by Herman Wasserman
There is one scene in Tsotsi that sums the central logic of the film. It sets up the binary between individuals and the masses, state and citizens, and order and chaos. When the police find a car that the central character, Tsotsi (Chweneyagae) had hijacked, the camera first dwells on the how the car has been stripped of all removable parts that can be sold for scrap, then pans to show a wide expanse of shacks on the other side of an open field. The camera favours the vantage point of the police, standing helplessly outside the massive township.
This perspective of individuals up against an undifferentiated mass gets affirmed soon after by dialogue in which the police officers tell the car’s owner (whose child was inside the car when it was hijacked), that they cannot even find a stolen car in the township, never mind a baby.
In essence South Africa ten years into democracy is one in which the Freedom Charter’s ‘security for all’ has largely been narrowed down to those that can afford to pay for it, one in which ‘private-public partnerships’ are the order of the day, and as such it is no coincidence that it is a private security firm that is later called upon to save the good middle-class citizen from the claws of Tsotsi and his gang.
The film tells the story of a character known as Tsotsi (roughly translated, ‘thug’), leader of a criminal gang in Johannesburg. After a violent altercation with one of his comrades, Tsotsi (movingly played by Chweneyagae) is confronted by his inner demons. He runs off into the night, traversing the empty space between the township and the suburbs, the no man’s land that signifies what still seems like an insurmountable (and growing) divide between rich and poor in post-apartheid South Africa.
In a series of flashbacks, hints are given to Tsotsi’s childhood experiences of hardship. In a suburban street Tsotsi, still in emotional turmoil, sees a women get out of her car to buzz open the gate to her house. As she turns her back, Tsotsi – in what seems like an involuntary, mechanic action – shoots the woman, hijacks the car and speeds off. A few blocks away he hears crying from the back seat – a baby had been left in the car. For a moment Tsotsi hesitates, then stuffs the baby in a carrier bag and takes him along.
The rest of the narrative centers around the consequences of this decision, both on a mundane level (some comic effect is gained from the impracticalities of Tsotsi plying his trade as a gangster while having to care for the infant), but more significantly, on a psychological level.
As the narrative unfolds, the child confronts Tsotsi with his lost innocence, helps him rediscover empathy and finally leads him to a kind of salvation. These Christian nuances are echoed in the film’s tagline – “In this world… redemption just comes once” – as well as in Tsotsi’s encounter with a beggar in a wheelchair, whom he, albeit still in an abrasive tone, commands to stand up and walk. If he doesn’t, it is Tsotsi that walks away from what previously would have turned into a violent incident.
The key to understanding this change in Tsotsi, brought about by his accidental relationship with the child, is provided in a scene between the criminal mastermind Fela and members of Tsotsi’s gang. As the gang structure starts crumbling as a result of Tsotsi’s frequent absences, Fela invites Tsotsi’s comrades to come and work for him. As they discuss Tsotsi’s change of behaviour, one of them, the stereotypical educated and therefore outsider figure Boston, remarks that Tsotsi never went to school, and therefore does not know the meaning of the word “decency.”
He then asks Fela if he can even spell the word, whereupon Fela proceeds to spit out the letters one by one, offering an interpretation: “Do you know what decency means? Decency means making a fucking decent living, sonny”. To which Boston replies: “Respect. For yourself. It’s got nothing at all to do with your standard of living.”
What it all comes down to, the film seems to suggest, is an individual road to self-discovery and regained respect, the ‘triumph of the human spirit’ so typical of Hollywood’s feel-good gospel. Instead of taking a political stance, of going below the surface of post-apartheid poverty and exposing the structural mechanics of a society that continues to produce the conditions for crime and violence, the film chooses to transcend rather than engage with this messiness.
In ignoring structure and celebrating individual agency, the narrative sheds the political resonance of Athol Fugard’s original novel (in which Tsotsi was left homeless as a result of the razing of their township and his mother’s arrest by the apartheid police) and constructs the causes for Tsotsi’s criminality in individual terms – the neglect by his alcoholic father and the inability of his bedridden (perhaps as a result of AIDS, although this remains unspoken) mother to care for him. Leaving politics behind, Hood’s adaptation buys into the more innocuous discourse of one man’s journey from pathological criminal to conscientious citizen.
This of course means that Tsotsi has to succumb to the rationality of the modern state – a message brought home powerfully in the final scene, where Tsotsi submits to the police. He is surrounded by a veritable panopticon of spotlights and aimed firearms, and has no choice but to raise his hands in surrender (or crucifixion?) to the state-ordained surveillance. The possibility that the state itself (the current democratic one as well as its historical oppressive antecedents) may be structurally complicit in the circumstances leading up to this moment, is excluded completely. The closest one gets to such a suggestion is perhaps the ironic hint in the clothing label displayed on gang member Aap’s dungarees: ‘State Property’). Instead, the primary role of the police, as agents of the state, is portrayed as the protection of “our” private property (the individual family struck by crime) against “them” (the inchoate mass of township dwellers) that threaten the suburban peace.
When the narrative is seen to serve the hegemonic logic of individual responsibility for rampant crime and the appropriate response by the state (and by capital) is constructed as that of surveillance and retribution, some other choices exercised by the filmmakers in retelling Fugard’s story also start to make sense. The film is populated only by black characters, with the exception of the one white policeman who speaks Zulu fluently. By taking race out of the equation, the playing field becomes leveled, history dissolves into amnesia and the explanation for one’s social position (for instance as either a thug scraping by in a township shack or a middle-class family man living in suburban comfort) becomes thoroughly individualised. Through this process of erasure, the continued correlation between race and class in contemporary South Africa is rendered invisible. Much can also be said about the genderised gaze of the camera, the “colourful” depiction of poverty and township life and so forth, although this could warrant a separate discussion.
When Tsotsi was awarded this year’s Academy Award for best foreign film, one’s usual cynicism about the commercial aesthetics of the Oscars momentarily made way for celebration of the fact that for a change the South African landscape was not a stand-in for Los Angeles or some unnamed desert, and its own actors and not Samuel L. Jackson or James Earl Jones got to star in their own story.
However, that Tsotsi was Oscar material also meant that it conformed to the perspectives of the global commercial film industry rather than offering resistance to it. That the film is problematic in many respects does not mean that it is without merit. In some ways it is a testimony to the technical prowess of the South African film industry and the acting talent at its disposal.
What it should also draw attention to, however, is the uncritical views of individual agency vis-à-vis structural faultlines in society, the narrow understanding of what post-apartheid democracy should come to mean and the responses to poverty and crime that have become prevalent in contemporary South Africa. That this discourse has been foregrounded in an Oscar-winning film should not obscure the less prominent but nonetheless pervasive manifestations thereof across a wide spectrum of other media platforms as well.
Herman Wasserman teaches journalism at the University of Stellenbosch and has published two collections of short stories in Afrikaans. Herman wishes to thank Sean Jacobs, Winston Mano, Lucia Saks and Wendy Willems for sharing their insights in informal discussions about the film.