Oct/Nov 2006 Nonfiction

From Words into Pictures: In conversation with Athol Fugard

by Andie Miller

Photo by Jim Gourley

In 1985 Time Magazine named Athol Fugard "the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world." To date he has written over 30 plays. Theatregoers will remember him for the likes of The Island and Master Harold... and the Boys, but as he said, almost prophetically, in 2000: "Unfortunately theatre reaches such a small audience that it seems as if its impact on societies—particularly as they get larger and more complicated—is not as great as that of television or film." And ironically it is the film of his only novel, Tsotsi, written 40 years ago and published finally in 1980, that has introduced him to popular culture; particularly in his native South Africa.

The jubilation with which South Africa's first Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film was received was on a par with winning the Rugby World Cup in 1995. But Fugard admits that he wasn't watching the Oscar ceremony when the award was announced—he was watching an adaptation of one of his favourite Queens of Crime, Dorothy L Sayers: "What is it about women that they can write such clever murders?" So he was taken by surprise. "What is so hard about these things," he considers, "...I know it deserves an award for excellence, but..." unlike that unequivocal final goal: "was it the best?"

Still, he is delighted, and credits scholar Stephen Gray for the novel ever seeing the light of day. Speaking from Del Mar near San Diego in Southern California, where he spends part of each year, Fugard says: "I owe him a profound debt of gratitude." Gray had discovered the abandoned manuscript in a trunk of papers given on loan to the National English Literary Museum (NELM), and asked if he could edit it. "I also owe an enormous debt of gratitude to my wife, Sheila," says Fugard. "She saved the manuscript in the suitcase."

Since the publication of the novel about the young tsotsi (thug) who, in the course of his criminal activities, is left (literally) holding a baby and needs to make choices about what to do with him, there have been other attempts to turn it into a film. "I remember being in New York with Athol in 1980, when we'd just won the Berlin Bear Award for Marigolds in August," says filmmaker and long time collaborator, Ross Devenish. "It was just after the book had come out, and he had a meeting with Harry Belafonte, who was interested in producing it."

"We're going to shoot it in South Africa," Belafonte said later. "No names, no stars, South African actors."

In 1993 Mira Nair—director of Salaam Bombay!, which looks at street-children torn from family life—planned to collaborate with South African screenwriter Helena Kriel on the Belafonte production. As with Hood's film, they planned to update Fugard's novel from its original setting in fifties Sophiatown, with its forced removals, to a contemporary Johannesburg township. Kriel met Nair when Nair was shooting the location shots of her Mississippi Masala in Uganda. This would have been Nair's first project outside of the world of India and its migrants, but customarily located on the margins (she had turned down an offer to direct Sarafina, starring Whoopi Goldberg). The project, however, fell through, and the pair went on to their adaptation of the Kama Sutra. "They couldn't raise the money," says Fugard. "You know Hollywood."

"About two years later Belafonte called me and said they had the money," says Kriel. "But by that stage the producers [RHI Entertainment] no longer had the rights." In 1994 RHI was bought out by Hallmark Cards, who had decided to branch out from "personal expression products", and became Hallmark Entertainment. "Only about five percent of what gets written ever gets made," Kriel adds. "And it's getting harder and harder."

Like other recent films of South African novels—Red Dust by Gillian Slovo, and Country of My Skull (In My Country) by Antjie Krog—those putting up the money insist on 'names' in the leading roles. They're not interested in authentic local productions.

Tsotsi star Presley Chweneyagae, when asked if he wanted to shorten his name for the credits, responded: "Why? Did Schwarzenegger?"

"But behind Gavin [Hood] stands another man," Fugard continues: "Peter Fudakowski. A lot of acknowledgement must go to him." With an education from Cambridge, a degree in economics, and a love of photography, Fudakowski has combined his skills to produce feature films. Fugard describes him as "a producer with vision. He gave the book to Gavin." Fudakowski commissioned Hood to adapt it for the screen and direct it, and together they made a formidable team. They were adamant about using local actors. Hood's stroke of genius was translating the novel into tsotsitaal (street lingo; literally: thug language) and introducing the kwaito (SA's equivalent of hip-hop) soundtrack. "There were pressures on Gavin, to change the music etc.," says Fugard, "but he fought for what he wanted; he's got incredibly good taste."

