Come Back, Africa (1959)




Director:     .

Starring:      Zacharia Mgabi (Zachariah), Vinah Bendile (Vinah), Miriam Makeba (Miriam), Lewis Nkosi (Lewis), Bloke Modisane (Bloke), Can Themba (Can), Myrtle Berman (Myrtle), George Malebye (George), Morris Hugh (Morris), Rams (Rams), Hazel Futa (Hazel), Martha (Aunty).

the rough life of the blacks in South Africa under apartheid in 1957



Spoiler Warning:

Blacks and whites mix in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa.  "This is the story of Zachariah -- one of the hundreds of thousands of Africans forced each year off the land by the regime and into the gold mines." 

Zachariah Mgabi arrives at the mining barracks and takes a bunk.  A worker asks him:  "How are the reserves?"  Zachariah answers:  "Only poverty and starvation."   He says that some work recruiters said to come here to the mines to find some work.  The worker replies:  "The city won't let you unless you have a permit from your village.  So we all end up working in the mines."  A man comes into the barracks to say that Zachariah is wanted outside. 

Outside new mine workers are being trained to work in the mines, including instructions of how best to shovel in the mines. 

While it is still dark, workers stand in long lines to get into the mines.  There are literally hundreds of workers.  Some men use hand drills to loosen the stones.  Other men shovel the loosened material.  The material is loaded into cars and pushed out of the area. 

In the barracks Zachariah says that he is trying to get a permit to work off the compound in Johannesburg.  His fellow worker tells him that he will never find work in Johannesburg, because now Zachariah is a miner and he can only go home when his contract is up.  Another worker says they will go get the supervisor to come and talk to Zachariah. 

While waiting for the supervisor, Zachariah writes a letter to his wife back home.  He explains that he is really lonely here in Johannesburg and he wants to return home.  He asks his wife to tell his mother to sell two of the cattle and send the money to him in Johannesburg, so he can come home. 

The supervisor comes in and asks how can he help Zachariah?  Zachariah explains that he wants a permit to work outside the compound in Johannesburg.  The supervisor says getting such a permit is going to be very difficult.  Zachariah will need one permit to work and another permit to reside in the city.  Zachariah asks what can the supervisor do for him?  Virtually nothing is the answer. 

Zachariah is persistent and he does get a chance to speak to a woman who needs domestic help.  She is a bit short with Zachariah announcing the rules to him very early on, such as, he is not to have any girls in his room.  And no liquor.  He can have one friend in his room, but she doesn't want "crowds of natives here".  She tells him she will call him Jack.  

Jack throws out the mushroom soup, and the lady of the house berates him for this.    She complains to her husband and he is solicitous with her concerns, but he says that the starting natives often think that some of the food dishes are just slop and they throw the food away.  The wife wants Jack fired, but the husband is sick and tired of having to fire and rehire servants for his wife.  The wife now berates her husband for his not being helpful to her in this matter.  The husband says that he thinks the wife is not treating the natives right.  They are not educated and they don't know the ways of the white households.  The woman sums it up by saying that the natives are "savages, just savages.

Zachariah tells other blacks that he will be leaving his job soon because the woman doesn't treat him well.  One man, named Moloi, tells him that if the situation gets too tough, Zachariah can come to him and he will help him get a different job. 

Mgabi finds some liquor in the house and starts drinking it.  He then turns on the radio, puts a shawl around his neck and starts dancing to the music.  The lady catches him, berates him and then tells him to get out before she calls the police.

Moloi takes Zachariah to a place where he and his friends hang out and he introduces Mgabi to the group of seven people.  Moloi mentions that Zachariah is currently unemployed and wants to find a job.  The conversation about employment is side-lined as another man joins the group.  A man dances with an attractive woman named Hazel.  Hazel takes an interest in Zachariah.  She comes on to Zachariah and this makes the man uncomfortable.  Eventually, Zachariah forces the woman off him and he takes off. 

Moloi talks to Zachariah about bringing his wife to Johannesburg to boost his morale.  Zachariah likes the idea. 

One of Moloi's friends is a car mechanic.  He takes Zachariah down to meet his boss and he asks the boss if Zachariah can have a job at the garage?  The boss checks Zachariah's pass book and says okay. 

The friend, however, is not very reliable.  He takes out Zachariah on a ride in a customer's Mercedes Benz through the city of Johannesburg during work time.  And, of course, the two men are spotted by a white man and the boss calls the police.  The policeman asks the car mechanic what did he do with the car he took out this morning?  The mechanic keeps saying he just took the car around the block.  The policeman says they must have stolen the car.  Zachariah says they didn't steal any car.  The policeman tells Zachariah to stay out of this matter because if he loses this job, he will "be endorsed out of the area".  The two men are warned never to do this again and then the policeman leaves.

