South African Film

A History of the South African Film Industry timeline 1895-2003


The Kinetescope (invented by Thomas Edison) was a box in which people could see a moving image. The first Kinetescopes in South Africa were opened to the public on 19 April 1895 in Herwoods Arcade on Pritchard and President Streets in Johannesburg - then a small town only nine years old.
South Africa was certainly one of the first countries in the world to see and hear sound motion pictures. Lingards Waxworks in Durban, who exhibited a number of mechanical novelties of the penny-in-the-slot variety, first showed them in August 1895. One of these was a Kinetophone.
Carl Hertz brought out a projector from England and screened the first production at the Empire Palace of Varieties (in Commissioner Street, Johannesburg) on 11 May 1896. The press was ecstatic. Hertz introduced South Africa to the era of the "Bioscope" through a series of 30-second films.
Edgar Hyman, an entertainer and pioneer filmmaker, accompanied Hertz for six weeks on his tour of the country to study the working of the Cinematopgraphe machine. Unfortunately biographical details about these early pioneers are very sketchy.
The Empire Palace of Varieties in Commissioner Street JHB adopted film as a permanent part of its programme. Taken by Hyman, the films were purchased from the Warwick Trading Company. They consisted mostly of views of Johannesburg taken from the front of a tram. Another of Hyman's films showed the President of the Transvaal Republic, Paul Kruger, leaving his house for the Raadzaal. As Kruger climbs into his carriage, the carriage tilts dangerously, because of Kruger's bulk! The film was included in the Warwick Trading Company's catalogue, and was shown all over the world.
The first Mutoscope, a peep show containing flick-over books of photographs taken from Biograph films, was installed at 67 Pritchard Street in Johannesburg. The first Biograph show was given on 24 May at the Wanderers Hall.
On 14 October, three days after the declaration of South African (Anglo-Boer) War, W.K.L. Dickson (who had perfected the motion picture camera and had worked for Edison) set out for South Africa to record the war on film. The use of film, as a new medium for propaganda, was discovered and exploited during that war.
Moving pictures had been showing for several years before the production of dramatic films were undertaken. By 1903 it was possible to distinguish between various types of films such as "topical," "humorous," and "dramatic".
The first film on sport was screened at the Tivoli Music Hall in Cape Town. It was of the England versus South Africa cricket match at Newlands, apparently shot by an amateur cameraman.
By 1907 dramatic films were firmly entrenched in every film show. By 1908 the topical film was the most popular. Trick and comic film popularity shifted to dramatic films.
The Electric Theatre in Durban was the first permanent theatre to be established in South Africa on 29 July 1909.
On 11 December 1910 the first "Electric Theatre" for "Coloured People Only" was opened on the corner of Grey and Alice Streets in Durban. The first programmes showed scenes outside the mosque in Grey Street.
The Great Kimberly Diamond Robbery was released. It was the first South African full-length feature drama film produced entirely in the country.
The Cape Town Pageant was filmed and screened extensively all over the country to celebrate the Act of Union.
Edgar Hyman established the Empire Theatres Company (South Africa) Ltd; this was a year after Africa's Amalgamated Theatres was established in 1911.
The first permanent bio-cafes opened in Johannesburg.
Isidore W Schlesinger bought both Empire Theatres and Africa's Amalgamated Theatres and several other companies and thereby formed the African Theatres Trust Ltd on 10 April 1913. He also formed African Films Trust, a film importing and distributing agency.

On 5 May 1913 South Africa's first newsreel, African Mirror, was screened.

Schlesinger established African Film Productions Ltd; Africa's first motion picture studio in the Johannesburg suburb of Killarney. One of its earliest productions was De Voortrekkers (1916). Between 1916 and 1922 African Film Productions made forty-three films.
Sam Wood's Under the Lash, starring Gloria Swanson, was the first anti-South African film to be screened.
H. de Vere Stacpoole's The Blue Lagoon was produced and distributed by AFP.
The first trailers (advertisements for forthcoming screenings) started to appear.
In August 1930 the first sound film of Black traditional life, In the Land of the Zulus was screened. It was produced by African Film Productions.