Fugard's experience of the film industry has not always been a happy one, though. "Apart from with Ross Devenish"—with whom he made The Guest, about the life of Afrikaner intellectual, poet and opium addict, Eugene Marais (in which Fugard played Marais); Marigolds in August and Boesman and Lena—"which was in a spirit of true collaboration; and now with Gavin," he says: "I've had pretty miserable and negative experiences with the film industry." He cites the remake of Boesman and Lena, with Danny Glover and Angela Basset, and HBO's Master Harold... and the Boys, with Matthew Broderick in the title role, as big disappointments. The adaptations of his plays to the screen, as he puts it, have involved "various degrees of disaster."

D.W. Griffith once described filmmaking as the ability to photograph thought, and novels, with their interior monologues, Fugard agrees, make for better adaptations than plays. This is perhaps part of the reason why the film of Tsotsi works so well.

It was important to Hood to get Fugard's blessing, but Fugard was reluctant to travel to LA to attend a screening: "I thought, I know I'll be sighing, squirming all through it and will have to say something afterward." So Hood organised a private screening for him in San Diego. His response, says Hood, and to his great relief, was: "Bloody marvellous, mate!" Rumour has it that Fugard bought some kwaito CDs after that.

"My one criticism is the ending," says Fugard. "It had three endings, and I'm not particularly happy with the one they chose. Hollywood always sells out." But from Hood's point of view: "What I like about the way the film ends now (there was an ending in which he died), is that it's not an absolute closure. It leaves it open for people to discuss. We wanted something that was tough and honest, but at the same time encouraged discussion... Killing him made him a saint. And he isn't a saint," says Hood. "He's a very human character that Athol created.

"The great thing about all of Athol's characters is that they are first and foremost profoundly human, and you follow their stories because you're caught up in their personal struggle. They're usually not great heroic, political figures. They're normally ordinary folk caught in a particular political or socio-economic environment. And the politics of the world is made apparent to you, not because he's talking about the politics of the world, but because he's talking deeply about the personal struggles and the "secrets", as he talks about it—that the characters are hiding or not ready to reveal, even to themselves—and he's mining the very personal.

"But the personal is informed by the environment in which that person finds themselves, and so the politics is presented to you, unmistakably, but you don't feel it's being shoved down your throat. So in a way it's a very clever activism, because you start to love the people that he's presenting to you, and you go: 'What kind of world are they living in?'"

On the subject of the term tsotsi, Stephen Gray reflects: "I'm interested in how the word has become so familiar since the Oscar. Now it's known to the whole world." A Google search yields 12-million results. "But in the late fifties it was a minor cult word that people had difficulty with... Drum [Magazine] saw the potential of the posed zoot suit. You know tsotsi's meant to be a corruption of zoot suit... fashionable clothes, Florsheim shoes, white hats that came from gangster movies... By April 1956 there was a character that Drum launched, called Willie Boy, and then Alex le Guma took it up as well, for the first of his beautiful books. So it became a media feature, this juvenile delinquent tsotsi-boy. And now of course we have musicals about Sophiatown, and university presses publish dictionaries of tsotsitaal for academic scrutiny."

Twenty-one-year-old first time film actor, Presley Chweneyagae, whose mother is a police officer, and who was discovered while playing King Lear in a community theatre production, where she had sent him to keep out of trouble, concludes: "I had read a lot of [Athol Fugard's] work at school... I had been a big fan of his. I like especially his plays The Blood Knot and People are Living There... so I had an interest in the beginning. But to realise that the book, Tsotsi, the real novel, was written by Athol Fugard... I said, 'I can play this part. I can find this kind of element in me'... it was an honour for me to be in his work."



Tsotsi, the winner of the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, introduced English-speaking audiences to an unfamiliar subculture and its language, Tsotsitaal, used on the streets of Soweto, a group of townships in Johannesburg, South Africa. The area was segregated (Black only) by the Apartheid government, and its population of some two million is still largely Black and poor. Tsotsitaal is a blend of Afrikaans, English, and African language stocks. The lexicon below provides a sample of this fascinating dialect. -Editor

Further to your Ed's note, as a matter of interest, though tsotsitaal (or the current version of it, "isiCamtho") is now spoken in the townships, it originated in Sophiatown, a multiracial/multicultural Johannesburg suburb which was bulldozed in the early sixties. This is why Molamu's book is entitled Tsotsitaal: A dictionary of the language of Sophiatown. Here's an article that elaborates. -AM


Americans: A gang (founded in 1947) whose members were young black males who usually dressed in American style clothing. They were notorious for large-scale crime of railway delivery trailers.

