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Prise de parole, prise de pouvoir ?

Questions of Empowerment in Zulu Love Letter and Yesterday

Penny Starfield
p. 83-90


Le cinéma sud-africain traite rarement de la condition des femmes. Deux films de la Nouvelle Afrique du Sud, Zulu Love Letter (Ramadan Suleman, 2004) et Yesterday (Darrell James Roodt, 2003), se concentrent sur les personnages féminins. Dans les deux cas, il s’agit d’une prise de pouvoir de la femme ordinaire qui, dans sa vie quotidienne, doit s’affirmer en tant que sujet.

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Editor's notes

Zulu Love Letter, Ramadan Suleman, 2004. Screenplay: Bheki Peterson and R. Suleman. Producers: Jacques Bidou, B. Peterson, M. Dumoulin, R. Suleman. Co-production: JBA Production (France)/Native at large (South Africa)/Hollybell (South Africa)/FMB2 Films (France)/ZDF Arte. Cast: Pamela Nombete Marimbe (Thandeka Khumalo), Mpumi Malatsi (Mangi), Sophie Mgeina (Me’Tau), Kurt Egelhof (Moolla).
Yesterday, Darrell James Roodt, 2003. Screenplay: D. Roodt. Producers: Ananti Singh, Helena Spring, Co-production: Videovision Entertainment, in association with The Nelson Mandela Foundation, National Film and Video Foundation, Distant Horizon, M-net and Exciting Films. Cast: Leleti Khumalo (Yesterday), Lihle Mvelase (Beauty), Kenneth Khambula (Yesterday’s husband), Harriet Lehabe (Teacher), Camilla Walker (Doctor)

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  • 1 At first, this legislation had applied only to men. This demonstration was part of the Defiance Cam (...)
  • 2 Whereas the Women’s League promoted the struggle through the ANC, the Federation of South African w (...)
  • 3 The expression "the common man" is positively connoted, whereas the same adjective applied to a wom (...)

1South Africa is one of the few countries to celebrate Women’s Day as a public holiday. The date, 9 August, commemorates the 1956 anti-pass march to Pretoria, in protest of legislation requiring black women to carry an identity document known as a "pass".1 20,000 women gathered outside Union Building (the seat of executive government) and sang: "You have tampered with the women. You have struck a rock. You have dislodged a bolder. You will be crushed." Women were indeed prominent in the anti-apartheid struggle: wives of ANC leaders, such as Winnie Mandela and Albertina Sizulu, who became activists in their own right, Parliamentarian Helen Suzman, activist Lilian Ngoyi, who addressed the crowd in Pretoria that day, or the many women who protested through movements like the Women’s Federation, the ANC Women’s League or the Black Sash.2 Women hold prominent political positions today: a woman has been vice-president and there are a relatively large number of women cabinet ministers. They are perhaps less present in business, though affirmative action has done much to change this. The status of women is less enviable lower down the scale, even though many women are sole breadwinners (especially in single parent families and families that have been decimated by Aids). Indeed, one woman may often be the breadwinner of several families (that of her daughter’s, sister’s, etc). The New South Africa has legislated on Black Executive Empowerment, commonly known as BEE, but as its name suggests, it is elitist by nature. It enables the educated to have access to the upper echelons and little is done for ordinary or underprivileged people. With the economic crisis, the condition of the common woman has worsened, as analyses confirmed at the time of Women’s Day in 2009. It is with this "common woman" that I am concerned.3 Indeed, although the high and mighty—queens, princesses and CEOs—, achieve cinematic greatness, the humble often inch their way to some sort of personal empowerment, which is no less of an achievement (Starfield 2008, 15-21). Both of the films studied here, Zulu Love Letter and Yesterday, deal with ordinary women.

2The neglect of women in South African society is underlined in the cinema of this country. Women are conspicuously absent in film narratives which generally revolve around male-oriented plots. The two films discussed are among the few in the post-apartheid era to focus on women characters. The protagonist of Zulu Love Letter is a newspaper reporter, Thandeko Khumalo (played by Ethiopian actress, Pamela Nombete Marimbe, who has settled in South Africa). Thandi, as she is generally called, was detained and tortured after writing about the slaying of a young activist, Dineo Tau, that she witnessed at first hand. Although made in 2004, the film takes place in Johannesburg in the late 1990s at the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings. Yesterday is set in a rural area of Kwazulu Natal and tells the story of a woman who discovers that she has been contaminated with Aids by her husband, a mineworker in Johannesburg. She is cast out by the other women in the village while she takes care of her dying husband and conveys strength to their small daughter, Beauty, who will have to cope with a parentless future.