The Capitol Theatre in Pretoria opened. At the gala opening South Africa's first sound films - Joseph Albrecht's Sarie Marais and Moedertjie - were screened.
Afrikaans nationalism was emerging as a force, and Sarie Marais portrayed the English/British cultural and economic imperialism negatively (the desire to spread the British language, culture and influence even where they were unwelcome).
Schlesinger merged his interests with that of Kinemas, which led to the establishment of African Consolidated Films and theatres under the AFP (African Film Productions) banner.
The National Censorship Act of 1931 was passed by Parliament, followed by the Entertainment Act, which demanded that all cinematic material be cleared before exhibition.
African Film Productions made the first sound advertisement films in South Africa for Joko Tea and Pegasus products.
The first film society was formed in Cape Town.
The first tourist film, a serial cinema magazine, Our Land, was made by African film productions.
The South African Censor Board came into being.
William Boxer founded Alexander Films, South Africa's first cinema advertising firm.
Joseph Albrecht's celebration of the centenary of the Great Trek, They Built a Nation/Die Bou van 'n Nasie was released.
The African Mirror (started in 1913) got sound in July 1939. On August 31 the Germans invaded Poland and World War II broke out.
The war accelerated Afrikaner nationalism and motivated the movement to produce culturally specific films. RARO, the Reddingsdaadbond Amateur Rolprent Organisasie, was established in 1940.
was a decade when Afrikaans nationalism reached new levels of intensity, and found expression in a number of Afrikaans-language films.
RARO released its first two full-length features. The following year the Cilliers/Haarhoff/Mushett Commission's report recommended the establishment of a South African National Film Board.
The church-funded CARFO/KARFO film company was established.
Cecil Kellaway became the first South African actor to be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor in Henry Koster's The Luck of the Irish, but lost to Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Pierre de Wet's Kom Saam Vanaand, South Africa's first musical film was released, and became a huge box-office success. It stared Al Debbo and Fredrick Burger, who had a very deep bass voice.
Isadore W. Schlesinger died and left the company to his son, John, who continued to expand and build upon the work of his father.
The first South African film with an all-Black cast, Donald Swanson's Jim comes to Jo'burg /African Jim was released.
"Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica" was first performed by a choir on film in Zonk.
Jamie Uys Daar Doer in die Bosveld, South Africa's first colour film, was released, as was Zoltan Korda's adaptation of Cry The Beloved Country, based on the book by Alan Paton and starring Canada Lee and Sydney Poitier. Dr Lionel Ngakane was assistant director.
The South African Society of Cinematographers (SASC) was founded.
Film Production Facilities Africa, later to be renamed Irene Film Laboratories, was established and the Schlesinger Organization celebrated its fiftieth birthday. 20th Century Fox came on board as a major stockholder.
Lionel Rogosin (South African born, but lived and died in the USA) released his film Come Back, Africa. It was a docu-drama about Sophiatown, featured a young Miriam Makeba, and was the first SA film to be made covertly.
South Africa also suffered its first film industry scandal this year, when a film producer named Roger Bray pleaded for funds (mostly from churches) to make a film on the life of Paul Kruger and then, without shooting a frame of film, disappeared with the investors' money!
A regulated subsidy system, that rewarded box office success, was introduced. A specific amount of box office income qualified for a refund as a percentage of the production costs. The subsidy system helped several filmmakers to become rich overnight. Government and big business collaborated to keep SA cinema a cinema for whites only; of the glut (60 films!) made between 1956 and 1962 most were in Afrikaans - four were bilingual and the remaining 13 were in English.
Some of these films were absurdly bad screen translations of Springbok radio programmes - Taxi, The Men from the Ministry, Flying Squad, Gold Squad - but they were enjoyed by lower middle class white South African audiences. They were often screened in drive-in cinemas, whose popularity soared in the 1960s. (Springbok radio was the English language commercial radio channel - or 'station' as it was then called - of the SABC. This, remember, was in the days before television.)
Inrybelange (Edms) Bpk was established and was later renamed Ster Films.
African Film Productions was bought out by 20th Century Fox and renamed South African Screen Productions.
Satanskoraal, directed by Elmo de Witt, was the first film to be filmed underwater.
