Honoring a Filmmaker in the Shadow of Apartheid
Unknown among his fellow white South Africans, Tonie van der Merwe was the most popular filmmaker among black audiences in the 1970s and ’80s. He churned out about 400 movies under an apartheid subsidy system established to produce movies exclusively for blacks — with the right political and moral content. In fact, he helped create the system.
With story lines often lifted from Hollywood, his movies drew throngs in black townships across the country. To those in the anti-apartheid movement familiar with his work, he was dismissed as a backer of white-minority rule.
And so, with apartheid now gone for a generation, Mr. van der Merwe’s resurgence has surprised many.
In April, the national broadcaster aired five of his movies. Last week, the Durban International Film Festival showcased his first work, “Joe Bullet,” a blaxploitation-inspired story that was South Africa’s first film with an all-black cast.
Then, in a ceremony last week, the black-led provincial government here named him one of four “heroes and legends,” awarding him his first prize ever. In his acceptance speech, wearing a tuxedo for the first time in three decades, he was more emotional than at his own parents’ funerals, said Hettie van der Merwe, his wife of 52 years.
Tonie van der Merwe was the most popular filmmaker among black audiences in the 1970s and 1980s. He churned out some 400 movies including “Joe Bullet,” a blaxploitation-inspired film.
After his speech, gripping a statuette in one hand and a double brandy and Coke in the other, he said: “Without being racist, I thought a white guy won’t easily win a prize, but I was wrong. I thought anything before the 1990s is not easily recognized by the present government. We didn’t exist. We didn’t do anything.”
Perhaps the rehabilitation of Mr. van der Merwe, 74, and his oeuvre speaks to a healthy willingness to start recognizing the complexities of the country’s apartheid past, if not in the realm of politics, then at least in the arts. Staunch apartheid fighters, like the author Nadine Gordimer, who died recently, have long been lionized. Mr. van der Merwe’s case is more ambiguous. He never opposed apartheid. He was disappointed that the end of apartheid left no specially reserved homeland for whites.
But his movies began the careers of many black actors and nurtured a generation of black technicians and production hands. They portrayed the lives of blacks, created black heroes and brought rare entertainment to bleak townships.
“We’re beginning to have sufficient distance from that old black-versus-white grand narrative to re-examine old documents like these films,” said Keyan Tomaselli, who was a critic of the apartheid government’s cultural policies.
Still, Mr. Tomaselli, also named a “hero and legend,” added: “Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever share a stage with him. Whether or not he was a supporter of apartheid, that’s the way we saw him.”
Mr. van der Merwe had been the owner of a successful construction company when he went into the movies in 1970. As he showed Hollywood movies to his 200 black workers on Saturday nights, he saw a business opportunity. The government had subsidized films for white South Africans since the 1950s under a so-called A-scheme, but there were no domestic movies for the black majority.
“You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that was the market of the future,” Mr. van der Merwe said.
Using his own money, as well as his own car, tractors and airplane as production props, he made “Joe Bullet,” an action movie about corruption in a soccer league. Joe Bullet, a cross between John Shaft and James Bond, fights evil with his intelligence, guns and karate chops; he attracts the affections of a nightclub singer with his suaveness and aloofness.
“Tonie was down to earth and very helpful,” said Abigail Kubeka, 73, who played the singer and went on to have a long career in entertainment. “You know, some of these directors are very arrogant. Maybe he knew we were all starters, amateurs.”
Released at the height of apartheid in 1972, the movie was banned after only two showings. Government censors were made uncomfortable by the all-black cast and certain elements of the story, like the hero’s use of a sports car and a gun.
“In those days, it was taboo for a black man to have a firearm,” Mr. van der Merwe said. “Other stupid things, like they dress smartly, drive smart cars, stayed in nice places, enjoyed their drinks.”
Instead of being discouraged, he again sensed opportunity. Under apartheid, blacks were made to live in homelands and were restricted in the cities. Mr. van der Merwe and another filmmaker successfully lobbied the government to create a subsidy for films for blacks, called the B-scheme. Over the next two decades, a couple of dozen filmmakers made 1,600 B-scheme movies, most hewing to the government message that blacks belonged in their homelands and that, if they lived in urban areas, they should behave.
Mr. van der Merwe was less ideological than other B-scheme filmmakers, who explicitly promoted the “apartheid worldview and policies,” said Gairoonisa Paleker, a scholar at the University of Pretoria who has written about the B-scheme.
“But his films didn’t in any way critique or raise questions about the apartheid system or policies,” she said. “There’s also complicity through silence.”
None of Mr. van der Merwe’s supporters say he sought to change South Africa. But for the first time, “Joe Bullet” and his other films “showed black people as real human beings with interior lives,” said Peter Machen, manager of the Durban film festival.
Innocent Gumede, who has also been known professionally as Popo Gumede, starred in many of Mr. van der Merwe’s movies. Mr. Gumede said the films stretched the confines of apartheid.
“There were a lot of unintended consequences,” said Mr. Gumede, 52, who went to work in television after the end of apartheid and now works in the mining industry. “With the blacks, we started to be stars. If white people act in movies, it’s because they’re gods. They’re heroes while we’re small, we’re just black. Then, all of a sudden, blacks are also heroes. Hey, look! You know, we can now dream.”
The movies, he said, had to have the correct moral message. “But we could get there and accomplish what you, Tonie, or the government wanted,” he said. “We had our own game within the game.”
“Tonie is an icon that happened by accident,” Mr. Gumede added.
Mr. van der Merwe said that he had no political notions, but that he mainly just wanted to make movies. “It was great, anyway, while it lasted,” he said of the B-scheme, which ended in the final years of apartheid.
He started working in the hotel industry. He lost a lot of money in horse racing.
He languished in obscurity until he came to the attention of Benjamin Cowley, the chief executive of Gravel Road Entertainment, a Cape Town movie production company. Mr. Cowley immediately realized the value of the B-scheme movies and has digitally restored 25 of them so far.
In a black township near here, a Sunday screening of “Joe Bullet” drew a few dozen boys and teenagers, South Africa’s “born-free” generation. They whistled and applauded at the end.
Thulani Mtolo, 23, a film student, said he liked the movie because it “talks about how you will never be successful while you are doing crime.”
“Sooner or later,” he said, “whatever you do will catch up with you.”
He added: “Joe Bullet was a great guy because he was able to defend himself. He didn’t have any pride. He was able to do all good things. He wasn’t greedy. He was able to build a team. He had peace inside him, so he was able to conquer.”