A Dry, White Season (1989)





Director:    Euzhan Palcy. 

Cast:    Donald Sutherland (Ben du Toit), Janet Suzman (Susan du Toit), Zakes Mokae (Stanley Makhaya), Jrgen Prochnow (Captain Stolz), Susan Sarandon (Melanie Bruwer),  Marlon Brando (Ian McKenzie), Winston Ntshona (Gordon Ngubene), Thoko Ntshinga (Emily Ngubene), Leonard Maguire (Bruwer), Gerard Thoolen (Colonel Viljoen), Susannah Harker (Suzette du Toit), Andrew Whaley (Chris), Rowen Elmes (Johan du Toit), Stella Dickin (Susan's Mother), David de Keyser (Susan's Father).

a white teacher finally awakens to the realities of the brutality of the apartheid system in South Africa


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

South Africa, 1976. 

Ben Du Toit is a teacher of Afrikaans history in a private school.  His wife is named Susan, his married daughter is Suzette and his young son is named Johan.  Their black gardener is Gordon Ngubene, whose wife is Emily and his older son is Jonathan. 

A group of black South Africans are drinking beer out of huge plastic cups.  A civil rights activist jumps on a table and tells everyone that the place should be boycotted.  He says the beer they drink pays for the bullets used to kill black children.   There is trouble at Jonathan's school.  Many of the students are arrested.  When Jonathan returns home, Johan is shocked to see how slowly he has to walk.   Gordon shows Ben the marks of the caning that his son received.  Ben is disturbed at the caning, but advises his gardener:  "Let it go, Gordon.  There's nothing to be done. . . . He must have done something."

There is a massive peaceful protest march that begins at Jonathan's school.  The police meet them.  The white leader tells everyone:  "I order you to disperse."  The blacks respond with song.  "This is the last warning. . . . Tear gas!"  Some of the soldiers start firing at the students and other soldiers soon join in.  Children are being shot to death on the streets.  The police give chase to the children, beating and shooting them. 

Gordon learns that his son Jonathan has been taken away.  The trouble is widespread.  It's happening in Alexander, Springs, and all the townships.  Gordon learns that his son is not on the list of those in custody.  But he is still missing.  Stanley, the taxi cab driver, Gordon and Emily visit the make-shift ward to look at the many student cadavers.  They do not find Jonathan's body. 

Ben asks Gordon where he has been for the last two days.  He explains to Ben that Jonathan has been arrested and that the authorities deny they have him; he's disappeared.  At school, Ben gets a phone call that Jonathan is dead and they do not know where he is buried.  Ben has to break the bad news to Gordon, who then vows to find out what happened to his sun.  Again Ben says:  "There's nothing we can do." 

Gordon introduces his lawyer Julius Ngakula to Ben.  The cleaner at John Vorster Square (police headquarters) saw Jonathan in his jail cell.  A young boy named Wellington arrives to give testimony.  He has two broken arms courtesy of he police.  He tells the men that the police kept asking him:  "Who are the ringleaders?"  But Wellington has no idea who the leaders are. 

The police force their way into Gordon's house.  They grab him and take him into the station.  Emily introduces herself to Ben and tells him about what happened to Gordon.  Ben goes in to see Colonel Viljoen.  With the Colonel is Captain Stolz of the Special Branch of the police.  The Colonel tells Ben that they will tell Gordon sometime in the future where his son's body is buried.  At the station the men of the Special Branch torture Gordon with beatings and water torture.  They want to know from him:  "Who told you to collect the affidavits?"  Later they give him electric shock torture. 

Gordon is dead.  The police "say" he hanged himself.  Stanley has the names of thirty-seven blacks who have died in custody in police headquarters.  Riots occur all over Soweto.  Stanley drives to the funeral home to see Gordon's body.  Ben hides on the floor in the back.  Gordon's chest looks very burned, probably from the electric shocks. 

Melanie Bruwer, a reporter for the Rand Daily Mail, tries to talk to Ben about Gordon, but Ben refuses.  Emily wants an inquest into her husband's death.  Ben says he will ask the great lawyer Ian McKenzie for some help.  He tells the lawyer that Gordon's body had been so abused that he could barely recognize him.  McKenzie tells Ben what Ben told Gordon:  "Just give it up."   Ben says:  "I cannot give it up."  McKenzie tells Ben that he is not the barrister that he is seeking.  He tells Ben that he just doesn't understand:  "Every time I've won a case, they have simply changed the law."  Disappointed, Ben starts to leave.  Suddenly McKenzie tells him:  "I'll take the case."  Ben tells Emily the good news about McKenzie taking the case.  A friends asks Emily if she is not afraid.

At the inquest, McKenzie explains to the court just how badly damaged Gordon was when he died.  Most of his major bones were broken.  And there were "excessive" burns on his genitals.  (Makes you wonder what amount of genital burns is considered normal, eh?)  The biased judge asks McKenzie what is he trying to prove.  The answer is that he wants to prove that it was not Gordon, but Captain Stolz who behaved like a wild animal in Gordon's case.  The government introduces a black witness to testify on behalf of the Special Branch.  But on the stand, Archibald Mabaso says that Captain Stolz forced him to sign a statement that in the jail he saw no damage done to Gordon.  Despite this and not at all surprising, the judge delivers a "no fault" finding in favor of the Special Branch.  After the case, Melanie helps Ben escape from the massive crowds outside the courthouse.  The reporter tells Ben that the Special Branch will now kill Archibald Mabaso.  Ben is actually surprised and doesn't think they would dare.  Melanie tells him he is still underestimating the Special Branch who can do just about anything they want to do. 

