts to Hood’s screenplay is the story of how a youthful lament over the apartheid’s victims becomes transformed into a post-apartheid tale where social class now defines the deepest chasm between peoples. 


Truth and Reconciliation

The specter lingering in the background of the film is South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Rooted in both Christian ethics and the African notion of “ubuntu,” the Commission was formed to pursue national healing after the collapse of the apartheid regime. As the new South African constitution proclaimed in 1994, the soul of the post-apartheid nation had a  “need for understanding but not vengeance, a need for reparation but not retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not victimization.”  The Commission—led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu—could offer amnesty for various brutal crimes, as long as felons confessed and sought forgiveness. Ubuntu, a word from the Nguni language, alludes to the task of being humane, restoring justice, and promoting communal interdependence. “Ubuntu,” Tutu declares, “speaks of the very essence of being human. . . . A person who has ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are diminished . . . Anger, resentment, lust for revenge, even success through aggressive competitiveness, are corrosive of this good.  To forgive is not just to be altruistic.  It is the best form of self-interest.  What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me.”

“I am a person because you are a person,” Hood states, summing up the ubuntu creed. “Otherwise, I don’t know who I am.”  In this new, admittedly painful process of confession and restoration, Hood recognizes that Fugard’s protagonist—a tragic and discarded soul in the 1960s—could now be placed before the commission of public opinion to see if his acts of penance merit forgiveness.  To that end, the film even intensifies Tsotsi’s early brutality, as if ubuntu is put to a more severe trial.  “What is our capacity for forgiveness?” Hood asks, intent on raising the stakes. “Well, try this.”   

Tsotsi himself is a fierce test for ubuntu.  The concept is grounded in the African respect for—even the worship of—one’s ancestors, and Tsotsi’s emotional tabula rasa leaves him without a latent idealism from his childhood.  The legacy of AIDS, which Hood grafts onto the story, has only intensified the erosion of township families; more than a third of South African children are either infected or deprived of a parent by the pandemic.  Some sense of family—now more communal, more multiracial, less insular—has to be developed amidst the chaos of Tsotsi’s life.  That sense of family begins to come most vividly through the stern gentleness of Miriam, whom Tsotsi forces at gunpoint to nurse the child.  Haunted by the loss of her own lover, she overcomes Tsotsi’s predatory stares to emerge as an image of his lost mother, even as she sacrificially puts the child’s welfare above her stony rage at Tsotsi’s exploitations.  Upon intruding into her life, Tsotsi discovers the mobiles she has made for her own child from old shreds of glass and bottle caps. They are a collage of joy and beauty she has extracted from a world of fear and squalor.  Compared to these home-made crafts, the mobiles in the wealthy child's bedroom seem soulless by comparison, though certainly Hood also wants us to see a visual link between children of disparate classes. 


Social Class and Psychology

The film makes some of the social issues of the novel more complicated.  In Hood’s version, a well-fed infant, found belatedly in the back of a stolen car, is from the outset a child of privilege, as much a symbol of social advantage as a racial brother.  Tsotsi’s ethical predicament is not about how to amend his rage-soaked life to absorb a fellow orphan into his world, but about whether to return that child, innocent but still elite, to the prosperous black community that he resents.  From the moment of the theft, the film accents his affronts to this upper middle-class sensibility.  After an impulsive return to the scene of the crime, Tsotsi is sufficiently moved by his visit to the baby’s room, with its vivid wallpaper, colorful mobiles, and stuffed animals, that he is willing to blow the brains out of his one-time friend rather than allow the infant’s father to suffer harm. Is this a sign of moral sympathy for a suffering father—or a sign that Tsotsi has merely traded social rage for social deference?  Clearly, he is confused.  Justice, at this point, is hard to distinguish from sentiment; decency difficult to separate from social class. The bridge between classes will echo fiercely in the final scene, when John, the child’s wealthy father, bravely ignores the counsel of others and calls Tsotsi “brother.”  

On screen, many of the novel’s political tremors are converted into psychological motifs. Hood transposes the razing of Sophiatown in the 1950s—the cause of Tsotsi’s death in the novel—into another visual image for the loss of Tsotsi's memory. The Tsotsi of the film, according to Hood, struggles less for food than against the  “profound psychological poverty that results from the lack of nurture.”  His mother’s death from AIDS has shattered his capacity to remember his youth, even his name.  The drainage pipes, still home to orphans, are the surviving links to his own infancy, and they reemerge from time to time in the fragmented, subliminal images that display Tsotsi’s memory.  This is not a tale about the encroaching bulldozers that will cruelly eradicate a black man's life, but about their reverberations on a second generation.  It is a tale more concerned with “coming of age” than political fury:  Hood wants to remove Tsotsi’s psychological scars more urgently than tear down surburbia’s iron gates.     


