Andrew Donaldson writes on the long Anglo-Saxon cinematic tradition of vilifying the Afrikaners
A FAMOUS GROUSE
IN Francis Annan’s new movie, Escape From Pretoria, ANC member Denis Goldberg warns fellow inmate and activist Tim Jenkin of the dangers he faces should he attempt to break out of prison: “Searchlarts. Covers every inch of the yord. Bores with guns. They’s nothing they’d like more than to pump holes into yer.”
But Jenkin is determined. “If you fay-ul,” Goldberg continues, “you git twenty-farve years if you lucky. A bullet in the head if you’re not.”
The Bores, I gather from the film’s trailer, are notoriously trigger happy. At one stage, one of Jenkin’s terrified comrades, fearing for his life, yells at arresting officers, “Don’t shit!”
And who can blame him? He’d probably get kilt, and then he’d be done for, did.
Escape From Pretoria is coming to a cinema near the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) next month, and perhaps even to your local bughouse. Billed as a "race-against-time thriller set in the tumultuous apartheid days of South Africa”, this joint UK-Australian production features Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe as Jenkin and Ian Hart as Goldberg.
It has, in other words, bankable talent. And, of course, a story, which is based on Jenkin’s 1987 memoir of the same name. (A new edition was published by Jacana in 2003 as Inside Out: Escape From Pretoria Prison.)
I first read about the film in the London Sunday Times. It was the headline that grabbed me: “I broke out of jail then helped to break apartheid.” At first I thought it was a report on Joe Biden, the US presidential contender who has on several occasions boasted that he was arrested during a visit to South Africa in the 1970s when he had attempted to contact Nelson Mandela on what he called Robbens Island.
The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column labelled Biden’s claim “ridiculous” and awarded it four Pinocchios. This week, Biden’s campaign managers pulled a reverse ferret and told reporters that what the former senator actually meant was that he had merely been separated from his party at Jan Smuts International Airport when an official — a Bore maybe — had directed him to use a “Whites Only” door.
Jenkin’s struggle credentials, on the other hand, do bear scrutiny. He had joined the ANC in 1974 and, together with Stephen Lee, whom he had met as a sociology student at the University of Cape Town, had carried out a wave of pamphlet bomb attacks in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Both were arrested in March 1978 and, at their Cape Town Supreme Court trial in June that year, they pleaded guilty to charges of “producing and distributing 18 different pamphlets on behalf of banned organisations” including the SA Communist Party, the ANC and its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, from 1975 to 1978, and urging people to join the liberation movement. Jenkin was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment and Lee eight.
Once inside Pretoria Central, Jenkin and Lee, along with other political prisoners, hatched a bold escape plan that involved using copies of warders’ keys which were fashioned from wood. Goldberg, meanwhile, alerted then MK chief of staff Joe Slovo of the plan through a series of coded letters and a date for the escape was set and an escape vehicle arranged.
In December 1979, Jenkin, Lee and a third prisoner, MK operative Alex Moumbaris, used their handmade keys to open nine doors leading out of prison. Goldberg, who chose not to break out, distracted the warden, a Bore by the name of Vermeulen, while the three made their escape. Once free, they split up and Lee and Jenkin eventually made their way to London, and Moumbaris to Paris.
In May 1980, Vermeulen was put on trial for “aiding terrorists”, or alternatively, assisting in the escape of prisoners. Lee sent the hapless warden’s defence attorney a sworn statement explaining his innocence which, together with the inconsistencies contained in Vermeulen’s forced “confession”, led to his acquittal.
While he was in London, Jenkin developed an encryption computer for the ANC before embarking on a more regular career in IT. When filming began in March last year, he joined the Escape From Pretoria production in Adelaide, Australia, as an advisor, helping Radcliffe with his accent. The results of his efforts are at best mixed, and The Sunday Times’s correspondent generously describes Radcliffe’s attempts at Seffrican as “valiant”.
It is, admittedly, a difficult accent, and they struggle with it even in Hollywood. They do come right occasionally, as in the case of the 2009 sci-fi smash hit, District 9, but then its cast was stuffed with expat troupers and local luvvies, so no excuses there.
To date, the only American actor to come close to nailing Saffer has been Leonardo DiCaprio who played a gunrunner and former 32 Battalion member in the 2006 thriller, Blood Diamond. In one scene, DiCaprio mutters that someone is a “doos”. Not only does he pronounce it correctly (as in “Do us a favour…”), but he does so like a native, investing in that simple excoriation the precise degree of dismissive contempt that gives the term its majestic zef force. Either he really is a terrific actor, or he’d been hanging out with the production’s South African stuntmen for too long.
On a historic note, cinema’s vilification of Afrikaners is almost as old as the medium itself. The very first propaganda films were crude shorts, like 1901’sA Sneaky Boer, filmed in the hills surrounding Blackpool and supposedly depicting the dastardliness of the foe on the far-off Highveld.
