Theme of Redemption in Mapantsula and Tsotsi

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Two films, Mapantsula (1987) and Tsotsi (2005), are gangster genre-based films that focus on the protagonists’ redemptive qualities. Oliver Schmitz’s Mapantsula helped viewers identify anti-apartheid resistance (Modisane 100). In 1988, the Directorate of Publications included a 2-18 age restriction Mapantsula, citing it 'has the power to incite probable viewers' that would amplify into a ‘dangerous political effect’ (Beittel 752). The South African government typically altered footages or banned films because they did not accept film that opened opportunities for black political consciousness and challenged viewers to resist government authority. Images such as “riots, public violence, strike or boycotts” were forbidden in film footages (Maingard 150). While Mapantsula was a film that spoke to viewers who were challenged by the apartheid system, Tsotsi was a film that resonated with viewers who were dealing with the effects of the post-apartheid era. The film Tsotsi is adapted from Athol Fugard’s novel, which was published in 1980. Tsotsi, in its 2005 film version, directed by Gavin Hood, was updated to reflect the post-apartheid conditions of South Africa, which included references of HIV/AIDS epidemics and violent crimes. Both directors use recurring flashbacks to achieve credibility in the protagonists’ redemption; however, other cinematic techniques were incorporated to strengthen the gangster redemption plot: In Tsotsi, Hood uses lighting and female empowerment to illustrate Tsotsi’s path to redemption, whereas in Mapantsula, Schmitz uses different angles of a repeated scene and female spirituality to depict Panic’s political awakening.


The main plot of the film focuses on, Tsotsi, a young black South African gangster. Tsotsi runs away from the shantytown after beating Boston, who was a gang member who questioned Tsotsi’s identity, real name and past (all of which angered Tsotsi). When Tsotsi reaches the rich neighborhoods from the suburb, he sees glimpses, or flashbacks, of his childhood. He then shoots a black upper-class woman in her leg, which paralyzes her, and he hijacks her car. Unknowingly, he also took away the woman’s baby, who was seated in the back of the car. The shorter subplot in the movie focuses on the baby’s parents, who, with the help of police officers and its investigation team, want to find their stolen baby. Tsotsi chooses to take care of the baby. Soon after, Tsotsi forces Miriam, a black woman, to breastfeed the baby. Tsotsi doesn’t show the other gang members that he has stolen a baby. Towards the end, Tsotsi masks the robbery of the house of the baby’s parents, in an attempt to understand the baby and its life. The film ends when police surround Tsotsi and watch him return the baby to its father, John.

In Mapantsula, Panic, the ‘pantsula,’ which is synonymous to the ‘tsotsi’ gangster, lives in the Soweto township and keeps holding negative behaviors throughout a majority of the film. The film switches from flashbacks of the past to the prison narrative of the present that would help the viewer understand the events that result in Panic’s arrest. These flashbacks offer snippets of Panic’s violent recklessness and selfishness in the past, including his frequent abuse towards his girlfriend, Pat, and those of others (i.e. stealing from others). Meanwhile, in the present, Panic finds that his goals do not align with the United Democratic Front (UDF) activists, who advocate for political and economic change. nAlthough Panic had never been a protester against the rental system, apartheid authorities force Panic to identify the names of the protesters, who are seen as terrorists that threaten the state. The authorities let Panic pick from two choices: freedom upon identifying protesters or death. In the final scene of the film, Panic chooses to protect the identities of those involved in the rental boycott. Panic’s self-sacrifice establishes himself as a tragic hero.

Recurring Flashbacks

Alternate Use of Angles - Mapantsula

Both directors use recurring flashbacks to humanize and dissociate the protagonists from the gangster identity (e.g. pantsula/tsotsi). Schmitz’ use of alternative angles of the same scene in the recurring flashbacks helps viewers humanize and dissociate Panic from the gangster identity. The scene in which Panic throws a brick that breaks the glass window of Pat’s employer is repeated. In the first shot of that scene, Schmitz shot the violence from the viewpoint of the brick thrower; viewers, who have a glimpse of the house from the outside, observe from the back of the brick thrower and watch the window shatter. This viewpoint is important because it symbolizes Panic’s violence as the resentment and bold disobedience among black South Africans, who are frustrated with and are (either openly against or silently) against the white-controlling apartheid system.

