CRG Seminar: The Role of Cinema in the Construction of the South African Empire, 1900-1960

This seminar by Emeritus Prof. Neil Parsons (University of Botswana) will dive deeper into the role of feature films in South African history. For Nelson Mandela, the ‘lost opportunity’ for African nationalism in South Africa was the period between the South African War and the Great War, before anti-black racial segregation was institutionalised. We can see this reflected in the films made between 1913 and 1919-20 by African Film Productions Ltd, financed by a US insurance millionaire, which featured African stories with African actors in leading roles. Under pro-British and internationalist prime minister Smuts (1919-24), AFP films became more Hollywood in style, with black parts played by white actors, under Afrikaner isolationist nationalist and segregationist prime minister Hertzog (1924-39). SA film production almost halted — besides newsreels. Smuts joined Hertzog in coalition in 1934. His vision of a Greater South Africa, matching SA film distribution and cinema ownership up to the equator, was matched by his pro-German colleague Pirow’s creation of an airline network with German airliners/bombers flying deep into Belgian and French Africa. Forcing Hertzog’s resignation in 1939, Smuts led SA on the Allied side into and out of the Second World War, until 1948 when ultra-segregationist apartheid was declared under prime minister Malan. After a short burst of films in English, including two rival films on black popular music, SA film production was dominated into the 1950s by independent films asserting Afrikaner national language and white identity. The latter were supported by apartheid state subsidies, which extended into ‘Bantustan’ films in African languages, and then into co-productions with overseas investors to promote the country’s image as a stable pro-Western political economy in Africa.

This seminar is organised by the CRG 'Patterns of Living in Southern Africa, 1780s to the present'.

Photo: Screenshot from the 1916 silent film 'De Voortrekkers'. Credits: various cinematographers (via Wikimedia Commons).

Neil Parsons is a former Professor of History at the University of Botswana. His publications include with Alois Mlambo 'A History of Southern Africa' (Bloomsbury 2019), 'Black and White Bioscope: Movies Made in Africa 1899-1925' (Intellect 2018), 'Clicko the Wild Dancing Bushman' (Jacana 2009), 'King Khama, Emperor Joe, and the Great White Queen: Victorian Britain through African Eyes' (Chicago 1998), with Thomas Tlou & Willie Henderson 'Seretse Khama, 1921-1980' (Macmillan 1995), 'A New History of Southern Africa' (Macmillan 2nd edn. 1993, 1st edn. 1982), and with Robin Palmer 'The Roots of Rural Poverty in Central and Southern Africa' (Heinemann 1977).


Date, time and location

11 June 2024
15.00 - 17.00
Herta Mohrgebouw / Faculty of Humanities, Witte Singel 27a, 2311 BG Leiden
Room 0.31