Camera, Sound, and Distance

It is the camera, as much as the script, that blends internal rage with social angst.  The focus alternates between close-ups and panoramas, striving for the impressions of intimacy and alienation.  For nearly the first fifteen minutes of the film Tsotsi does not say a word; Hood dwells on what he calls the “eye lines” of the young actor Presley Chweneyagae’s placid face. After several weeks auditioning Hollywood actors, Hood concluded that it was nearly impossible for a trained actor to convey the forlorn and angry spirit of Tsotsi with authenticity, so he cast a nonprofessional, Chweneyagae, a 19-year-old from the townships, in the lead role. He also decided to shoot most of the film in Tsotsi-taal, the township language blending Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa and English.  With his camera, he hopes to convey, paradoxically, the impenetrable criminal gaze of Tsotsi even as he hints at the vulnerability behind the ruthless mask.  Somehow, even in the midst of the most heartless gaze, we catch a glimpse of the broken spirit capable of repentance.  By contrast, the camera often seeks to elongate the distance between the Soweto township and the lights of Johannesburg.  Less subtle and more didactic, these scenes equate Tsotsi’s interior life with the long, grassy divide between city and shantytown.  As he runs, his mind resorts to scraps of youthful fears:  the political and literal distance between communities melds with the psychological gap between rage and memory.

Some of the film’s social tremors are conveyed in the soundtrack.  Scenes in the shantytowns are often carried by the pulse of Kwaito music, a distinctive South African genre that originated in Johannesburg.  An Afrikaaner word for “angry,” the term “kwaito” now has assumed connotations of “cool,” largely because of the popularity of its spirit of urban resistance.  Originally, Kwaito was distinguished by its strong beat and the shouting of lyrics, yet recent artists, such as Zola, have infused it with much of mainstream western hip-hop.  Hood plays it safe by relying on Zola’s hip-hop rhythms and pop-star status, even giving him a role in the film.  The director turns to another national icon, Vusi Mahlasela, to provide the mournful African folk cries that punctuate Tsotsi’s most pensive and lonely moments. Long a fixture in the anti-apartheid movement, Mahlasela was influenced by the ingomabusuku—or “songs of the night”—that he heard while growing up in his grandmother’s shebeen. His mournful soprano tones accompany Tsotsi during his transit between his shack and Johannesburg, a reminder that with this new freedom there is still sorrow.


Religious Faith

This quest for ubuntu proceeds in the film with virtually no allusion to Christian teaching. That is especially conspicuous, since Fugard filled the novel with the theme of religious renewal.  Though not a Catholic, Fugard has compared the high-profile work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the powerful “mystery of the confessional of the Catholic church,” and his youthful novel intimates that Tsotsi finds hope in the sound of church bells and an old hymn about “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”   “The idea for a story,” Fugard writes in his original notes for the novel, is that a criminal who is “completely shrouded in darkness” would come to “the full Christian experience after a meeting with a priest in an empty church.”  Not that the priest fully succeeds in lifting the “dark shroud” of “nihilism” and “anarchy” that has left Tsotsi forlorn and angry.  In an early draft, Fugard depicts Tsotsi’s fierce confrontation with the priest, as the angry young man takes out his social “impotence” by desecrating a crucifix.  That scene was cut from the final novel, but what does survive is Tsotsi’s conversation with his friend Boston, days after he had beaten Boston raw in a fierce outburst at a shebeen.  Seeking reconciliation, Tsotsi admits to his injured friend that he is confused by his own awakened conscience: "A sudden elation lit up Boston’s face; he tried to smile, but his lips wouldn’t move, and his nose started throbbing, but despite the pain he whispered back at Tsotsi, 'You are asking me about God.'”

The film does not ask—at least overtly—about God.  “I don’t know if there is a God,” Hood observes.  “I want there to be.  Just because I don’t know doesn’t mean that I can’t love and don’t need love.”  Agnosticism has linked arms with love.  That union, to be honest, has been strengthened because, for a generation of the poor and discarded, so many leaders and parishioners in the apartheid church were on the wrong side of justice.