Power after conflict

3The title of this article alludes to the third novel in Bessie Head’s trilogy A Question of Power (1974). Head fled South Africa in the sixties and settled in Botswana. Her writings deal with the harmful disempowering that apartheid wrought on the individual—women and men alike—whether it be political, economic or cultural. At the time, the idea of empowerment had not yet been conceptualized; nonetheless, Head’s work is about the difficult appropriation of power. On the contrary, Zulu Love Letter implicitly broaches the question of how to maintain past achievements once the political aims have been accomplished. This question seems to apply in particular to women who face continual setbacks after their sparse acquisitions.

  • 4 Me’Tau (literally "mother Tau") is played by Sophie Mgcina, who was the Woods family’s domestic ser (...)

4Indeed, Zulu Love Letter is about how to deal with the past in the present. It is particularly interesting for its array of women characters and the parallels and links between them. Thandi’s family is represented by her mother, herself and her thirteen-year-old daughter, Simangoliso (shortened to Mangi). Thandi blames Mangi’s deafness on herself and the beatings she suffered at the hands of the secret police. Dineo is survived by a younger sister and her mother, Me’Tau.4 The latter asks Thandi to testify at the TRC so that she can find the remains of her daughter and bury them. Finally, there is the family of Officer Dhlamini, one of the three "Special branch" policemen involved in the killing of Dineo and the subsequent arrest of Thandi and her colleague, Pete, a photographer, whom they tortured to death (the other two policemen arc white). Thandi and Me’Tau go in search of Dhlamini, hoping to persuade him to testify. They meet his wife and his daughter, who is more or less the same age as their daughters. Two periods are presented in the film: the New South Africa of the 90s and the state of emergency during the 1980s, which is recreated through Thandi’s memories by a series of six flashbacks (Maingard 171-5).

  • 5 See Maingard, 27-9. The song "hold him down you Zulu warrior, hold him down you Zulu chief chief ch (...)

5Zulu Love Letter is part of a body of post-apartheid films, novels and plays that focuses on a return to the past (Starfield, 2010). The conflict between past and present is represented in the very title of the film which from the outset seems at odds with the stereotypical image of the "Zulu" and its accepted cultural heritage. The mythification of the word "Zulu" has been noted, essentially because of Western fascination for this people (Tomaselli, 2001) and it is the image most frequently shown in film. In this context, the title Zulu Love Letter would appear a misnomer, or at best an oxymoron (Starfield, 2010). The Zulu is the quintessential African, especially in the form of the "Zulu warrior".5 Starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker, Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964) features an attack by a horde of Zulu warriors on a small fort of British soldiers at the battle of Rorke’s Drift (1879). The warriors arc mowed down like Indians by cowboys in the classic American Western. The same film also gives an opportunity to show briefly the warrior’s female counterpart, the Zulu maiden, in the form of nubile, bare-breasted young women, the very opposite of the contemporary women shown in Zulu Love Letter. Here, the conflicts implicit to the word Zulu arc internal and personal. They reflect generational problems and the difficulty to come to terms with the remains of past hardship.

6The title refers to the signifying beadwork in Zulu custom. As Thandi’s mother explains to her granddaughter, Mangi, at the beginning of the film, different patterns and colours have meaning. The beads form a kind of sign language, similar to the gestural sign language used by deaf people like Mangi. Three types of communication come together when the grandmother explains the meanings of the different colours to her granddaughter, through sign language and words. She bestows on her granddaughter the beaded necklace her husband gave her when he went to work in the city. She is obviously transmitting a past heritage, which will be taken up by the granddaughter when she secretly prepares a love letter for her mother. These love letters are tokens one makes for someone close, a testimony of affection for that person, consisting of various personal artefacts such as photos or beaded or embroidered gifts. A central scene shows an intimate moment for the three generations of women, sitting round a table where they are sewing and threading beads. It begins with a close up of the coloured beads and the three pairs of hands busy on their beadwork. The camera follows Mangi’s hand as she threads a bead and brings the needle up to eye level. It then cuts to Thandi’s hand and follows it up to her face, set in concentration. From there, the camera moves right to take in Thandi’s mother, seen in profile, cuts to her hands and moves back to Mangi, intent on her beadwork. The circular movement that is thus inscribed by the camera is like the weaving of a bond between the three women as they work in unison. Only the scraping of the needles and beads can be heard, as if the grandmother and mother have been drawn into Mangi’s silent world, emphasised by the fact that the scene begins and ends with this character.