Amper-baas: lit. Almost-boss. A pejorative term for a black person with physical features of a white person and wishes to be accepted as such.

askies: v. The term is derived from the English and Afrikaans terms "excuse" and "ekskuus" respectively and seeks to convey a mild form of apology.

atchar: n. A special hot pickle, usually of sliced green mango. For instance, "Dou en atchar is mca spydiet vir laaties." Meaning "Bread and atchar is a delicious snack for young boys."

atchoo: An expression of a feeling of pain. Often lengthened to atchoowie.

autie: n. Lad or young man. The term was, arguably, derived from the word "outlaw" and was associated with Western and gangster films. In these films the term referred to "bandits" but was modified in Tsotsitaal to evoke positive qualities of youth and street wisdom. It is used also to refer to a woman's sweetheart.

babalaas: n. The term refers to a hangover. Arguably derived from the isiZulu word "ibhabhalazi" which refers to the after effects of a drinking bout.

bangle: v. To be arrested or detained. Perhaps the word originates from the idea of handcuffs used by policemen to arrest suspects or offenders.

beetroot eet: To assault so that one bleeds through the mouth; to be assaulted.

beshugen: adj. The term seems to have been derived from the Yiddish word "meshuggen" which means crazy, strange and nonsensical. It refers to silly, unconventional or eccentric behaviour. Although in its original Yiddish form it did not seem to imply a clinically diagnosed illness. The Tsotsitaal version referred to both mentally ill persons or those who behaved in an odd fashion. With respect to the former it may be said: "O mri is beshugen. Hom kop vat rerig nie reg." Meaning "The fellow is insane. His head is really not right."

Boom: n. Lit. tree. The term has been used colloquially to refer to marijuana or dagga.

boy's holiday: n. A phrase used to refer to when the "klevaas" and their girlfriends spend the day at a popular shebeen listening to music and often spending the proceeds of their criminal activities; a tsotsi's day off.

bra: n. A term for friend derived from the English word "brother." The word is also used as a term of respect for older brothers and other males.

brekgat: n. A pejorative term for an arrogant or boastful person. The term is a corruption of the English word "braggart."

bushie: n. A term used for a person of racially mixed parentage; Coloured.

can't gets: n. An expression used to exclusive clothing or shoes.

chara: n. A pejorative term for individuals of Indian descent.

cherie: n. Girlfriend or woman. In its French form the word means "darling."

chief: A term of endearment meaning friend.

chieskop: n. A clean-shaven head; a person with the scalp wholly or partly lacking hair; bald head.

chomie: n. Friend; pal. May have been derived from the English word "chum."

chookie: The term refers to a prison.

cook: v. To drink alcoholic beverages. The term is also used as a noun to refer to alcoholic beverages.

coolie: An offensive manner of address to an Indian person.

cowboys and crooks: A traditional Xhosa dish of maize kernels, coarsely broken and usually cooked with dried beans; corn and beans.

cruel: adj. A flexible term used to refer to severe or extreme. The English meaning of the word is to cause pain or suffering, especially deliberately. For instance, "My kindra was cruel sick." Meaning "My child was critically ill." The word may also be used thus: "Die doppe was cruel lekker." Meaning, "The peanuts were extremely tasty."

dairy: A term used for women's breasts.

dak: v. A term used for leaving and departing. In its popular form the word was used in resistance songs during the campaigns against the implementation of the policy of forced removals by the apartheid state. The following lines were immortalised in song in Sophiatown: "Ons dak nie! ons phola hie." Meaning "We are not leaving! We are staying here."

darkie: The term refers to a black person.

damages: A collective term which refers to a fine imposed on a male for being responsible for a woman's pregnancy outside wedlock.

dirty-box: n. A rubbish bin.

dogsmeat: This term refers to leftovers from the homes of white families in the former exclusively white suburbs in South Africa. This food was quietly slipped to the domestic worker's room(s) where it was shared with friends and family.

dompas: n. lit Stupid pass. Reference book or identity document that was issued to Africans; the notorious identity document once issued to Africans.

donkeypiel: A vulgar term which literally refers to the sexual organ of a donkey. This term is, however, used to refer to a baton used by policemen and prison warders.

dou: The term is derived from the English term "dough." It is used widely to refer to bread.

drapes: Clothes.

eish!: interj. An expression of anguish, surprise or pain.

entjie: n. Cigarette. The term is derived from the Afrikaans word which means butt or stub.

fanagalo: A lingua franca developed and used by Southern African mining companies, composed of elements of the Nguni languages, English and Afrikaans; a pidgin language used in the mines.

