Southern African Cinema: Towards A Regional Narration Of The Nation

By: Martin Mhando


For purposes of this paper I focus on the cinema in Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa although geographically the region includes countries such as Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland and Zambia. The paper develops the argument that communication is always linked with power relations and suggests that in the media power and knowledge intersect endlessly.

It further wishes to locate the study of cultures within the centrality of representation. As a study of the media the paper uses visual texts of films produced in the Southern African region to interrogate meanings formed out of the representation embedded in the concept of national cinema. The theory is influenced by the writings of Stuart Hall as well as the political concept developed within Gramscian deliberations on the discourse of power relations and what Kay Schaffer and Heather Kerr regard as ‘the unsettled hegemonic notions of race, ethnicity and cultural difference’1.

Contemporary studies of African cinema have afforded a platform for debate on the “adequacy of current methodologies for dealing with what cinema has become in Africa”2. This is the ‘Herculean task’ that Ukadike had warned of in 1995 when he wrote there is need “to dispel these outmoded and untenable myths which permeate the interpretation of African history, culture and now cinema, of how Africa is seen as a cinematographic desert, a filmic cul-de-sac”3.

The nation has remained central to post-colonial studies because questions of identity continue to have great impact to cultural studies. The studies reveal the ‘erasures and incommensurabilities of colonial practices’, narratives and understandings not only of the past but its future as well. In this paper I want to focus on one feature of post-coloniality — the transgression of borders and boundaries inherent in the nation and how the complex histories and narratives of colonialism are mediated and negotiated through the film in Southern Africa.

This paper argues that there is an implicit commonality of history, aesthetics and direction amongst the various ‘national’ cinemas in Southern African. It suggests that the ‘region’ be the principal context of its enunciation. The other reasons for seeing the cinema culture of the region as essentially “homogeneous”, at least for the time being, include aesthetic relations that films produced in the region reflect and the similarity of modes of popular culture.

The revival of the questioning of national cinema is not simply a theorising on how films are made but also a questioning of how films are received by audiences of diverse social, economic and political milieu. We note that there are other culturally aided mnemonic systems that support historical consciousness. Equally there are many questions around the aesthetic preoccupations of national cinema including the effect on the nation of the nature of social structures as shaped by tradition and colonisation4.

Other factors include the relevance of national cultural traditions to cinema language5, the strengths and limitations of cinematic realism, the struggle with material conditions of ‘underdevelopment’ and the challenge of anti-Hollywood cinema to a Western cultured audience6. On top of all that, there has always been a contending view of cinema that uses the very resistance to Hollywood and its dominant forms as the basis of its theorising on cinematic expression7. This is the case with the theories of the authorial cinema and Third Cinema. These essentially structuralist theories underline other familiar and easy terms to artistic and theoretical reflection.

Finally, meaning resides in conceptualisation. In this paper I query how cinema concepts are shaped and construed. ‘African cinema’, I argue, is a Western construct which supports a specific flow of cognition of thought. Through it African cinema continues to be defined under ethnographic and authenticity constituencies. As such the cinema becomes an expression of a defined and bordered cultural homogeneity based on the geographical boundary. The West has invariably constructed a body of content and expression around African cinema whose expression imposes particular discourses on the content it evokes8. It is these presupposed concepts which belie the notion of ‘African cinema’ and by extension that of national cinemas of the continent.

African Cinema

For the past three decades or so African cinema has been construed as a mode of film discourse that is understood historically but defined artistically: That is, the cinema’s concern is with information brought to light less by formal techniques than by an implicit world view. However, the combination of idealism and pedagogy found in the African film necessitates a re-questioning of aesthetics and praxis of African cinema narration. Analysis of this cinema is important even if only to problematise the many assumptions of African cinema narration.

Hence there is need for a theory that will assist in the understanding of the films that come out of the continent: a theory that will explain how certain ‘thematics’ create particular meanings. To understand the African film it is imperative to relate dynamics of culture to the period of its production. This means relating film to contemporary social relations, historical pressures, and technological innovations as well as to beliefs, attitudes and conceptualisations of people on whom the cinema is modelled.

That the ‘nation’ in Africa is the site for continuing upheaval socially, politically and economically needs no underlining. Some theorists would argue that in Africa, the nation is the constant among the many conditions of the continent’s negotiation of ‘modernity’. Ali Mazrui and Manthia Diawarra are only two amongst many current scholars who have seen the nation as an inappropriate structure for the contextualisation of modernisation and are probably searching for the concept of the ‘region’9.