An earlier, perhaps more interesting film, is the clumsily-titled Prize Fight, or Glove Fight between John Bull and President Kruger. Produced in 1900, it depicted the war as a geo-political scrap, with John Bull, seconded by Uncle Sam, going toe-to-toe with Kruger, who has Russia and France on his side. The first round is fought cleanly, but in the second Kruger feigns surrender to hit John Bull when his back is turned.
These jingoist films were extremely popular with British audiences. Many of whom still mistrust foreigners. Later depictions of the Anglo-Boer War were a bit more even-handed, like the 1980 Australian drama, Breaker Morant. This film was also shot in Adelaide and the city’s historic Redruth Gaol, built in 1856, was used to depict Pretoria Central, the very same role it reprised for Escape From Pretoria. The building now runs the risk of being typecast as a South African correctional facility. Unlike Escape, however, the Breaker actors pronounced “Boer” correctly.
It was news coverage of the violence in South African townships in the 1980s, though, that saw the vilification go into overdrive. Audiences were horrified at the scenes of police brutality they saw on television, and when the late Hunter S Thompson, suggested in another of his unhinged outrages, that Afrikaners are “universally recognised — even among non-political travellers — to be The Worst People in the World”, well, not many argued otherwise.
At the time. Thompson was writing for the San Fransisco Examiner. He was particularly incensed when, at the height of PW Botha’s state of emergency era, president Ronald Reagan had vetoed a popular congressional bill calling for harsher economic sanctions against Pretoria.
“The South African problem will not go away anytime soon,” he wrote in a September 1986 column . “Those people are riding the tiger down there, and it is one of those rides that does not have the look of longevity. The whole nation will be gone, like Rhodesia, by 1988…
“And after that we will have those people on our hands, two or three generations of crazed Afrikaners who got chased off the continent by native black people. They will arrive by the tens of thousands at airports like Miami, Atlanta and Dallas, with letters of passage and crates full of burp guns and Krugerrands. Some will push north to Montana and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to hook up with the Aryan Nation and other white-supremacist cults. By the turn of the century — if Reagan has his way — expatriate Afrikaners will control huge sections of the American West, from the Black Hills all the way to the ocean…
“This kind of talk might seem crazy or paranoid in Boston or Washington, but in places like Scottsdale and Bozeman and Carson City, it is no joke at all. There is talk in Texas of settling a million or more displaced Afrikaners in a long strip along the Rio Grande, as a buffer against the Mexicans.”
And it was no joke in Hollywood. It was at this time that Afrikaans began to creep up the cultural socio-auditory scale as Bores joined Cold War Russians and Nazis as Tinseltown’s stock-in-trade villains. The “watershed” movie, if I may, was the 1989 action-comedy, Lethal Weapon 2, in which likeable cop buddies, played by Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, tackle Saffer drug smugglers operating from within the South African consulate in Los Angeles.
The veteran character actor Joss Ackland plays the evil Bore kingpin badass consul-general and says “dipperlermatic immunity” quite a bit. His Afrikaans secretary is Patsy Kensit, a British actress famous for marrying rock stars. She’s a liberal and gets to have sex with Mel Gibson. Which does stretch the credulity a bit. (What meisie working at foreign affairs in the 1980s would even think of behaving like this? Unless, of course, she’d been influenced by Pik Botha.)
Still, the demand for apartheid-era Seffrican accents continues. There are various YouTube tutorials to help budding actors should they land a demanding Bore role. In one such video a rosy-cheeked English thesp explains: “When we’re looking at the South African accent, the biggest sound that helps me as an actor is the ‘eye’ sound in ‘write’, ‘sign’ and ‘live’. It becomes a bit more like ‘oy’, like in ‘oil’. So we have ‘wroyte’, ‘soygn’, ‘loyve’. Don’t go all the way, don’t go ‘wroyte’, ‘soygn’, ‘loyve’. It’s not going to sound right. It’s a little flatter. ‘Write’, ‘sign’, ‘live’…”
Helpful? Thought so.
South Africa has eleven official languages, not to mention a whole heap of different regional accents. It is odd, then, that the movies should choose to portray us as speaking, as the satirist PJ O’Rourke put it, like the Katzenjammer Kids. By the same token, I wonder how long before post-apartheid South African characters join all the other stereotypical villains down at Hollywood’s central casting.
This week, for example, many South Africans would have seen on social media the horrific abuse of power as high-ranking police officers — believed to be two brigadiers and, judging by the size of his boep, a general — prevent opposition MPs, including DA leader John Steenhuisen, from entering the Parliamentary precinct ahead of Wednesday’ budget speech.
It was particularly galling that one of the brigadiers waddled over to a New24 journalist and tried to prevent him from filming the incident — a direct contravention of a SAPS standing order that states that media representatives “may not be prohibited from taking photographs or making visual recordings” in the course of their work.
Writing such incidents into the great South African movie script should be a piece of cake. As hacks, we’ve all heard the words before, on countless occasions.
“Who gif you the puhmishun to fillum, hey?”
The accent may not be as difficult now. But the challenge is getting the tone right, the smug inflection, the suggestion of stupidity behind the veneer of authority. Just like the Bores in the bad old days.