Solanka Elemotho

Solanka Elemotho holds a history degree from the University of Johannesburg (formerly Rand Afrikaans University) in South Africa and is currently working on a law degree from UNISA.

Selected articles by Solanka Elemotho

The film industry in South Africa lacks an independent voice

By Solanka Elemotho. Posted in Society & Identity on 30 Sep 2012.

Third Cinema is a Latin American concept that relates to the development of an independent voice in film making, linked to principles of de-colonisation and the rejection of mainstream ideas. This element of film making often develops from independent film producers who work with limited budgets, and is characterized by its critical stance against the commercial genre. As opposed to First Cinema – often a more well-funded mainstream method of film making – Third Cinema has played an important role in protest art and has served as an essential critic of modern society (Solanas & Getino 1970). This article argues that in failing to develop its own version of Third Cinema, the South African film industry, and society in extension, has squandered an opportunity for the types of critical enlightenment and audience activism that are characteristics of Third Cinema.

Since the 1980s, South African fictional film products have received international acclaim and recognition. Films such as Cry Freedom (1987, nominated for several Oscars and winner of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and the Berlin International Film Festival for Best Peace Film), Mapantsula (1988, AA Life Vita Award), A Dry White Season (1989, nominated for Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Oscar Awards) and Sarafina (1992, Tony Awards nominee), brought the world’s attention to the cruelty of the Apartheid system. Such fictional film products played an important role in reflecting and critiquing the state of society at the time. Post 1994 and the fall of the apartheid regime, recognition of South African films have only increased, with a flourishing and widely recognized local film industry (Dovey 2006). This is reflected in the international acclaim obtained by movies such as Drum (2004) which won the Etalon de Yennenga award, Yesterday (2004) which was nominated for an Oscar and Tsotsi (2007) which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Although these films have been instruments of social criticism in different ways, they lack the independent perspective of Third Cinema.

Despite the recognition, the South African film industry has a history of institutionalism and colonialism. For a period of time, from the 1940s to the 1970s, South African films were used as tools of propaganda by the Apartheid government. When international funders recognized a potential cash cow in producing anti-apartheid films, a shift towards an anti-apartheid cinema occurred. The huge outlays of funds poured into the industry has led to a severe increase in the quality and production value of South African films (a characteristic of First Cinema); conversely, the focus placed on profitability amongst South African filmmakers has come at the detriment of social criticism. This has denied the South African film industry the opportunity to develop a truly independent voice (Dovey 2006).

While Apartheid was a big theme of South African produced cinema of the 1980s, crime, HIV / AIDS, and comedy were the big central themes of the industry post 1994. Adaptation of South African literal texts was also popular (Ramadan Suleman adapted Njabulo Ndebele’s Fools; Tsotsi, and Cry the Beloved Country were also adaptations). Funding agencies in South Africa have a special budget for adopted works, thus encouraging such a trend. Some South African filmmakers have criticized projects that are chosen for funding post 1994. Most South African cinema products are funded by various state funding bodies such as the Department of Trade & Industry, and the National Film and Video Foundation. Naturally, state funding bodies are committed to certain nation building themes, leaving out any marginal views and social critiques (Dovey 2006: 147). Once again, as pre-1994, politics and financial concerns dictate the themes of South African films.

Few South African filmmakers have the means to embark on independent funding of movie projects. However, Leon Schuster is a prominent example of a filmmaker who has such means. Leon Schuster’s movies have been the biggest comedy products in South Africa’s history. Matatu (2006) in a critique of Leon Schuster’s Sweet and Short (1993) states that the movie portrays ‘blackness’ as being a burden of ‘whiteness’. He argues that the underling ideology is a continuation of a colonial view of blackness that, although not invented by Schuster, is certainly being perpetuated by his project. In criticizing Mr Bones (2001), Matatu interprets the fact that a white sangoma is sent to rescue the fictional black Kuvuki tribe as a continuation of the ideology of white men serving as saviors for dark Africa. Therefore, the few South African filmmakers who are able to independently finance their projects still perpetuate a collective and arguably imperialist narrative of South African society, rather than an independently critical one.

The Colonial heritage of South African film has led to a scenario where only the views of the economically and politically dominant groups at that time receive attention as a signifier of society. Thus, although contemporary issues such as crime are portrayed in South African film, it is almost always a young black township male criminal victimizing someone in the middle class. Mainly, the township is used as a representation of ‘other-ness’, that is, informal squatter camps, poverty, education and economic marginalization.

To a large extent, South African films have failed to address critical post-1994 issues such as rural poverty and urban overcrowding, high levels of unemployment, failure of the South African education system and failure of service delivery. These issues are addressed in other art forms, such as the poetry of artists like Kgafela oa Magogodi. Therefore, in its failure to develop an ‘independent’ voice in film production, a Third Cinema, the South African film industry is missing out on an opportunity to be a true critic, to mirror of the South African society and to address the key issues concerning South Africans post 1994.


Dovey, L., 2007, “Redeeming Features: From ‘Tsotsi’ (1980) to ‘Tsotsi’ (2006)”, Journal of African Cultural Studies, 19(2), 143-164.

Mamatu, T., 2006, “The Colonising Laughter in Mr. Bones and Sweet and Short”, MA Thesis, University of Witwatersrand.

Solanas, F & Getino, O, 1970, “Towards a Third Cinema”, 1-11, from

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