This is contrary to the more conservative tendency at seeing the ‘tribe’ as the clearest context of Africa’s social relations. I see ‘tribe’ as a term that is invested with meaning only in relation to European culture. Perhaps the direction that this paper takes is one that conflates the ‘tribe’ with ‘globalisation’ at which point the ‘nation’ disappears and is replaced by the ‘region’.

However, having begun by identifying this region as ‘homogeneous’ I will not attempt to make a strict equation with some other regions of the continent or universally. This is in the belief that those regions in turn would also first need to be closely analysed, and it would defeat the purposes of this thesis to nominate geographical regions as necessarily affording affinity. This is despite recent exemplary attempts by African cinema theorists like Manthia Diawarra to move towards a similar position with regard to West African cinema10.

The current global trends towards regionalisation including those in the Southern Africa region enable easy comparison with other regions in the move towards a transnational conceptualisation of identity. The region operates similarly to the case of ASEAN for example, where a cultural consciousness predominates Wimal Dissanayake regards this regional approach as evidence of it being ‘vital’ to the national image internally and externally11. In any case, state structures, however varied, have often proved to be obstacles to a larger cultural and social identity. This has lead ‘national’ identities to being predominantly used for parochial jingoism “around soccer matches [or cricket], star musicians, athletes, film makers and writers”12.

In contrast to this situation, is the case in Latin America where ‘national’ cinema has always been viewed mainly as a regionalist ‘alternative’ to films from Europe and America as well as ‘a cumulative history’13. This is because Latin American cinema has always been defined through its expression of ‘underdevelopment’. This is a conceptualisation that helps us articulate cultural difference within a political context. This compares well with Arab cinema where, despite national differences in industrial and policy orientations, the cultural values of cinema remain decidedly regional, though in a ‘global’ way. Arab cinema exhibits a centrality of political interdependence within diversity and oppositionality. Indeed the nation within Arab cinema regards the region as ‘local’ and consciously asserts its continuing importance14.

Finally, although Marxists regard nationalism principally as a bourgeois social formation, African ‘nationalism’ gave birth to ‘liberationist’ thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral to whom nationalist struggles were only a necessary stage towards genuine liberation15. Neither the nation nor a pre-constituted historical origin alone can claim authority over a film’s signification process16. Its signification goes beyond nationalist politicking, beyond heritage, beyond mere producing of films and even beyond commitment of the storyteller to an audience.

It is in the films’ process of signification that we find the discursive address that the ‘nation’ lays claim to. The space of the narration and reception of the story prefigures national boundaries and therefore reframes the narrative within the terms of its memory. This requires an intrinsic surrendering of current national ties and ideology, and it is only cohesive as a narrative if viewed as a utopian space outside the confines of the nation. I propose to see the region as this possible space.

Critical Analysis

The term ‘national cinema’ is seen as not being necessarily useful in describing self-determination and is conceived merely as a ‘shaping character’. Indeed Gauri Viswanathan asserts that the study of literature in a post-colonial context only develops aesthetic senses of ethical thinking ‘vital in the process of socio-political control’17. This falls within the project of hegemony. This applies to cinema as well. Through accepting the nation as the dominant focus of self-expression not only did the coloniser avoid offending ethnic sensibilities (and further anti-colonial sentiments) but cloaked colonialism in universalist-humanist garb. As Gauri Viswanathan says

“The strategy of locating authority in these texts all but effaced the sordid history of colonial expropriation, material exploitation, and class and race oppression behind European world dominance…” 18

As windows to the ‘nation’ the texts reveal obvious inequalities (NeriaMore TimeMama Tumaini) and yet conceal the complex historical resistances (MapantsulaDark City) and interconnections (After the WaxFogata) between for example, women’s issues and hegemonic realities. It is the purpose for which the films were made that reveal their supranational essentiality.

I wish to argue that Southern African film’s like FlameJitMapantsulaMore TimeNeriaMama TumainiFogataMaangamizi, are produced to the tastes of audiences whose ideological and cultural reception is approximated by the film makers as to contain aspects of irreducible cultural and cinematic affinities. In the films the nation is only one of these experiential perspectives. Race, ethnicity and other relational conditions such as hybridity, are further contexts of expression19. The films derive from expressions of specific experiences and perspectives of cultural history, which are seen as political texts of credible strength over and above the call of nationalism.