7As this scene illustrates, the frail teenager is really a powerful force. Whereas Thandi had flashbacks concerning the past, Mangi seems to have flashforwards or imaginings. At her mother’s bedside in hospital, she imagines the flowers in the vase on the bedside table withering and dying. On another occasion, her parents fail to fetch her from school and she spends the night alone in a dormitory. She sees water overflowing and flooding the corridor. Finally, having read the file her mother keeps on events during the repression, she imagines her mother with a group of people in traditional dress walking in a field and singing. Her mother turns and smiles at her and she waves back. At that moment, shots are heard and everyone disappears, except her mother who looks frightened. Her image is replaced by the three Security police who appear striding across the field towards Mangi.

8The scene of the three women threading beads—a silent, domestic scene, in the sense that it is inside the home and centered on a "domestic" activity—is in contrast with next sequence which shows an anonymous crowd of people marching along the road to a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There is an abrupt movement from the private to the public sphere as Thandi and Me’Tau find themselves in the middle of the marching people. Close shots of the two characters are interspersed with shots of the crowd. This contrast between public and private spheres stresses the limited success of the TRC. Significantly, the public advocates of the TRC are off-screen, just mentioned as names: the "bishop"—referring to Bishop Τutu—and Mandela. Real truth and reconciliation is presented as a process, something which takes time and is an individual matter. The film is about the necessity for the common people to work through this process. In particular, this concerns the women folk, as illustrated in the sequence of the people converging on the court where the hearing is to be held.

9Photographs and film footage of the masses are frequently found in South African pictorial history. It is part of the Freedom struggle—protests and rallies during the fifties, schoolchildren protesting in the seventies (see Cry Freedom), funerals that turn into demonstrations. In the New South Africa, these mass groupings are shown through long lines of people: for elections, for TRC hearings, or lining up to see the doctor, as in Yesterday. In this sequence in Zulu Love Letter, a general frontal shot shows the crowd marching towards a building. They are carrying banners demanding the truth. The second frame focuses on the feet of the marching people. They are poorly shod, a sign of their poverty, but also a reminder that in South Africa, public transport is insufficient and poor people walk great distances. In her rural area, Yesterday has a two-hour walk to the clinic. The first time she goes, she arrives too late to see the doctor and has to return the following day.

10In this sequence in Zulu Love Letter, the camera cuts from the marching people to a shot filmed from the side at a slightly low angle so as to take in other people heading towards the building. The crowd marching to the courtroom is made up mainly of women. There are some disabled men being brought in wheelchairs or wheelbarrows, some leaning on a crutch or a walking stick. The suggestion is that they have been maimed through warfare or torture. All in all, few men arc present. As the people begin to sing, the predominance of female voices can be noted. The words of the song become more militant and a few women with raised fists, the symbol of revolutionary power, can be seen in the line. This final shot of the crowd lined up outside the building is followed by a scene inside the building where the hearing is about to begin. Once inside the court, a man—perhaps a judge or lawyer—seems to be ordering the proceedings. In this gathering of women, he is a figure of authority and his presence ends the sequence.

  • 6 Impotency is the theme of Lewis Nkosi’s novel Mandela’s Ego (2006) in which the protagonist becomes (...)

11Zulu Love Letter stresses the defection of men, or their forced absence, like that of the dead photographer, Pete. The other men default or have done so in the past. Thandi’s father objected to her relationship with Moolla, a South African Indian. Thandi reproaches Moolla for having gone in search of his roots in India when she was pregnant with their child. When he is killed towards the end of the film, Thandi seeks assistance from Councillor Kubeka. The former ANC activist now lives in a big house and he claims to be powerless to help her. Male impotency is shown through the ineffectual editor of the newspaper Thandi works for, through the wounded men who march towards the TRC court room, through a former activist who has survived mistreatment at the hands of the secret police and is now a homeless drunkard.6

12Confidence in masculinity is restored when, after much hesitation, Dhlamini, the policeman, visits Me’Tau at night. Their encounter occurs off screen and we can only surmise that he has presented her with his personal repentance and has told her where her daughter was buried. In the final scene, Dineo’s body has been found and buried according to customary rites. People crowd into the small living room of her house and Me’Tau and her surviving daughter carry out the final rituals. Another mother and daughter, Thandi and Mangi, participate and place a final Zulu love letter at Dineo’s shrine. A further figure of male authority, a priest, officiates at both ceremonies. The voices of family and friends unite in prayer and, this time, the male voices mingle with those of the women. The final reconciliation is therefore between past and present (Thandi’s flashbacks of the past and Mangi’s visions of the future disappear), between traditional values (the burial of Dineo brings her bones back to the clan) and legal procedure, and a uniting of men and women within the community.