The mechanic takes the next day off without permission.  This makes the boss very angry and he fires both the mechanic and Zachariah. 

Zachariah's wife Vinah comes to Moloi's apartment (really a shack) to see her husband.  Zachariah is very surprised to see her and very happy.  They kiss.  And she has brought the children with her.  Zachariah says they will have to move in with his aunt because the apartment is not his and they need more room for the whole family. 

On their way to the Aunt's place, the reunited couple stop to listen to some street music.  They come upon another street band and see the women dancing to the music in the streets.  Music also accompanies a wedding procession.  This time couples dance along with the procession. 

The couple finally reach the Aunt's place.  Zachariah asks if the Aunt can't get them some accommodation in the area.  Does Zachariah have a pass?  No.  (He lost it after getting fired again.)  The Aunt takes them over to a place that they can rent.

The mechanic friend and Zachariah search for other jobs.  One man tells them to come back and he will see what work they might have for the two men.  The guys get jobs in a restaurant in the hotel.  Zachariah gets in trouble when he walks in on a white woman who was still dressing.  The boss believes Zachariah's innocent, but just to be safe, he has to let Zachariah go. 

Zachariah tells his wife that he lost his job.  She says maybe it would be better if she got a job as a domestic worker.  Zachariah is adamant that she not take any kind of job. 

The streets of Johannesburg are filled with the music of many different street bands. The street musicians are mostly black, but whites stop to listen to the music too.  Zachariah's son Rams becomes one of the street musicians.  He plays the flute.  One day, a gang of boys rob him of his flute.  The son starts throwing rocks at the gang, but soon he has to start running away from them.

Rams gets another gang of boys to go with him to gets his flute back.  This starts a big fight.  Mother has come over to stop her son from fighting.  She scolds her son while he explains that he had to get his flute back.  Mother also tells Rams that he must stay home now, but as soon as she turns her back, Rams runs out of the small apartment. 

On his way home, a man with a knife accosts Zachariah, demanding he give him a cigarette.  Zachariah resists and gets some help from Moloi.  Zachariah gets the man down, punches him a couple of times and then starts strangling him.  Moloi has to pull Zachariah off the man, who happens to be a bit crazy and a criminal with a gang.  His name is Marombo.  Friends warn Zachariah that he should have avoided fighting Maromba at all costs.  Zacharia defends his actions verbally, but the man says Maromba is just bad and may choose to eliminate Zachariah.  The men get into a long discussion about crime, being black in a white dominated country and other political activity.  A female singer comes in and sings for the group of friends.  The men just love her singing. 

After the singer leaves, the men go back to talking about politics and religion.  The police arrive in the area and that causes the friends to have to hide their liquor.  Fortunately for them,  the police just pass by their place.

A mulatto friend takes Zachariah down to a boss of construction and asks for a job for Zachariah.  The white man looks at Zachariah's pass book and says that Zacariah's work permit has already expired and the police could arrest him if they check his pass book.  Nevertheless, boss thinks he can sort out the problem with the pass book for Zachariah and tells him to come back tomorrow to start work at 8 a.m.  If he doesn't arrive on time, he doesn't get the job. 

At night the police arrive and take Zachariah away because of the violation of the pass book rules.  Vinah is, of course, very upset.  One of the white policeman tries to get fresh with her, but Vinah is saved by the police sergeant who says they have more work to do today.

One day Maromba just enters Zachariah's place.   Vinah resists his attempts to have sex with her, so he winds up killing her.  He then just leaves.  Zachariah arrives shortly afterwards, hearing the screams of the woman helper.  Zachariah is furious and starts breaking everything in the apartment.



All peoples put under a repressive system of minoritization have virtually all the same problems, familiar to any close observer with a non-racist perspective.  The South Africans underwent a ghettoization process that creates, as always, communities with deep problems and damages to its people.  Morally, the repressive group is ultimately at fault.  But the repressive groups always blame the minority group people who are exhibiting the signs of the consequences of living under poor and repressive conditions.  Zachariah is just one of many trying to survive an unfamiliar ghetto life filled with all kinds of social, economic, psychiatric and political problems.  In abused minority confrontations with the repressive majorities, it's always true that the majority is ultimately at fault.  Personally, I never side with the repressive majority.  It's just as simple as the golden rule and the observation that all men are created equal. 


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