The South African Music Rights Organization (SAMRO) was established.
South Africa's first western genre film, Ken Annakin's The Hellions, was released. This was also the first co-production between South Africa, Britain (Annakin was a British director) and the USA. Jamie Uys co-starred and was also producer on the film.
Talking Point: Why did so few Black South Africans made films before the 1990s?
The Publications Control Board (Censorship Board) was established.
Truida Pohl's Die Man in die donker (the first local film directed by a woman) was released.
Cy Endfield's Zulu was a worldwide success, but was banned for screening to black people in South Africa.
Elmo de Witt's Debbie ran into trouble with the censors. Based on a rather innocuous book called Groen Koring about a farm girl who gets pregnant in the city, the rather puritanical censors objected to the portrayal of an Afrikaans girl getting pregnant out of wedlock ... today it has no age restriction
All the Way to Paris, directed by Jamie Uys, was the first South African film to be filmed overseas.
The 'no smoking in cinemas' era began in South Africa.
Jans Rautenbach and Emil Nofal's Wild Season was released. It was a milestone work dealing with the generation gap between a forbidding fisherman and his bookish son
Die Kandidaat by Nofal and Rautenbach was released. It was South Africa's first political thriller, and questioned the boundaries of Afrikaans identity.
Majuba, about the battle of Majuba, was directed and produced by Cape Town born David Millin, one of South Africa's most talented filmmakers, and a director who insisted on accurate detail in his historical films.
The Kinekor organization was formed. Since 1962 Afrikaner capital had been a significant factor in the industry: the insurance company SANLAM acquired a major interest in Ster-Films and by 1969, Satbel (Suid Afrikaanse Teaterbelange Beperk) was formed, and the financing and distribution for films in South Africa were in the hands of one large company - except for a few cinemas owned by CIC-Warner.
This year also saw the successful release of Katrina (produced by Emil Nofal, who died in 1986, and directed by Jans Rautenbach). Rautenbach took on the issues of race at a time when it was not easy to do so, given his terribly conservative constituency. Katrina is about love across the colour line, and tells the story of a coloured doctor and white woman who fall in love. Filmed in Paarl and Cape Town, Katrina also features the invisible people of Apartheid South Africa (blacks and coloureds) in the background, the sixties slum neighbourhoods tidied up and sanitized for the sake of the film.
Dirkie, which Jamie Uys produced, directed and acted in, was also released.
in this decade a further fragmentation in the industry occurred when the so-called Bantu film industry was created: the black films were of poor quality, made in ethnic languages, and were screened in churches, schools and beer halls. Black and white audiences were treated differently; audiences were separated, watching different films in vastly differing surroundings.
David Millin made Shangani Patrol, an historical film about an incident, which happened in 1893, in what was then Southern Rhodesia.
Brigadiers Film Productions made Kaptein Caprivi. This infamous, and with hindsight somewhat laughable film, features the late State President CR Swart exhorting (white) citizens to make the supreme sacrifice for South Africa, and hostage farmers held by Chinese terrorists - who just happen to speak fluent Afrikaans. Kaptein Caprivi was the first of many film recruitment drives for the South African Armed Forces. Others included Terrorist and Aanslag op Kariba.
The same year saw the successful local and international release of Emil Nofal's The Winners. It was one of the first local films to do well overseas. The Winners is a drama about a man forced and driven to win at all costs.
David Millin was admitted to ranks of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). He was one of only two South Africans (so far) to be admitted to this organization. The other was Johannesburg born Vincent Cox who was the Director of Photography (DOP) on Wild Season, Die Kandidaat and Katrina.
Killarney Film Studios - the buildings of the AFP - were demolished to make way for shopping malls.
Boesman en Lena, directed by Ross Deverish, was the first feature film to portray the poverty and enforced removals of people classified as "black". It won a gold and silver medal at the 6th Atlanta Film Festival in the United States.
Simon M Sabela's U'Deliwe was the first locally produced film directed by a black person. It starred Sabela himself and also featured a very slim and young Joe Mafela. Sabela died c. 1999. How Long made in 1975 was the 2nd feature to be directed by a black male - playwright Gibson Kente - but he reportedly got arrested on the last day of filming and the film was never released.