Small steps for womankind

13In the context of power and conflict in South Africa, one might pose the question "who is the enemy?" (Starfield 2010). During the apartheid struggle, the answer was clear-cut: the Nationalist Party government and their immediate manifestations of repression, the Security Branch, as shown in Zulu Love Letter. In the New South Africa, the answer is less certain as the female protagonist of this film reveals. Her demons are within. She cannot come to terms with the past and is continually reminded of Dineo’s and Pete’s deaths and her own confinement by the secret police (there is a double entendre here as she is pregnant with her daughter). She has difficulty in coping with the present, in working (she has writer’s block) and finds herself in conflict with the different members of her entourage (parents, husbands, boss, anonymous people in the street, Councillor Kubeka). In today’s South Africa, the enemy has been transformed for many into the unknown hydra of rampant violence that people are confronted with in their daily lives. In Yesterday, the enemy is Aids, the devastating effects of which have found a new outlet for previous pain and suffering.

14This film also centres on a mother and her daughter. The title character was given the name Yesterday by her father, intimating that there was no future in the old South Africa. As in Zulu Love Letter, hope rests on her daughter. Yesterday’s child, Beauty, will be the bearer of the future. This poor village in the middle of KwaZulu, mainly inhabited by women, is an overthrow of the apartheid era where most of the able men and women went to work in the cities and left children and old women in the villages. Here we even see women workers on the roads, a sign of the professional empowerment that is taking place in the New South Africa. The other female characters could be divided into adjuvants and opponents. On the one hand, Yesterday is befriended by the school teacher and a woman doctor who, although white, communicates with her in Zulu (the dialogue of the film is in Zulu). On the other hand, the village women arc hostile to Yesterday when they discover that she and her husband have contracted Aids.

15The first step towards empowerment for this simple country woman is when she makes the journey to Johannesburg to inform her husband of their mutual disease. His response is one of denial and fury. He beats her and she returns disillusioned to her village. A close shot in the taxi taking her back shows her swollen, saddened face, intercut with flashbacks of her former happy relationship with her husband. Shortly afterwards, her sick husband returns to their home in the country and she takes him in.

16The hospitals in the region are overflowing with Aids sufferers and there is no room for Yesterday’s husband. The village women treat them like lepers, ostracising them. Yesterday builds a shack on the outskirts of the village where she can nurse her husband, helped by her little daughter and the road workers on their way home from work. The comparison between Aids and leprosy is shown concretely through the devastating physical effects of the illness on Yesterday’s husband. He staggers to his feet and, leaning on his wife, limps the few yards to the makeshift hut. His body is emaciated, his face covered with sores. For Yesterday, the decision to take care of her husband, the building of the hut, have been part of her personal empowerment. At the end, after the death of her husband, she knows she will die soon. She watches her daughter in the schoolyard, in her black school uniform. This achievement is her happiness as she walks away to die.

  • 7 Roodt possibly had in mind Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (U.S., 1921) and Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stori (...)

17As regards the South African film industry, Darryl Roodt is one of the few directors in this country to have made a number of films with female protagonists. In Sarafina! (1992), Leleti Khumalo plays the schoolgirl of the title alongside Whoopie Goldberg and Miriam Makeba. In the wake of Yesterday, Roodt made Faith’s Corner (2006), with Khumalo in the role of Faith, a homeless mother of two children who earns a living by begging on a street corner in Johannesburg. Set to music by Philip Glass, the film is made as a silent film, suggesting that the extremely poor are excluded from the world of action and speech.7 Roodt’s mini television series, Ella Blue (2008) centres on the woman of the title, a wife and mother in a poor family in Cape Town during the apartheid years of the sixties.