Fishtail: A motor-vehicle, a product of the Ford Motor Company, whose distinctive feature was the tail of the vehicle, which was shaped like that of a fish.

florsheims: A popular brand of expensive men's shoes, the term is used widely to refer to cooked sheep or pigs' trotters.

fly-taal: n. The language spoken by the streetwise persons. It was generally understood to refer to "Tsotsitaal."

gata: n. A colloquial term for a policeman.

gerook: lit. Smoked. The term has come to be used for the effect of psychoactive drugs—especially that of illicit drugs such as marijuana.

globes: n. Eyes.

good afternoons: Buttocks.

grand: adj. A colloquial term meaning "fine" or "very well." Often used in response to the form of greeting "hoezit?"

half-en-half: The term refers to a person with external genitalia and qualities of both sexes; transsexual.

heita: Hello. The term was arguably modified from the Setswana phrase "Ee, thata." Meaning "Yes thoroughly." In response to the greeting "A lo tsogile." Meaning "Are you well?" A form of greeting that expresses happiness at encountering friends or acquaintances. For instance, "Heita, majieta!" Meaning "Greetings, lads!"

hoezit: A corruption of the Afrikaans phrase "Hoe is dit?" meaning "How are you?" Lit. How is it?

import: n. The term was used, usually, to refer to a girlfriend who was not resident in Johannesburg.

jaapie: n. A term of derision for whites, especially Afrikaner working class men. In its original Afrikaans form the term refers to a crude and inexperienced person.

jewish: n. Clothing. It may have been derived from the fact that the fashionable clothes of the day were bought from the shops which were owned by Jews.

job pull: To perform a criminal act.

Jozi: n. A term of endearment for Johannesburg.

jumpers: n. The term refers to evenings. For instance "Ek sal jou jumpers notch." Meaning "I will see you in the evening."

Katz en Lurie: The name of a reputable jeweller in downtown Johannesburg. The term came to be used to refer to marriage.

kindra: n. The term is derived from the Afrikaans word "kind" which means child.

kitchens: A reference to white residential areas or suburbs where black domestic workers were housed.

klank: Stink; an Afrikaans word which means "sound." It has been modified to refer to a bad smell.

klank-gerook: Passively stoned.

klevaa: n. The term refers to a streetwise young male African in the urban areas. The literal English meaning of the term is "skilful, talented, quick to understand and learn, ingenious cunning."

laaitie: n. The term refers to a young boy or younger male person. It may also be used as an affectionate reference to one's girlfriend.

laanie: The term refers to a white person, usually a white male.

last of last week: A phrase used to refer to a "fortnight ago."

levi: n. Toilet. The term is an abbreviation and corruption of the English word "lavatory."

mafetlhefetlhe: A stout, fat person.

ma-Gents: Lads The term is derived from the English word "gentlemen."

mahala: To receive something without having to pay for it. The term may have been derived from the Malay word "mahal" which means hard to obtain, that is, scarce or costly.

majieta: n. Lads; guys, mates; friends or fellows sing. Arguably the term originates from the "Zuluisation of Magic Gardens", a title of a film in which renowned Dolly Rathebe featured.

malalapipe: n. One who sleeps in stormwater or drainage pipes; one who sleeps rough, a streetchild. The term is derived from the isiZulu word "ukulala" which means to sleep and the English word "pipe" which refers to a long tube of metal or plastic; a vagabond.

mampara: n. An unskilled, untrained or inexperienced person. The term is also used dismissively to refer to a fool or an incompetent person; not streetwise.

mampoempan: n. A term of derision for an enormously fat person.

masiek: The term is a corruption of the Afrikaans word "musiek" which means music. The term may also have drawn from the Malay word "masek" which means clear sounding.

matshingilaan: n. The term refers to a night watchman or security guard. It was apparently a corruption of the phrase "marching in the line."

matwetwe: A person in authority; overseer or the boss.

mgaga: n. A pistol; gun.

mgosi: The term is a modification of the English word gossip.

moegoe: n. A derogatory term for one who is not streetwise. The term may have been derived from the Afrikaans phrase "moeg ou" which means a tired guy/person; a greenhorn.

mova: The term refers to a car.

nca: Fine; beautiful; very well; great.

nineteen-ot-ot: The term refers to times long past especially the early 1900s; long ago.

notch: v. To see; observe.