We also need to be aware of Tafataona Mahoso’s call for seeing the many of the above films as suspect epistemologies of the West20. I argue here for interrogating the contexts, influences and institutions of these film texts and their geographical determinations. As windows to the ‘nation’ the texts reveal obvious inequalities and yet conceal the complex historical resistances and interconnections between for example, women’s issues and hegemonic realities.

It is the purpose for which the films were made that I wish to concentrate on in now. If we go back into colonial history many of the films that were made during the colonial period were obviously for the sole purpose of maintaining colonial rule. The people watching them were also very soon aware of the purpose since they started to react to them in an oppositional way when they saw the misrepresentations that the films embedded. For example, as the Land Enforcement Act became more oppressive to the Africans, they felt that the films about them did not represent their viewpoint. As Hungwe says, “the Unit [CAFU] as a whole appeared to have become increasingly insensitive to the real issues facing the peasants as articulated by Africans”21. The propaganda ethic of the films became obvious to one and all. A good example is also that of the Tobacco growing films.

When the British government concluded that tobacco farming was necessary for the colonial economy and could be grown profitably by Africans, they made films for peasants in Nyasaland (Malawi). However these films could not be shown in Rhodesia. This was because tobacco farming requires a lot of land and the specifically Rhodesian land laws then discriminated against Africans. If these films were shown in Rhodesia they could ‘breed(s) dissatisfaction among the natives here who are not permitted to grow tobacco’22.

This situation prevails even today in films about the region produced both by Hollywood and local filmmakers. A good example is when we compare the aesthetics of production of supposedly diametrically opposed films such as Gods Must Be Crazy and the recent controversial feminist perspective of the war of liberation – Flame.

As suggested earlier in the paper the pedagogic imperatives of narratives are often foreground in African cinema. This is important in our analysis of films since it shows how relations between cinema politics and cinematic narration are maintained. The didactic imagination employed in the film positions the viewer in a receptive mood and corresponds to the type of films produced during the colonial era.

This process is used to its full advantage in the film Gods Must Be Crazy. In the film the documentary style helps in indicating a context. Even the name “Bushman” locates the relationship that the intended audiences will have with the film. There are two discourses at play here. First there is the discourse of the civilised in which the civilised speak: They are able to communicate amongst themselves as well as being able to translate between the various contending groups. The discourse of the ‘bushman’, on the other hand, is that of those that don’t speak but are spoken about. In this there is a perverted sense of authority.

The director of the film avails not only the civilised’s discoursive power and authority of the genre but the authority of knowledge. The fictionality of the story may seem artificial to the critical audience but to the common audience, the socialised and contrived audience, this film simply cements knowledge. Therefore there is a methodological purpose to the use of the ‘documentary’ style. The director uses the form and techniques of documentary to induce responses from audiences.

So too does Ingrid Sinclair use the documentary style in Flame to position us within the receiving mode in order to ascertain conventional interpretations and expectations about the subject.

In providing a context for which issues of regional identity in cinema can be problematised, the discussion leads to revealing national cinema’s continued framing within Eurocentric perspectives. It is an investigation of the role that ‘national cinema’ has played in the underdevelopment of cinema in Africa and Southern Africa in particular.

As the paper moves on to speculate and develop a considered analytical approach it becomes an attempt at codifying cinema in the region – a reference point for explaining issues of representation, history, class, ethnicity and gender within a particular perspective23. For example, recent films coming out the region, such as Flame(Zimbabwe) and Soweto Green (South Africa) explore the national question within the context of liberation, where the liberation of the nation is presented as incomplete without the liberation of the woman (Flame) or class (Soweto Green). In the final analysis, it is the factor of liberation, which is specific to the region, that I consider quite an important cultural tool for analysing regional cinema products and culture.

I contend that the chronotope of Southern African cinema, to paraphrase Bakhtin24, is inflected in the racial, historical, liberationist narrative25. Bakhtin’s concept of chronotope refers to diverse social experiences within sets of time and space as they determine what it is be human in a given community. The purpose and product of this type of cinema seems to have a curious correspondence: the films themselves are not merely portrayals of culture but are themselves actors in the culture.

