The Music, Drink, and Fury of Life Under Apartheid in Come Back, Africa


The dateline that opens Lionel
Rogosin’s Come Back, Africa reads “Anno Domini 1959″—and the year is significant. Filming his exposé of apartheid in Johannesburg at the end of the ’50s, Rogosin was capturing the transition in South African life from a decade that Anthony Sampson, editor of the legendary monthly Drum, called “a unique period of opportunity and creativity”—and organized resistance—to the crackdown following the African National Congress treason trials, the 1958 prime ministership of Hendrik Verwoerd, and the Sharpeville Massacre of March 1960, during which police opened fire on black demonstrators and killed 69 people.

Rogosin, the director of 1957’s skid-row verity On the Bowery, took the title for his second feature from an ANC slogan. The backward-facing plea was apt—with Come Back, Africa, Rogosin was showing a vital culture on the brink, at the moment when it was calcifying into the form it would hold for more than three decades to come.

Come Back, Africa was shot in Sophiatown, the cultural center of black Johannesburg, then well along in the process of being bulldozed in preparation for new white inhabitants. As in On the Bowery, Rogosin introduces the audience to his chosen milieu by following a newcomer in and watching him learn the ropes. The protagonist here is Zachariah Mgabi—like the entire cast, a nonprofessional—playing a new arrival to Johannesburg from his native KwaZulu region who is forced by poverty and famine to seek work in the city while separated from his wife, Vinah, and family.

Zachariah absorbs the day-to-day hardships of a black South African. There are the white bosses who, with their stiffened, meager expressions, seem more pitiable than their native employees; the perpetual updating of papers (thanks to the Pass Laws, which inspired Sharpeville) and the endless search for shelter in the face of legal restrictions (Group Areas Act); the infantilizing laws limiting cohabitation between domestic workers; the casual brutality within the African community by tsotsi criminal gangs, encouraged by poverty.

All of this is a matter of historical record and national shame, but more than muckraking, Rogosin’s films are to be treasured for imprinting vanished worlds in celluloid: in this case, the record of Sophiatown’s cultural life. The scuttlebutt is that, while filming, Rogosin’s cover story for suspicious police was that he was shooting a harmless musical travelogue. “Harmless” it was perhaps not, but, in a way, Rogosin was making a musical: Chatur Lal’s soundtrack is all scratchy agitation and avalanche percussion while, in various places, one can see and hear a wedding-party band, a circle of boys worked into a frenzy on pennywhistles, gum-boot dancers, and buskers singing Elvis’s “Teddy Bear” (an overseas echo of the cultural miscegenation that was eroding deeply entrenched American apartheid). The performers seem to overlap, marching the same dusty streets and recalling the story of the American composer Charles Ives watching marching bands collide in the town square of his boyhood, an anecdote illustrative of the jostling and mixing that inspires cultural ferment.

The relationship between fermentation and culture is quite literal in Come Back, Africa‘s central scene, set in one of the town’s illegal shebeen drinking establishments, as Zachariah sits in on a social rap session of South African intellectuals. Where Rogosin’s Bowery dwelled on liquor’s toll, the bottle is here an agent of social freedom, the prompt to spontaneous open discussion, which erupts into outright celebration with the arrival of Miriam Makeba, performing two songs that show why she’d soon become an international name. (Meanwhile, Rogosin, who deserves much credit in making that name, had to open the Bleecker Street Cinemas in order to lease a screen for his movie to play on back home.)

Troubled throughout by stiff blocking and a spotty establishment of character and plot points—an uncertainty of “who?” and “why?”—Come Back, Africa is no polished narrative (understandable, given the circumstances of its shooting). But the blunt drama still manages to cut, thanks to the totally un-self-conscious performance by Mgabi, whose naked hysteria closes a film dotted with giddy surges of hopeful, intoxicated release on an apt note of abject hangover.