The Publications Appeal Board was established.
Andre Pieterse's e'Lolipop, directed by Ashley Lazarus, was successfully released overseas. It won several international awards, as well as the rapport Oscar for the best film in South Africa.
Jamie Uys' Beautiful People - which supposedly recorded the natural behavior of wild animals, but was later dogged by accusations that some scenes had been staged - won a Golden Globe for Best Documentary Feature and was the first local feature to win an overseas award.
The Metro Group of cinemas was established.
SABC commenced test transmissions in July.
The first television transmission was made on 5 January 1976, and a new industry was born. Filmmakers rushed into television. SABC became the hub of production. Many dramas and documentaries were produced, some of which are still being rebroadcast in English on SABC Africa and in Afrikaans on M-Net's Kyknet.
The Guest, directed by Ross Devenish, won the Locarno Film Festival, becoming one of the most acclaimed South African films. The film, based on a play, concerns the last days of one of South Africa's most unique minds - the writer Eugene N. Marais. Marais was addicted to morphine, and the film describes his anguish, addiction and eventual suicide. Directed by Ross Devenish, it stars Athol Fugard and Marius Weyers, and is also known as Die Besoeker.
Marigolds in August, also directed by Ross Devenish, was released. The film was based on an Athol Fugard play, and starred Fugard himself as well as John Kani. It won a special award at the 1980 Film Festival in Uzbek, Russia, as well as two awards at the Berlin Film festival. It also won a Rapport Oscar for the best local film of the year. Devenish left the country soon after making the film, and spent the next 23 years in England, returning to South Africa only in 2002.
A new subsidy scheme was introduced, stipulating that a film had to earn a minimum of R100 000 at the box office within two years after release to qualify for subsidy.
                 Afrikaans Films  English Films
R200 000   70%                    60%
R300 000   60%                    50%
R400 000   50%                    40%
A maximum of R300 000 could be earned through subsidies. From 1957 the subsidy scheme was revised 10 times.
The industry was further fragmented in the 80s: on the one hand there was a blossoming of independent cinema, much of it highly critical of apartheid. Films of this sort include The Road To Mecca, Die Storie van Klara Viljee, Manie van Rensburg's The Fourth Reich, and the Darrell Roodt trilogy: Place Of Weeping, The Stick and Jobman.
On the other hand, substantial tax concessions made investing in film an attractive option and a boom occurred in the commercials industry. Several hundred films were made, mostly inferior imitations of American films. The tax scheme collapsed by the end of the 80s.
The anti-Apartheid independent films such as Place of Weeping, Mapantsula and, Windprints, were seen by only a few South Africans. Even if they were not banned, the big distribution companies (Ster-Kinekor and Nu Metro) would not touch them. Instead, they were distributed through a sprinkling of independent venues. In fact, these films were more widely screened overseas than they were in the country of their origin.
Since the 1980s Ster-Kinekor, Nu Metro and United International Pictures have owned the majority of cinemas in SA. This meant that these companies controlled the distribution of films here. They almost exclusively showed films made in Hollywood (or in Europe) because films made overseas were generally accompanied by slick and well funded marketing campaigns that got bums onto cinema seats and ensured a good profit for the cinema-chain. As a consequence most South African cinemagoers were only exposed to foreign films, and rarely got to see serious South African (or African) films.
Jamie Uys' The Gods Must be Crazy and Ivan Hall's Kill & Kill Again were successfully released. According to the Film Resources Unit, none of the Khoisan people who appeared in The Gods Must be Crazy ever received royalties from the film. A product of his time and context, Uys' work effectively utilized the film medium, but his treatment of people (and animals in Beautiful People) can be seen as both demeaning and exploitative.
Video cassette recorders caused a revolution in the industry, spurring on film rentals for home viewing, and giving birth to the retail industry. This was followed by the launch of the black television services TV2/3 by the SABC.
Tax concessions for the export of films were introduced. The more spent on export, the greater the amount written off against tax.
