The propaganda films of apartheid-era South Africa | Listening Post (Feature)

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In 1973, a ground-breaking film, Joe Bullet, was screened – for the very first time – at the Eyethu Cinema in Soweto. It was the first South African-produced film with a black action hero and an all-black cast.

Benjamin Cowley, the CEO of Gravel Road Productions, described the film as “unique” because “at the height of apartheid, no one was producing movies with all-black cast members for black audiences”.

According to Tonie van der Merwe, the writer and producer of Joe Bullet, the apartheid censors banned the film after just two screenings. In a letter, the censors listed the reasons for their decision which included: the main character carrying a gun, driving a sports car, living in a white neighbourhood. “Stupid, stupid reasons,” said van der Merwe.

While Joe Bullet was a commercial failure, it demonstrated that there was a huge demand in South Africa for films like it; however, without the apartheid censors’ approval, there was a good chance that they would be banned. So an agreement had to be reached with the apartheid government.

Back in 1956, the A-scheme film subsidy had been created by the government in order to develop a national film industry for white South Africans. To qualify for the subsidy, the films had to have white casts, dialogue in one of the white South African languages – either English or Afrikaans – and typically the themes would promote the white South African way of life.

Using the A-scheme as a template, van der Merwe and his associates successfully lobbied the apartheid government for a B-scheme film subsidy; only these films would contain black casts, dialogue in one of the black South African languages, and would target black audiences.

The reason why the apartheid government – with its policies of racism, oppression and segregation – agreed to help bankroll the films had to do with the political climate.

At the time, there was escalating political unrest in the country. As more and more black South Africans took to the streets in the fight against apartheid, the government had to come up with a distraction. Thus, the B-scheme film subsidy got the green light.

“It was about moralising the leisure time of black people because if they’re not occupied, they get up to all kinds of mischief,” says Gairoonisa Paleker, a senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria, of the apartheid government’s logic. “And a secondary benefit, a huge plus, was of course the kind of ideological value that the apartheid state could get out of it.”

As one of the filmmakers who was instrumental in creating the B-scheme film subsidy, van der Merwe is well placed to say what kind of themes and storylines the apartheid government would favour.

“They loved you to put in that good will always win over the evil. Crime doesn’t pay.”

The other prevailing theme, according to van der Merwe, was that black South Africans should stay in their homelands and not come into the white urban centres.

Homelands were small, semi-autonomous regions created by the apartheid government. Each of the major black ethnic or tribal groups were allocated a homeland; however, these regions were typically underserved and poverty-stricken.

Convincing black South Africans to stay there, or return there after their work in “white South Africa” was done, was crucial for the apartheid government’s policy of racial segregation to succeed.

The theme – that black South Africans should go back to the homelands – became so common in the B-scheme films that the entire genre came to be known as “Back to the Homelands”. And it was not just about selling the “tranquil” life of the homelands, it was also about warning viewers of the “perils” of life in the white, urban centres.

“The urban centres were always portrayed as dens of vice for black people … and black people were portrayed as morally weak. They always succumbed to the evils of the urban centres,” said Paleker.

While the nature of this propaganda may have lacked subtlety, the demographic it was intended for had so little exposure to cinema that they had little to compare the films to.

Charles Mokatsane, a cinema owner in Soweto who grew up watching B-scheme films, said: “We were so ignorant, we welcomed anything that came our way. We never saw anything wrong because that’s all we had. Our eyes only opened when more Western movies were coming through. It’s only then when we realised that this, it’s not good for us.”

In 1989, crippled by sanctions, the cash-strapped apartheid government abolished the B-scheme.

Today, there is very little official documentation about the subsidy and many of the films have disappeared, leaving opinion in South Africa divided.

Some say that the B-scheme is a blot on the South African film industry and the films are nothing

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