A good example is Mapantsula, a film that reacts on and to the conditions of its creation. Made during the post-Soweto riots and open resistance to Apartheid, the film questions revolutionary romanticism but delivers a structure of discourse. At the end as Panic knowing declines to name ‘names’, the audience just like the film’s principal actor are liberated from the conventions of classical Western cinema. There are no absolute heroes or villains, no tightly delivered endings. Likewise the newsreel Kuxa Kanema in Mozambique, established film as the new culture of freedom. Cinema became a proposition to see oneself participating in the weekly changes in society. So too are the riddle-like reflections of the Mozambican film Fogata. In these films present-time and myth converge. Form and purpose are one.

In conclusion, I perceive a regional development in both style and ideology from which we denote identity and expression. While style and ideology are intertwined within cinematic expressions, the history of African cinema requires us to treat them as separate even if only to show that they are inseparable. The pedagogic ethic, that is so often inscribed and reflected in African cinematic texts, is a good example of this inseparability. Through style and ideology I signify how through treating national cinema as a narrative system that regulates and influences developments in cinema texts, I identify cultural operational processes in the region that negate and undermine the nation as an identity defining base.


  1. Schaffer, K and Heather KerrIntroduction to Continuum: Jounal of Media and Cultural Studies, Vol. 13, No. 3, 1999

  2. Ukadike, N. F., “New Discourse of African Cinema,”, Iris No. 18, Spring 1995, p. 3 

  3. Ibid. p. 3

  4. Berry, Sara, “Crossing Boundaries, Debating African Studies, paper Presented at the Fifth Annual Penn African Studies Workshop, October, 17, 1997.

  5. Elsaesser, Thomas, New German Cinema, Macmillan Education, Basingstoke 1989 p. 108

  6. Stam, Robert, “Eurocentrism, Afrocentrism, Polycentrism”, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol. 13 no. 1-3, 1991

  7. These include Paul Willemen, Jean Luc Godard, Dziga Vertov, James Monaco, Roy Armes, Martin Walsh, Tony Rayns, Teshome Gabriel, Trihn T. Minha, Clyde Taylor, Stephen Crofts and many others.

  8. This parallels what Edward Said has correctly called ‘Orientalism’.

  9. Mazrui, Ali A., Cultural Engineering and Nation-building in East Africa, Northwestern U.P., 1972.

  10. Diawarra. M. “The Iconography of West African Cinema”, Screen Griots Africa and the History of Cinematic Ideas Conference, NFT, September 1995.

  11. Dissanayake, Wimal, Colonialism and Nationalism in Asian Cinema, Indianna University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1994, p. xiii

  12. Diawarra, M. op cit. p. 1

  13. Newman, Kathleen “National Cinema after Globalisation: Fernando E. Solanas’ Sur and the Exiled Nation”, in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol. 14 (3), pp 69-83

  14. Boughedir, F. Cinema Afrique, Cinema Arabe, (Video) 1986 

  15. Fanon, F. Towards the African Revolution, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1967

  16. Bhabha, Ibid

  17. Viswanathan, Gauri, “The Beginnings of English Literary Study in India”, Oxford Literary Review (9) 1 and 2, 1987, p. 2 

  18. Viswanathan, Gauri, ibid, p. 23

  19. In his rebuttal to Frederic Jameson, Aijaz Ahmed argues for these culturally diverse ways in which literary and cultural forms are appropriated in the ‘Third world’. See Aijaz Ahmad’s In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures, Verso, London, 1992

  20. Mahoso, T., “Audiences and the Critical Appreciation of cinema in Africa”, Paper given at the Screen Griots Conference, London, September 1995

  21. Hungwe, Kedmon, Southern Rhodesian Propaganda and Education Films for Peasant Farmers, 1948-1955″“, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1991, p. 239

  22. Hungwe, Kedmon, “Southern Rhodesian Propaganda and Education Films for Peasant Farmers, 1948-1955”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1991, p. 232

  23. Even those who write about Southern Africa, such as Tomaselli, often foreground South Africa as the context of their interrogations thus hiding away the rest of the region.

  24. Willemen, Paul, “The Third Cinema Question: Notes and Reflections”, in Questions of Third Cinema, edited by Jim Pines and Paul Willemen, BFI Publications, London, 1989, pp. 23-25

  25. The liberationist narrative is explained well by Paolo Freire thus: “This then is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well … Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.” It is this paradox, this disjunctive syllogism, this paradox of oppositionality that frames the way in which we deal with issues of power and memory. 


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