Saturday Night at the Palace received critical acclaim in international circles. Based on the play by Paul Slabolepsky, it is about three characters that meet at a roadhouse one night (two are white, the other is black) and during the course of the film the bubbling pot of racial hatred explodes, leaving one character dead. The film was directed by Robert Davies and stars Paul Slabolepsky, Bill Flynn and John Kani.
Place of Weeping, directed by Darrel Roodt and produced by Anant Singh became a landmark film both for the anti-apartheid movement, and for alternative cinema in South Africa. Singh personally financed the film, and it was the first anti-apartheid motion picture to be made entirely in South Africa. Receiving worldwide acclaim, it was released theatrically in the United States and most global territories. It was also the only South African film to play on US TV channel HBO (Home Box Office).
The production of black feature films (made by white producers with black actors for black audiences) reached an all time high. So called B-scheme films could qualify for a government subsidy that paid out a maximum of R70 000.00, based on the number of tickets sold for 18 cents or less.
Many of these vernacular films were not films at all, but bits of footage slapped together to benefit from the subsidy. There were many subsidy scandals involving unscrupulous individuals and companies who produced 'visual diarrhea' in order to benefit financially from the scheme.
The Mirror International newsreel ceased to exist after 72 years.
The SABC introduced a fourth service, TV 4.
M-Net, South Africa's first pay-TV service took to the air.
Grey Hofmeyer's Jock of the Bushveld was a success, but was banned in Zimbabwe due to its South African origins.
Talking Point: Why have so many major South African films featured non South- Africans in the starring roles?
Film Resource Unit was established. Over these years what started as a small video resource library has grown into a major distributor and promoter of quality, homegrown South African and African film.
The NuMetro Cinema Group was established.
The first gay-themed film, Quest For Love, directed by Helena Noguiera and produced by Shan Moodley was released.
Dalene Mathee's pivotal novel, Fiela se Kind, was made into a film. It was directed by actress Katinka Heyns, and was Heyns' first try behind the camera. Starring Sharleen Surtie-Richards and Annie Malan, it tells the story of a woman of colour who raises a white child as her own.
Mapantsula, directed by Oliver Schmitz, was the first anti-apartheid feature film for and about Black South Africans. It was the winner of seven South African Film Awards but was originally banned here. It starred Thomas Mogotlane, a talented actor, who died prematurely in 1993. At the height of the struggle period, a carefree thug (Panic, played by Mogotlane) is arrested and jailed along with political prisoners. He is alternatively 'befriended' and tortured by his jailors until he is forced to take a stand that threatens his life. Film
Resource Unit reports that Mapantsula has proved very popular in the rest of Africa, and has sold 60 000 units on video.
Anant Singh and Darell Roodt released the introspective war movie The Stick. Banned for many years, this film argued that being at war for something you do not believe in is madness itself.
A new subsidy scheme was announced by the Minister of Broadcasting, Information and Film. It included a C-scheme for non-commercial or art films. By December 1989 the government acknowledged that there were insufficient funds to finance films in production.
At the beginning of the 90s there were several co-productions: Darell Roodt's Cry, the Beloved Country, Elaine Proctor's Friends, Jump The Gun (produced by Jeremy Nathan and directed by Britisher Les Blair), and Shyam
Benegal's The Making of Mahatma. Approximately 944 features were made in South Africa from 1971 to 1991, as well as nearly 998 documentaries and several hundred short films and videos.
The new subsidy system determined that SA made films could qualify for subsidy of 70% of internal box office income provided they had earned a minimum of R200 000.00 locally. The total was limited to + R50 million. A subsidy depended on the content being certified by the Publication Control Board. The B Scheme was phased out.
Darell James Roodt directed Sarafina! (producer was Anant Singh), starring Leleti Khumalo, Miriam Makeba and Whoopi Goldberg,. The film tells the story of the 1976 Soweto uprisings. Shot on location in Soweto, the film was based on the stage production by actor-musician Mbongeni Ngema. The film grossed (earned) $8 million (Rand 19,2 million) in the United States. Leleti Khumalo subsequently married Mbongeni Ngema, and after participating in another Singh film, Cry The Beloved Country has not appeared again on the silver screen
M-Net introduced the first digital satellite pay-TV service in Africa - DSTV. This service was second in the world by only six weeks.