Nut-brown baby: Miriam Makeba's nickname.

nyoping: The term is a modification of the word "shopping."

oulady: The term is a corruption of the phrase "old lady" and is used to refer to one's mother.

panelbeat: v. To assault, beat up.

pata pata: n. "Touch touch;" a dance movement in which partners repeatedly touch each other. The isiZulu word "phata" means to feel; touch; handle; hold.

phola: v. To stay or to remain.

piece job: The phrase refers to small short term, especially menial tasks, performed for remuneration; part time work.

popeys: A collective term for cartoons shown at local cinemas.

print: To inflict pain by stabbing lightly using a knife.

public opinion: A pot belly.

qambalala: ideo. The term is derived from the isiXhosa word "ukuqamba" which means to dance with abandon or joy and with ostentatious movements of the body and arms. To be exceedingly happy.

rubberneck: n. A woman of loose morals.

score: To be successful in stealing; to obtain goods illegally.

sharp: adj. A colloquial term for "fine" or "well" or "great." It is a popular response to "Hoezit?"

shebeen: n. A house where alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages are sold. Most shebeens have flexible hours of operation where people relax, talk with friends, listen to music and enjoy drinking. Of Irish origin, an unlicensed drinking house.

Sheila's day: n. Thursday. Over the years on Thursdays, African domestic workers employed in Johannesburg's white suburbia were off-duty. Many of these men and women would be seen in the city centre shopping, whilst some visited friends and relatives in the townships.

situation: A pejorative term for a comparatively educated and pompous person. The term may have been derived from the caption "situations vacant" as advertised in the press and the use of the word by middle class blacks.

skorokoro: An old wreck of a car, a jalopy.

slice: v. To leave or to go away; travel.

smiley: n. Cooked head of a sheep, goat or cow.

sparkle: To be elegantly dressed.

spy-diet: n. A hurriedly prepared meal. The term refers to a meal which usually consisted of bread, polony or some form of paté, mango pickle, and a cold drink or a pint of milk. It may also refer to a hastily-prepared dish of corn meal (pap), sausage (boerewors), and a tomato and onion gravy. The emphasis is to complete the process of cooking and serving the meal in the shortest possible time.

stadium: n. The term refers to a room or a house made available between friends for dating girlfriends.

staffrider: The term refers to one who boards a train or bus which is in motion. It is a name given to young males who played daredevil games by jumping on and off from a moving bus or train.

stokvel: n. A type of credit union in which a group of individuals enter into an informal agreement to contribute a fixed amount of money to a common pool weekly, fortnightly or monthly. The money may be drawn either in total, or part of it on a rotational basis by the members.

talk-to-me: n. A small pocket on a pair of trousers usually used to keep coins.

tias: n. Semen. The term is a corruption of the English word "tears" and was derived from the phrase "tears of love."

timer: n. A term of endearment for a father or an old man.

trumpet: v. To vomit.

up the birds: adj. The expression was used to refer to menstruation.

val van sixth floor af: Fall in love; lit. Fall from the sixth floor. A phrase in which a suitor declared his love for a youth woman. For instance, "Die een Here hoer my! 'n Man van van sixth floor af. Ek wietie jou." Meaning "God's truth! I love you dearly."

wasplank: lit. Wash-board. The term refers to flat buttocks.

xhosie: A pejorative term for a Xhosa-speaking person.

yabaas: n. A spineless or weak person who is easily manipulated by white people. From the Afrikaans phrase: "Ja, baas" meaning "Yes, boss."

zoempie: n. A pejorative term for a Zulu person.


Source: Louis Molamu. (2003). Tsotsitaal: A dictionary of the language of Sophiatown. Pretoria: Unisa Press.


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