10 Movies That Get To South Africa's Core

Benny Moshe in 'Tsotsi.' (© Miramax Films)
Benny Moshe in 'Tsotsi.' (© Miramax Films)
Photo of Louis Pilard
15 November 2016

South African cinema has a multifaceted history. The first full-length feature film shot entirely in the country was 1910’s The Great Kimberley Diamond Robbery. The first significant epic was 1916’s De Voortrekkers, which re-created the Afrikaners’ Great Trek north-eastwards from the British-run Cape Colony and their climactic defeat of Zulus at the Battle of Blood River in 1838.

Films made in both in Afrikaans and English have often confronted the colonisation and segregation of South Africa. In the post-Apartheid era, there has been an upsurge of stories told from indigenous perspectives that have allowed the nation’s black people to tell their own stories.

U-Carmen eKhayelitsha

This 2005 opera film, adapted from ‘Carmen’, was translated to Xhosa from Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy’s libretto for Bizet’s original opera. The movie tells the turbulent story of two lovers, cigarette factory worker Carmen (played by Pauline Malefane, who was one of the translators) and policeman Jongikhaya (Adile Tshoni). Carmen’s involvement with drug traffickers puts a strain on the relationship, though Jongikhaya fights to keep Carmen in his life. The film, which incorporated traditional African music, marked the directorial debut of British-born Mark Dornford-May.


Writer-director Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi, which he adapted from the 1980 Athol Fugard novel, spans six days in the life of a tsotsi (meaning thug) from a Johannesburg slum. David (Benny Moshe) is a gang leader who finds himself responsible for a baby after a carjacking. The 2005 film shows the ingrained inequalities between indigenous South Africans and white families, and the resulting tensions and violence. Its highlighting of the duality of South African culture is underscored by the potent soundtrack by the Soweto musician-poet Zola. It is the only South African film to have won the the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Life, Above All

Life is promising for 12-year-old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) until her baby sister dies, possibly from an AIDS-related illness. As her stepfather turns to drink, Chanda must struggle alone to protect her ailing mother from the rumors circulating among intolerant members of their township near Johannesburg. Adapted from Allan Stratton’s acclaimed novel ‘Chanda’s Secrets’, the film depicts the all-too-common effects of alcoholism, HIV infection, stigmatization, and abuse. Filmmaker Olive Schmitz’s touching drama, which screened at the 2010 Cannes festival, won seven Golden Horn statuettes at the 2011 South African Film and Television Awards, including those for Best Actress (newcomer Manyaka), Best Supporting Actress (Harriet Manamela, who played a snooping neighbor), Best Director, and Best Film.

The Bang Bang Club

The title of this 2010 biographical drama refers to four photojournalists who worked together in South Africa recording the violence that preceded the end of Apartheid in 1994. Written and directed by Steven Silver, it shows not only the nation’s turbulent recent history but the conditions in which the photojournalists worked. One of them was Kevin Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch), who created the Pulitzer-winning photograph of a vulture stalking a starving toddler during the 1993 famine in Sudan; he committed suicide after his ‘cold’ approach to photojournalism was denounced. Silver’s movie offers insights into the psychological stress induced by long-term exposure to violence.

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Set in Botswana, Jamie Uys’s 1980 comedy classic tells the story of Xi (played by the Namibian bush farmer and actor Nixau), a Kalahari Desert tribesman ignorant of the globalized world, who discovers a Coca-Cola bottle. Xi’s initially content tribe discovers the consequences of scarcity for the first time after the introduction of the bottle to their society causes disputes and unhappiness. Embarking on a journey to rid the tribe of the bottle, Xi comes across western scientists, foreign teachers, guerrillas, and policemen. Showing the absurdity of civilization’s institutionalization of science and law through Xi’s eyes, The Gods Must Be Crazy is the most commercially successful film to come out of South Africa.

Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalem

Writer-director Ralph Ziman’s 2008 film depicts the criminal career of Lucky Kunene (Rapulana Seiphemo), a kid from Soweto who graduates from carrying out robberies and carjackings to running a real-estate empire in Johannesburg’s Hillbrow neighborhood. A Robin Hood figure for the South Africa of the 1990s, he sets himself up as a vigilante housing-estate agent who threatens landlords with violence unless they decrease their rent prices. The story addresses the struggle for social mobility in a society that limits the potential of its people.

District 9

Inspired by events that took place in District Six in Cape Town during the Apartheid era, director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is a darkly comic sci-fi allegory that addresses racism, ghettoization, and stigmatization. Presented as a mockumentary, it follows an Afrikaner bureaucrat called Wikus (Sharito Copley) as he attempts to relocate an alien refugee camp. Among the film’s subjects are the perpetuation of gang culture and black market economies in camps and ghettos, the persecution of outsiders, and alienation. Franz Kafka was a key influence on Blomkamp. District 9 was nominated for four Academy Awards.


This 1998 Afrikaans-language film written by the prolific Chris Barnard and directed by Katinka Heyns tells the story of a stationmaster and his miserable, isolated family, dwellers of the Karoo semi-desert who are seemingly lost in their own world and time. Self-evidently, the family represents South Africa itself. In a surreal scene, Willem (Larry Leyden), the boy of the family, befriends a clown (Ellis Pearson) with an elephant companion. The family begins to heal but nothing can contain the intolerance of the local townsmen.

Otelo Burning

This 2011 Zulu-language film resulted from years of workshopping by director Sara Blecher and her cast. With racial violence escalating in the 1980s, 16-year-old Otelo Buthelezi (Jaffa Mamabolo) and his friends find escape in surfing. Otelo proves a wizard of the waves but must choose between turning pro or defending his family in its beleaguered township.


Leleti Khumalo, who also starred in Hotel Rwanda and Invictus, excels as the title character, a hardworking rural villager who is raising her daughter Beauty single-handedly since her husband is a migrant mineworker. After physically collapsing, Yesterday is eventually diagnosed with AIDS. Strong of mind and spirit, she determines to stay alive until seven-year-old Beauty is old enough to attend school. When she visits her husband, who had infected her, to tell him he is also sick, he beats her. He later returns, repents, and helps Yesterday build a makeshift hospital before he dies. The 2004 film explores the stigmatization of South Africa people who are infected with HIV or suffering from AIDS-related illnesses, as well as the struggle to cope without medical support. Directed by Darrell Roodt, the maker of Sarafina!, Yesterday was the first full-length feature shot in Zulu and a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee.

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