Ben's daughter Suzette is very mad at her father.  His face is on the front page of the paper with Emily.  At school, Ben gets the silent treatment from his colleagues.  And to make matters worse, he wife is upset with him.  She becomes even madder at him, when he tells her that Emily and he are going to bring a civil suit against the police.  His wife asks:  "Why?  For what?  I will be damned if I'll let them destroy my family."    She wants things to go back to they way they were, but Ben tells her:  "We can never go back."  She tells him that the blacks will swallow up the whites:  "It's like war; you have to choose sides.  You have to choose your own people"  Ben says:  "I have to choose the truth."

The plan of the supporters of Gordon and Jonathan is to reopen the case after they get a number of crucial affidavits from witnesses.  Among the witnesses is Johnson Seroke.  He actually saw Gordon being tortured on the very day that he died.   Johnson signs his affidavit.  A little later Captain Stolz shoots and kills Johnson. 

Captain Stolz and his men bring a warrant to Ben's house to search it.  They are looking for the affidavits that the various witnesses signed.  Ben's son Johan gets beat up at school.  Some of the boys called his father a "kaffir-lover" and a communist.  (Kaffir is the equivalent of the American N word.)  In spite of his wounds, he tells his father:  "Don't stop, Pa." 

The police pay a visit to Emily.  She is to be evicted and sent to Zululand. 

Merry Christmas.  The Gordon-Jonathan crew is trying to get an affidavit from Wellington Setole who now is in Zambia.  He saw it all. 

Ben is fired from his job for being "distracted" and missing classes.  The head master says:  "It's a question of loyalty to your community.  . . . We don't need traitors here."  Ben strikes the head master. 

Christmas celebration at Ben's house.  Stanley stops in at the house.  He is drunk and Ben's in-laws get really mad at Stanley.  The father-in-law calls Stanley a "drunken kaffir" and Stanley strikes back with who is this "f...ing Boer".  A larger part of Ben's family leaves the house.  Stanley apologizes for screwing up Ben's Christmas.  But Emily is dead.  She refused to leave.  The police put her children in the back of the truck with the furniture and she fought to get them back.  She was beaten and her heart gave way. 

Ben's wife calls him an Afrikaans traitor.  But he still has the support of his boy.  The wife leaves the house completely.  Ben tells his son that he is very proud of him.  Johan returns the sentiment.  Ben shows his son where he hides the affidavits.  Unfortunately, Suzette arrives while the demonstration is taking place. 

Captain Stolz visits Ben.  He tells him:  "I want to talk about survival.'  And this on the day they buried Emily.  Stolz continues:  "There is a line you should not cross."  A few days later someone fires three shots through the windows of the living room.   This scares Ben and he rushes to see Melanie telling her to publish the affidavits as soon as possible; there's not time for a law suit.  Returning home with his son, their garage is blown up.  Ben checks on the box where he stored the affidavits.  They are gone.  Ben is very despondent.  Johan comes in with the affidavits.  When Suzette saw the hiding place, Johan hide the papers in another place.  Ben is very grateful to his son. 

Melanie is arrested by the police. She is then deported.  Ben receives Wellington's crucial affidavit.  With his son and Stanley, Ben says that they have to get the papers to another publisher.  Ben will be the decoy to draw Captain Stolz off the track.  Dad calls Suzette telling her that he needs a safe place for the affidavits.  Suzette says:  "Why don't I look after them?"  They agree to meet at 8 p.m.  Dad gives here the papers in an envelope.  Suzette says she has to go.  She crosses the street and gets in her car.  In the passenger seat is Captain Stolz.  She gives the affidavits to him.  She tells him:  "I just want everything to go back to normal."  Stolz responds:  "Our country needs more people like you."   Later the captain opens the envelope.  It is definitely not the affidavits.  Ben left a note to Stolz:  "No one can be free, until all are free."  Johan transported the affidavits by bike to the publisher.  He is ecstatic when he tells Stanley:  "They got the papers."  Stanley tells him:  "Well done."  Ben leaves the restaurant where he met with Suzette briefly.  Captain Stolz uses his car to run down Ben.  He then backs his car up and over the prone body of Ben. 

Captain Stolz prepares to leave the country.  Stanley pulls up to him in his taxi.  Captain Stolz looks at Stanley as the taxi driver raises a pistol.  Stanley shoots and kills Stolz.  The headline in the paper next day is:  "Special Branch Exposed." 

1989.  The South African government continues to ban, imprison, torture and murder the men, women and children who oppose apartheid.  Since a State of Emergency was declared nationwide, 50,000 people, including children as young as eleven, have been held without being charged of any crime . . . some for as long as 850 days. 

This film is dedicated to the thousands who have given their lives and to those who carry on the fight for a free and democratic South Africa. 


Good movie.  Both my wife and I enjoyed it.  By now, having seen a lot of films about the fight against apartheid in South Africa, nothing really surprised me.  But my more politically naive wife kept being shocked by the turn of events.  What else would you expect from a racist government?  But her reactions are a sign of a successful movie.  Donald Sutherland was very good as the white South African, Ben.   Janet Suzman was very good at portraying the very racist and conservative Susan, wife of Ben. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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