In emphasis, Panic’s throw towards the window also symbolizes an active role in the anti-apartheid resistance. Rather than conform to the apartheid system by taking on menial jobs (e.g. as seen in Zacharia, from Come Back, Africa, who holds multiple jobs and mistreatment by white employers), Panic resorts to using violence as a way to help him gain some form of equal treatment, an equality that he would he believes he would have never earned if he had continued taking demeaning work from white employers. When a police officer threatens Panic with the possibility of exchanging freedom and death, the second shot of the same scene reappears, but is slightly altered, since this time, it is filmed from a different angle. In this recurring flashback, viewers watch from behind the window in the indoor home environment. From this perspective, rather than from outside the house and behind the brick thrower, viewers are directly forced to look at Panic, the brick thrower. His face is “slightly blurred, in a soft focus” and in a slower motion than the previous shot (Maingard 154). This change in angle, as well as the slow motion, emphasizes how Panic, from behind the window, has led a broken or fragmented, shattered life.

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More importantly, the shattered window that is aligned over Panic’s face symbolizes, in a way, Panic’s shattered “interiority,” as well as his shifting “internal dynamics,” that he is politically awakened (Maingard 154). He realizes he must make a swift, risky decision to either protect himself or protect the identities of the UDF activists (Maingard 154). After the second flashback, the film returns to the present narrative, where Panic stands outside the police’s office. Panic’s position and restlessness (e.g. the pacing back and forth) positions Panic as dealing with an alarming state of ‘panic.’ Panic’s name, in addition, also foreshadows Panic’s fate: facing trouble, facing death. In summary, his name ‘Panic’ and Panic’s moment of panic is paralleled with the panicked state shared among detainees from the John Vorster Square tragedy (Maingard 154) and other activists from the Soweto generation, who have been blown by tragic revolts/protests. This is an interesting tie, since Panic, who has never felt obliged to fight for justice and has refused to help others, has, for the first time, decided to side with the UDF activists by refusing to sign (to obtain his freedom).

Like Tsotsi, who has learned to take care of and respect the baby, Panic, too, has developed a stronger sense of caring for others as well as obtaining justice for the black UDF activists. Likewise, black South African detainees and protesters have grown attached to a strong sense of obtaining justice for the black South African community. While Schultz’ use of a recurring flashback of the different angle of the shattered window helps viewers sympathize with and see Panic as a broken man, these flashbacks do not offer sympathy as early as Hood’s character development for Tsotsi. Schmitz’ flashbacks also fail to offer any insight or a glimpse into Panic’s past. Unlike Panic, however, Tsotsi's recurring flashbacks offer glimpses into his childhood and how, he too, is a broken man who endured a rough childhood.

Flashbacks of Tsotsi’s Childhood- Tsotsi

Likewise, Hood uses recurring flashbacks that reveal Tsotsi’s past to humanize and dissociate Tsotsi from the ‘tsotsi’ identity. In a wide shot that captures Tsotsi running across the empty field that separates the township from the suburb, flashbacks of Tsotsi’s past show up in full screen, with the same widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio. No fading “or sepia effects [are used] to show any time difference (Momberg 211). Hood’s flashback technique, presented in the same effects as the present, reveal temporal entanglement, that the events from the past has negatively impacted Tsotsi’s present (i.e. the expression of his identity, his lack of caring of others, his violent behavior). In the flashback, viewers see Tsotsi’s mother, who is in bed and infected by AIDS. His mother wants to touch her son, David (Tsotsi’s real name). She tells him to not be afraid, but her love and care for David is contrasted by David’s father, who demands that she should not touch their son. David’s father, who also appears drunk at the time, kicks David’s dog until it could not walk again. The father’s violent behavior angered and scared David away, who runs away. Since then, David’s running away from his childhood home and father ties to Tsotsi’s present, after he had ran away from the shantytowns, away from the terrifying past that his gang member Boston (also drunked) demanded to know. In emphasis, the lack of Tsotsi’s “existential belonging” was what made Tsotsi run away from the shantytowns, how Boston’s probing of “There is not enough decency” reminds Tsotsi of his lack of belonging (Momberg 211).

