By Bruce George and Kelly Hilditch
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1991

Tsotsi: life and love on the streets of Johannesburg

This article is over 15 years, 10 months old
Gavin Hood spoke to Socialist Worker about his Oscar winning film, set in the new South Africa
Issue 1991
Young Tsotsi, played by Benny Moshe, in Gavin Hood’s film
Young Tsotsi, played by Benny Moshe, in Gavin Hood’s film

This is a film about a young gang leader named Tsotsi who lives on the dangerous and crime-ridden streets of Johannesburg, South Africa.

The word tsotsi is a corruption of the Sesotho word tsotsa, which means to dress flashily. It is associated with gangsters in zoot suits in the 1940s and 1950s. But today it is used as a word for displaced young criminals.

The film traces six days in Tsosti’s life in which he ends up caring for a baby he accidentally kidnaps during a carjacking.

This riveting drama is about the triumph of love and compassion over rage and alienation. It is based on the acclaimed book by South African author and playwright Athol Fugard.

The novel is set in the South Africa of the 1950s, but Gavin Hood, who wrote and directed this adaptation, set it in the present.

This was made easier as the book explored timeless and universal themes of redemption and self discovery. The result is a well paced, character driven psychological thriller.

The audience is transported into a world of radical contrasts. Skyscrapers and shacks, wealth and poverty, violent rage and compassion, all crash in a film that is not just a classic story of redemption, but also an illustration of the patchwork that is the new South Africa.

Gavin Hood told Socialist Worker, “It was my intention that by the end of the film, the audience may find they have developed a genuine empathy for characters whose lives may in reality be very different from their own.

“I used to work in the shanty towns in the early 1990s, when I was working for the department of health. There are huge problems around HIV and Aids – the number of people with these conditions is huge, between 25 and 40 percent.

“Not only are they killing thousands of people, they are also creating thousands of orphans.

“I’m lucky. I’m white and middle class. The closest I got to what I’m portraying in this film is living nearby. That time, working with people in the shanty towns, was a hugely influential period in my life.

“I know a lot of young men like Tsotsi, who have basically raised themselves. They are angry and they are hard – but they also want to talk about their family, about what they’ve lost.

“The story is universal. It represents a reality that could be in any place at any time. I guess if you reduce it right down it’s a coming of age story.

“When you look at the problems facing South Africa today, it all comes down to class – it comes down to the haves and the have nots. The real issue, all over the world, is inequality.”

For Gavin making films in South Africa was an opportunity to deal with the politics of the country after the end of apartheid. But he said that first and foremost he is a film-maker.

He said, “I wanted to deal with real issues, but not in a way that bashes you over the head with it. When stories are personal, then hopefully the reality of the political and social issues hits you harder.

“Tsotsi is a hard character for audiences. He is not sympathetic. But at the same time he is a young man who has had to deal with more than most of us can imagine.”

Tsotsi is a dark story, but it manages to be both entertaining and accessible.

The film score is excellent and consists in the main of a highly charged combination of streetwise and aggressive music tracks called Kwaito, the new music of the townships. In every respect this is a film that is well worth seeing.

Tsotsi is on general release from 17 March

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