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Come Back, Africa

Director: Lionel Rogosin
Cast: Zacharia Mgabi, Vinah Bendile, Lewis Nkosi, Bloke Modisane, Can Themba, Miriam Makeba

(Milestone Films; US theatrical: 27 Jan 2012 (Limited release); 1959)

We Cannot Stay in This Place

I will look for you until I find you.
When the sun sets
and the cattle come back,
I think about you.
—Miriam Makeba, “Lakutshon llanga”


Late in Come Back, Africa, Vinah (Vinah Bendile) learns that her husband, Zachariah (Zacharia Mgabi), has been arrested. It’s 1959 in South Africa and she’s worried: she walks a few steps from their rented one-room home, past the camera that waits and watches her back, then cuts to a shot of her face as she briefly covers it with her hands and cries. The camera pulls back again, she makes her way back inside and sits at a table. Here you watch her in a single 3/4 shot as she sings to herself, so softly. A dissolve leads you to a baby, alone, seated outside in the dust, amid broken stones, busy with a drawing.


Without dialogue and only ambient sound, the sequence is a remarkable portrait of pain and resilience. Previous scenes in Lionel and Elinor Rogosin’s film have showed other instances, as workers make their way through noisy city streets, as drumbeats suggest the slow transitions between locations and eras, as impoverished villagers dance and sing nearby their broken shacks, or again, as they perform on urban sidewalks, observed by whites who keep their distance. But this scene is so quiet, so still. Vinah is alone and frightened, well aware, as she has told Zachariah earlier, that they must find ways to support their children and maintain a semblance of family structure, even as the laws of apartheid split them apart, in every way imaginable.


As the plot pauses here, you’re invited to contemplate what’s at stake, for the Zulu couple Vinah and Zachariah and also for the child in the dust, who—unless drastic change comes to South Africa—will have no reason to believe his life will be different from his parents’.  That life is illustrated throughout the movie, as Zachariah seeks employment in a series of locations, each time hired and fired summarily, according to a white person’s whim, suspicion or sudden cruelty.


With scenes on the street shot “secretly in order to portray the true conditions of life in South Africa today,” as well as loosely scripted scenes to dramatize those conditions, Rogosin’s film recalls his On The Bowery (1956), also rereleased by Milestone Films and taking a similar approach to life on New York’s Skid Row. Both independently made and distributed exposés keep focused on survivors of injustice and systems designed to repress them.


At the start of Come Back, Africa, Zachariah arrives at a mining camp, not guessing that he’ll be required to produce a work permits from his own village, among other documents. A series of brief images indicate the difficulty of the work he’s trying to do: men in helmets and grimy uniforms, working in the dark and all day, drilling, shoveling, and singing too. As Zachariah writes a letter to Vinah, he reveals little about his specific obstacles, only that his “contract” will soon be done and also that he’s not actually making enough money to live on, much less send home.


Not long afterwards, he’s looking elsewhere, namely, at a white couple’s house. In between his daily housecleaning tasks, he’s startled and then amused by his image in a mirror and takes a few seconds to dance during his workday. Everything in this world is foreign, from the clean shirts folded in a cupboard to the radio that plays music he can dance to. As Zachariah washes dishes in the kitchen, the camera keeps him framed by a doorway, as husband and wife discuss the finer points of hiring kaffirs. She’s furious, insisting that Zachariah (whose name, she’s decided, “won’t do,” and so she calls him “Jack”) is idiotic, taking no “interest or pride in his work at all” and annoying her with his “cheek.” Her husband is something like a pragmatist, trying to alleviate her anxiety and also explain that Jack is only a “simple country native” and so incapable of civilized thought.


It’s not before he’s fired, and each new situation follows this pattern: Zachariah learns something about a new work environment—a car garage, a hotel—just before he’s fired from a perceived infraction of rules he may or may not know. In between, he promises Vinah he’ll find work again or on some evenings, meets with blacks he meets at these brief jobs, to share miseries, find solace in music (Miriam Makeba sings at a couple of songs at one meeting), and talk politics.


“We live in a world of violence and violence has become such an important part that people judge us according to our racial characteristics, which shouldn’t apply,” declares new acquaintance Can Themba. “It’s easy to distinguish between one color and another because people think they and get away by playing one color against another.” His insight into how racism works is at once simple and profound. Themba wants to get people together to talk but, he explains, “It’s not just a question of just talking to each other, but it’s a question of understanding each other, living in the same worlds.” This includes those liberal white who doesn’t “get” black experience (who “just doesn’t want a grown up African, he wants an African he can pat on the head”) and also young black men who’ve learned that in order to get money or “bigger things,” they have “to use force to get it, to kick people, to bully people.”


Repeatedly victimized by white and black bullies, Zachariah and Vinah both struggle, together and separately, to keep on. As the events in the film call to mind the growing resistance offered by the African National Congress, as well as efforts by the government to maintain power (including 1959’s ANC treason trials), Come Back, Africa is both history and legend, about real, ordinary people in extraordinary—and ongoing—circumstances. The film remains complicated, interlacing stories and backstories, revealing at once adversities and strategies of survival.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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