The avoidance of religious language is also notable, especially since Archbishop Tutu had always striven to keep the Christian faith close to the center of the truth and reconciliation process. “Theology helped us in the TRC to recognize that we inhabit a moral universe, that good and evil are real and that they matter,“ Tutu writes.  Religious faith may not have been necessary to induce most South Africans to believe that the TRC’s revelations exposed widespread evil.  The real challenge for Tutu was to convince his compatriots that evil can be transcended by Christian love.  “For those of us who are Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is proof positive that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, that laughter and joy, and compassion and gentleness and truth, all these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts.”  The key biblical parable for Tutu is the story of the Good Shepherd—the caretaker who left 99 sheep to rescue one lost lamb.  “Christians are constrained by the imperatives of this gospel, the good news of a God who has a bias for sinners . . . . Ultimately, no one is an irredeemable cause devoid of all hope.”  It is God’s freely given grace, according to Tutu, his irrepressible love that can help sustain the national journey to restore and love the criminal.  “Those who think this opens the door for moral laxity,” he claims, “have never been in love, for love is much more demanding than law.”


Ambiguous End, Uncertain Future

Do we really believe that love is stronger than law?   It is certainly more demanding—as becomes apparent in the ambiguous conclusion to the film.   Actually, the final scenes were invented in the editing room.  Hood shot two final scenes, expecting to choose between them, but rejected both and settled for a cut-and-paste alternative.   In one of the original endings, Tsotsi is shot to death by a black policeman who fears he is reaching for a gun.  When we discover that he had merely been reaching for a milk bottle to give to the crying child, the film sinks into slow-motion cinematography to accent the irony. In another version, the same policeman’s shot only wounds rather than kills Tsotsi, and he escapes over the fence for the all-too-familiar run across the grassland between the suburbs and the shacks.  Freedom from accountability for his crimes—with law enforcement as the inept, misfiring foils—becomes his reward for his late-act of penance.

The ending that Hood and his editors finally patched together, however, leaves the conclusion obscure, with Tsotsi’s arms raised, a closing frame that seems far more appropriate for a film in which the social remedies are never apparent.  It is hard to imagine a lenient legal sentence for a hoodlum who has not only murdered randomly but has shot his friend, stolen a car, kidnapped a child, and attempted to kill the infant’s mother.  Perhaps his few days with an infant have rekindled a latent conscience, and certainly Miriam’s compassionate but defiant compliance with his threats and demands has modeled for him integrity in the midst of fear and squalor.  But if that new compassion for the infant prompts him to blow out the brains of his one-time friend and associate in order to spare the wealthy child’s father there is at least some reason to question if he has merely traded social rage for social deference. 

Whatever Tsotsi’s motive—a desire to make amends for his kidnapping or a desire to escape the burden of childcare—his decision to return the infant to his parents is undoubtedly right, but the director’s choice to restore the child to his affluent parents and leave Tsotsi’s fate hanging seems both evasive and brave.  It is evasive if we view the finale as mere convention—as the happy restoration of the life of the gated-community accompanied by the unrealistic hope that Tsotsi might live to know forgiveness and trust.  It is brave if we admit that the stirrings of conscience that we have seen in Tsotsi will almost certainly be irrevelent to the criminal sentencing that awaits him.  Other than a few expressions of bewilderment and compassion in the eyes of the father, the film leaves us with no gestures of compassion for Tsotsi and other township thugs, and Hood has the boldness to show us a mother whose visceral, and fully understandable, anger will most certainly work against the father’s softening and fuel the law’s rigor.  Nothing in the denouement intimates that there is the will to begin the hard work of structural change necessary to overcome the economic divisions. 

The novel’s hope flickers in the interior life of the criminal—a spark of conscience and the recovery of memory—but Fugard truncates that moral rebirth when Tsotsi’s head is smashed by tractors striving to dislocate blacks to make room for a Caucasian village.  At first, Hood wanted to preserve Fugard’s tragic ending by adapting it to fit a contemporary context, and his decision to forgo the tragedy for open-endedness has prompted some complaints that the film merely lost the novel’s nerve.  On the other hand, the ambiguity is the hard medicine:  this is no longer a world of the 1950s where the faceless white developers can readily play the villains.  Instead, there are nuances of dissent within the separate communities—between husband and wife, between the criminals, between the policemen—that spread culpability around and make the path out of the social unrest as bewildering as ever.  The director rightly leaves audience uncertain.                    

The road ahead is murky.  “There is no legislation,” Fugard once remarked, “for the human heart.”