the second most impressive thing about Come Back Africa is that it was made at all. Lionel Rogosin, its creator, spent a year in South Africa simply getting to know the Africans, and after months of wrangling with suspicious white authorities, got permission to shoot a film, ostensibly praising apartheid, in the form of a musical.
The script was written in a week, with the help of two African journalists working on Drum. The shooting took three months, and was done under constant white supervision. Every reel, once shot, had to be rushed out of the country by air, in a gigantic game of bluff. In a sense, Rogosin was also lucky in being free of the need for outside financial backing; this gave him an unusual degree of independence.
But easily the most striking aspect of the film is the way that Rogosin has “got inside” the African, understood his personal and social problems, and presented him as a person with all the normal family aspirations.
Zachariah, the central character (played by an office worker), is a Zulu migrant from the impoverished countryside, first to the gold mines and then to Johannesburg itself. He is presented with great sympathy and precision as an ordinary family man, who has all the worries and cares of an average head-of-household, caught in a social transition he does not fully understand. The reactions of Zachariah and his wife to the corrupting influence of the ‘big city slum’ environment on their children, are an exact echo of the complaints of many British mothers.
The indictment of the racialist policies of the South African government comes, therefore, through the insidious eating away of normal family relationships, the degradation of human and family dignity that is entailed by the combination of poverty, overcrowding, and white oppression.
In a way, the film might not be about Africans at all. It could as well be about any society caught up in an Industrial Revolution, involving the uprooting of a rural community and its heedless dumping in a workers’ slum. The breakdown of known patterns of living, the coarsening of human personality, the rise of a ‘Teddy Boy’ element—these are all familiar features of a situation repeated in many countries. But in South Africa, the pattern, though familiar, is made sharper, and therefore more repellent, by the addition of apartheid.
This is why, with exceptions, the national critics have missed the point of Come Back Africa. Some saw it as an opportune propaganda document whose message was, and was intended to be, political. Others (e.g. C. A. Lejeune) said primly, “There must be a Counsel for the Defence, as well as a Counsel for the Prosecution”. As if Rogosin were a one-man fact-finding committee, who unfortunately forgot that other side of the case that all reasonable men know to be there, by definition.