At the end of Silverton Siege, the new Netflix original movie, the gun-toting duo of Calvin (Thabo Rametsi) and Terra (Noxolo Dlamini) march fearlessly to the bank’s open doors for another showdown with the police. They knew their destiny was death.
The scene drowns in alarming red lights, then fades to black with the sound of gunfire. Zamo Mbutho’s “Asimbonanaga” plays next; the song is a mournful acapella evoking the mood of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.
Directed by South African filmmaker Mandla Dube, Silverton Headquarters features a soundtrack that grounds the film with tone and character. These songs are forged in an African revolutionary consciousness. From the Afrobeat anthem “Zombie” by Fela Kuti to “Hamba Kahle Umkhonto” by Philip Miller. In the case of South Africa, they re-enchant the role played by songs in galvanizing people against apartheid.
The siege of Silverton was a flashpoint in the movement for the release of Nelson Mandela. In 1980s South Africa, anti-apartheid freedom fighters – Wilfred Madela, Humphrey Makhubu, Stephen Mafoko – broke off their planned sabotage mission at Watloo petrol depots and fled from police. They hid at the Volkskas Bank in Silverton, Pretoria, where they held 25 civilians hostage.
In the film, Calvin is the de facto leader of the group, negotiating safe passage out of the bank. The officer in charge, Langerman (Arnold Vosloo), reluctantly agrees to the request and dispatches a helicopter piloted by a solo pilot. It’s a trap, however. Unbeknownst to them, the pilot Sechaba (Tumisho Masha) will deliver the group to the police once informed of their destination.
that of Fela”Zombie” starts playing when the trio, accompanied by a hostage, leaves the bank and heads for the chopper. What happens next is that the group knows it was created. Secaba pulls out a gun when he is outstripped by Calvin. He is disarmed, punched in the face and kicked out of the helicopter, then roughed up to the bank with the group.
Released in 1976, “Zombie” criticizes the military as a tool of oppression by the Nigerian government. It’s a parallel with the helicopter scene. Secaba, a black South African, is a police asset. By extension, he is in the service of the white ruling class helping to capture freedom fighters. What is teachable here is that in the process of overcoming oppression, the enemy does not always look like those in power, but can be anyone from the grassroots.
Although they look like the oppressed, these people are not engaged in revolutionary war or liberation. Their orders come from above. The next time we hear another song playing in the background is Chicco Twala’s “I Need Some Money”. The scene shows Calvin and Aldo pushing carts stacked with cash through the main hall of the bank. The stage soundtrack with this song diffuses the tension, turning the serious stakes upside down with its shangaan-disco liveliness.
“I Need Some Money” was released in 1986, and it was the South African artist and producer’s first hit. What does it mean to need money during this time? The global economic crisis has not spared South Africa, with rising inflation, unemployment and the weakening of its currency. But Calvin is not interested in money. This is another inversion that occurs. An economic downturn in the country where the search for material provisions would be justified is juxtaposed with the revolutionary mood of his group.
The cart is now outside the bank, where Terra and Calvin are holding a black American man at gunpoint. As Langerman tries to reason with them, the American pours fuel all over the cart on the orders of the duo. Engulfed in fire, “Impi” by Johnny Clegg and Juluka kicks off. Calvin walks sideways towards the press with their cameras and shouts, “Free Nelson Mandela!
It changes the trajectory of the story. Nelson Mandela was sent to prison in 1964 for treason and opposition to the apartheid regime. The clamor of his exit in film is underlined by the sheer stature of Johnny Clegg, who was not just a singer and songwriter, but a leading figure in the struggle against apartheid.
Photo credit: Neo Baepi/Netflix
His band, Julukua, was one of his successful co-ed bands. On their second album, African Litanyreleased in 1981, Impi is Zulu for ”war”. His version of “Asimbonanaga” was made with his other band Savuka from their album third world child and was dedicated to political prisoners, especially Mandela.
Silverton Headquarters is not a film without a body. Outside of the bank calling for Mandela’s release, Calvin and banking supervisor Christine (Elaine Dekker) put aside their differences. Unfortunately, she is shot by a rooftop sniper from the SWAT team.
“Hamba Khale Umkhonto” pervades this scene where she dies. It’s sad and gloomy. When Silverton Headquarters – which was released last month on Freedom Day – ends, the trio’s sacrifice becomes symbolic for what comes later: freedom.
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