18Roodt is currently preparing a biopic on Winnie Mandela, which will probably be the first film to focus on a South African heroine, although the choice of American actress Jennifer Hudson in the role of Nelson Mandela’s former wife has met with protest. This debate has to be seen within the larger sphere of the opposition between global and local cinemas. In general, South African films combine casts with international lead actors and South African actors in the less important roles (Starfield 2010). Few fictional films are made by women. As usual, women are to be found as producers, television directors and documentarists. A rare example is Elaine Procter’s Friends (1993), about three women from different backgrounds who share a house in Johannesburg during the eighties. The main character, a white woman, is played by New Zealand actress Kerry Fox. Yet, a tradition of theatre exists, as do many local actors and actresses (Leleti Khumalo, for example). It is to be hoped therefore that locally, women will participate more fully in South African film in the future, on both sides of the camera and that the future stories will focus more fully on their predicaments.

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Bernstein, Hilda, For Their Triumphs and Their Tears: Women in Apartheid South Africa, London : International Defence and Aid Fund, 1975.

Maingard, Jacqueline, South African National Cinema, London: Routledge, 2007.

Russell, Diane Ε. H., Lives of Courage : Women in the New South Africa, New York : Basic Books, 1989.

Starfield, Penny, "L’Arc-en-ciel du passé dans la construction de nouvelles identités sud-africaines à travers quelques représentations culturelles récentes", Marie-Claude Barbier et Gilles Teulié (dir.), L’Afrique du Sud : de nouvelles identités?, Aix-en-Provence : Presses Universitaires de Provence, 2010.

Starfield, Penny dir., Femmes et pouvoir, Condé-sur-Noireau: éditions Corlet, coll. "CinémAction", 2008.

Tomaselli, Κeyan G., The Cinema of Apartheid: Race and Class in South African Film, London: Routledge, 1988.

Tomaselli, Κeyan G., Encountering Modernity: Twentieth Century South African Cinemas, Pretoria: Unisa Press/Amsterdam: Rozenberg Publishers, 2006.

Tomaselli, Κeyan G., "Towards Post-Apartheid South African Cinema", Penny Starfield (dir.), Criticalsecret n° 6 "Cinématographies", 4e trimestre 2001, <>.

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1 At first, this legislation had applied only to men. This demonstration was part of the Defiance Campaign against apartheid which began in 1952 (Bernstein, 42-3).

2 Whereas the Women’s League promoted the struggle through the ANC, the Federation of South African women was broader based, involving women from different backgrounds (Bernstein 41-2, 54). Founded in 1955 (composed of only white women until 1963), the Black Sash provided the opportunity for protest by ordinary women who did not necessarily belong to a political formation. Women wearing a black sash would line the streets in silent protest against apartheid legislation and repression (Bernstein 7-8; Russell, 197-8). In its bulletin, the Black Sash would report on mistreatment members of the population were subjected to (Bernstein 33-4).

3 The expression "the common man" is positively connoted, whereas the same adjective applied to a woman would generally suggest vulgarity and moral "looseness"—a reflection of the gendering of language.

4 Me’Tau (literally "mother Tau") is played by Sophie Mgcina, who was the Woods family’s domestic servant, Evangelina, in Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom (1987). The surname Tau means "lion" in Setswana, the language spoken by Dineo’s family.

5 See Maingard, 27-9. The song "hold him down you Zulu warrior, hold him down you Zulu chief chief chief" was popularised by Josef Marias, a South African who became famous in the post-war period in a duo with the Dutch singer Rosa de Miranda. It is sung in William Dieterle’s Rope of Sand (1949) starring Burt Lancaster and Claude Rains. Today this song is frequently heard with its Zulu lyrics and is considered a scout campfire song, a rugby song or a drinking song. The image of the Zulu warrior has been revived recently by President Jacob Zuma.

6 Impotency is the theme of Lewis Nkosi’s novel Mandela’s Ego (2006) in which the protagonist becomes sexually impotent from the time of Nelson Mandela’s arrest to his liberation in February 1990 (Starfield 2010).

7 Roodt possibly had in mind Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (U.S., 1921) and Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories (U.S., 1989). This black and white silent film is an obvious reference to Chaplin’s film: set in New York, it describes a homeless African American (played by Lane) who befriends a child.

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Bibliographical reference

Penny Starfield, « Questions of Empowerment in Zulu Love Letter and Yesterday », Caliban, 27 | 2010, 83-90.

Electronic reference

Penny Starfield, « Questions of Empowerment in Zulu Love Letter and Yesterday », Caliban [Online], 27 | 2010, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 28 January 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Penny Starfield

Université Paris Diderot

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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