Panic Mechanic starring slapstick comedienne Leon Schuster became the highest grossing film South Africa had ever made (R16 million). M-Net launched its New Directions initiative to help novice directors and screenwriters to get real production experience. The initiative has not deflected criticism from M-Net for consistently refusing to screen African films, but 30 short films, and two features have been made to date by the project. Many promising young directors - like Barry Berk (Angel; Yizo Yizo); Jeremy Hendler (Husk); Dumisani Phakathi (Waiting for Valdez), Zola Maseko (A Drink in the Passage) and Catherine Stewart (Transit Cafe) received their first SA exposure via New Directions.
South Africa, and particularly Cape Town, became an increasingly popular destination for foreign film commercials.
Sithengi (isiZulu for 'we buy') the first South African film market to attract international interest, was staged in Cape Town in November.
Paljas, directed by actor/director Katinka Heyns, was South Africa's official entry to the Oscars, in the category of s Best Foreign Language Film - a first for a South African feature film. Paljas is about the relationship between a circus clown and a young boy, and the miraculous way in which this relationship manages to heal the lives of a troubled family. Anant Singh was the producer on Paljas, and the film marked the first collaboration between Heyns and himself. The film is a truly South African one, shot by local crew and cast, in an indigenous language.
The first free-to-air commercial television service, e-TV, commenced operations. The service later became embroiled in controversy around its supposed failure to live up to local content commissioning commitments. (This means that local broadcasters - like e-TV, MNET and SABC, are required by government to "buy South African" - that is, to purchase a certain amount of the programmes they show from local producers and directors, and thus support the South African film industry. They are required to do this even though foreign programmes - especially those of the 'junk TV' sort - are often cheaper.
When e-TV abandoned it's screening of local documentaries, many filmmakers believed they'd been ditched. The channel has to some extent neglected the nurturing of young South African filmmakers, preferring cheap US shows that make economic, if not any other kind of sense. It has however commissioned popular local soapy Backstage, a number of sitcoms, and some innovative documentaries. E-TV has done well commercially, wrestling market away share from the SABC and M-Net.
In October, the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) was launched at Sithengi, the SA International Film Market in Cape Town. While many foreign filmmakers come to South Africa to make their films (which are not about South Africa), films with specifically South African stories and with South African actors and South African stories are few and far between. Those that are made rarely sell well overseas, and often lose money. The NFVF hopes to change all this, by facilitating the making of profitable films which reflect South African culture and language, and exporting these all over the world.
The NFVF aims to do this by lobbying government to change the laws regarding film finance and film taxation; by persuading government to make more funds available to grow the local film industry; and by working with big South African companies (the private sector).
The NFVF also wants to grow South African support for local films. Most South Africans know - and care - more about American movies than they do about South African ones. Often this is because the American films are supported by massive marketing budgets, and effective marketing campaigns, whereas the SA marketing budgets are small, and the campaigns are often unfocussed and unimaginative.
Mr. Bones, starring Leon Schuster, and produced by Anant Singh, became the highest grossing SA movie ever. It cost R35 million to make (Shuster put a good deal of his own money into the film) and did very well in SA. It was also distributed in Germany and Spain. Up to May 2002 it had earned R32 million, second only to the US Titanic (R 39 million) and beating Lord of the Rings I and Harry Potter.
The production of commercials, and the occasional feature film, continued to grow, especially in the Cape.
Film Resources Unit (FRU), a Johannesburg NGO, continued to develop alternative distribution models. Started in the eighties to distribute socially relevant African film and video, FRU signed deals with South Africa's most successful producer Anant Singh (Video Vision), with broadcasters M Net and the SABC, Ster Kinekor (the release of Lumumba ) and worked with government to encourage young business people to get involved in film distribution.
M Net puts out a movie of the month brief, commissions eight movies, and commits to investing 11 million in the project.
Many of the older films (up to 1980) mentioned on this site can be viewed by the public, provided they are booked in advance. They are housed in the National Film Archive in Pretoria at 698 Church Street East.

Last updated : 02-Nov-2015

This article was produced for South African History Online on 20-Mar-2011