The flashback helps the viewer make a connection that Tsotsi has ran away from both of his homes-- away from the shantytown and from his childhood home-- places he thought were his “home,” but no longer were due to violence and his angry, frustrating attempt to ignore his past. More remarkable is the shot that returns to the present, which highlights Tsotsi’s vulnerability in his eyes in a fixed close-up shot, of the same widescreen format (2.35:1 aspect ratio). This close-up gives viewers a chance to relate with Tsotsi and understand that “a nineteen year old boy [was] already hardened” by years of hardships and emotional turmoil (Dovey 154). In effect, the close-up frame of Tsotsi’s eyes help reinforce the director’s desire to humanize Tsotsi. The combination of presenting flashbacks and close-ups of Tsotsi's eyes help the viewers picture how Tsotsi regains his past, understands his identity before becoming a tsotsi, and see Tsotsi as a human, who is not just limited to the tsotsi identity that he so often molds into, but a person with feelings and hardships.

Female Guidance

The Spiritual Sangoma – Mapantsula

Both films show how female guidance foreshadows the protagonists’ fate and growing urge to redeem themselves. Starting with Mapantsula, Schultz’ use of Panic’s flashback of his encounter with the wise female spiritual leader, Sangoma, foreshadows Panic’s death and self-sacrifice. After the segment where Panic is outside the officer’s office in the present, the scene shifts to one of Panic’s flashbacks, where he has encountered Sangoma. Panic’s encounter with Sangoma is shot with a long take and as a long shot, which reinforces a space for viewers to think about the communal belongingness that Panic has never felt. In a path similar to Tsotsi’s, Panic has also (supposedly) led a life of crime and had barely connected with others. Here, for the first time, the viewer can see how Panic is learning to connect with others and find his sense of belongingness in the world. Panic’s evoked sense of belonging in a “Zen-like” environment “pre-determines his death” (Maingard 155). Sangoma’s statement , along with the other past events that were shown via flashbacks, all culminate to help Panic pick self-sacrifice. Like Panic, Tsotsi has obtained guidance from a female figure, and with her (Miriam’s) empowerment, Tsotsi, like Panic, has made a decision to redeem himself.

Female Empowerment – Tsotsi

While Schultz positions Sangoma as a symbol of spiritual guidance, Hood positions Miriam as a symbol of female empowerment and uses lighting that would help Tsotsi understand himself. When Tsotsi observes the baby mobile that attaches broken pieces of glass, Miriam describes that Tsotsi is capable of reaching new realizations about himself and can transition from violence to ‘decency’. To Tsotsi, Miriam remarks, “I see color. Light. On you.” At first, to Tsotsi, the broken pieces of glass on the baby mobile represent Miriam’s expression to recycle and make something new from old discarded material. Like the broken glass that is repurposed as a baby mobile, Tsotsi is in a way, discarded as well and has the potential to reinvent himself. Furthermore, Miriam’s statements are powerful and relate to Hood’s choice of lighting. Tsotsi is positioned in the relatively most light at Miriam’s home, relative to the contrasting darkness and dim lighting that casts over Tsotsi’s face and body in the other settings presented in the film. The lighting at Miriam’s home reinforces Tsotsi’s new realizations about his strong desire for connecting the memories of his past and his yearning for nurture. We see this when Tsotsi sees Miriam breastfeed the baby at her bedside, where Tsotsi is yearning for a nurturing environment he did not have when he was little. The effect of a brightened lighting cast over Tsotsi also illustrates his progression towards bettering and redeeming himself.


Both directors use recurring flashbacks to show the protagonists’ path to redemption that dissociates the protagonists from the gangster identity. In Mapantsula, Oliver Schmitz uses a recurring flashback, with two of the same scenes shot from different angles, that resonates with viewers who were against the South African apartheid system. The flashbacks, along with the female spirit, Sangoma, helps Panic make a decision to protect the identities of the UDF through an ultimate self-sacrifice, which establishes short-term sympathy among viewers. In addition, the flashbacks foreshadows Panic’s death and reinforces how Panic is always in a state of panic.

Likewise, Hood uses recurring flashbacks to help viewers understand how Tsotsi’s life has influenced Tsotsi and see him as a human being with struggles and hardships, and not just someone who acts with violence. Hood then resurfaces Tsotsi’s flashbacks to position Tsotsi as being capable of understanding and redeeming himself. In summary, the directors both link the protagonists’ struggle towards redemption; however, both have also used other cinematic techniques to build credibility in the gangsters’ redemption. Schmitz incorporates the past-present narrative structure to emphasize how past events contribute to Panic’s political awakening. Meanwhile, Hood acknowledges Miriam as a symbol of female empowerment and uses natural light in Miriam’s house to help Tsotsi regain the steps and purpose of understanding himself, which is, to ultimately return the baby to its parent.

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