South African culture through the prism of the film "Tsotsi"

In this essay I will be exploring the South African cultural point of view and discuss realist, expressionist of the narrative called TSOTSI. The film was released on the 23rd December in the year 2005 directed by Gavin Hood and produced by Athol Fugard. The narrative is a story of redemption and reconciliation, facing the past, and confronts the core elements of human nature. The character going through this journey, who the movie is named after, is a young man who is part of the lowest level of society in a poor shanty town in South Africa.

Tsotsi is a thug, someone who kills for money and suffers no remorse. But he starts changing when circumstance finds him in possession of a baby, which acts as a catalyst in his life. A chain of events leads him to regain memories of his childhood and discover why he is the way he is. The narrative sets parameters of being human and brings these to the consideration of the viewer.

This film shows hope and portrays a story where a bad, rebellious teenage boy undergoes a change to a good, responsible, peaceful, obedient citizen. The film is based in South Africa (guardian, 2010).

What goes through ones mind when the word south Africa comes up can be triggered by a lot of events that took place in this country in the past for instance it may be the apartheid; the racial segregation where the contact between white and coloured were limited or Nelson Mandela who was part of the process of removing this partitioning in south Africa or maybe the unique mix of culture, wildlife and the appealing, beautiful landscapes (tricks, 2009).

Get quality help now

Proficient in: Africa

5 (339)

“ KarrieWrites did such a phenomenal job on this assignment! He completed it prior to its deadline and was thorough and informative. ”

+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

This film does not only have one theme that it focuses on it explores and touches on various themes like redemption, pain, survival and decency, economic diversity to mention a few but the main theme in this film arguably is survival.

Survival is the theme that plays throughout the film. Tsotsi finds himself living in an era of survival, he lived during the times of Apartheid , when his mother was taken away from him he finds himself turning to the streets and joins a gang in the process he starts stealing and murdering for survival in the beginning Tsotsi is simply surviving physically . he is doing what he should just to keep his body alive, his survival has been rooted in hate, to survive Tsotsi kills and ribs innocent people in order to get money. As the story develops, so does the theme of survival. It becomes less of a physical survival and shifts to an emotional and spiritual survival. Not only does Tsotsi save himself but others too, he gives them hope.

Decency refers to behaviour that conforms to accepted standards of morality or respectability in this film Tsotsi a lot of characters in this film will make one question what is decent and what is not. Boston one of the gang members suggests to the crew that by killing or rather murdering the man in the subway is them losing their sense of decency as a crew.

He makes a point that petty crime to survive is one thing but murder takes it to a new level and that for him felt like it was not the most respectable thing to do not considering the fact that he was already a thug, when the news reaches the gang that a child has been stolen the suspects picture looks like Tsotsi who is the gang leader, the members ask each other what kind of man would steal a child or rather separate a child from his own mother ,the gang members cannot believe that Tsotsi would do such a thing to them that was a new level of crime that was something that is beyond what is decent and humane.

When Tsotsi then goes on to shoot Butcher who is part of the gang it becomes clear that the days of petty crime are over it is no longer about just making ends meet and putting bread on the table for survival. Tsotsi can never go back and redeem the terrible thing that he has done because he overstepped the bounds of decency as is (Ebert, 2006).

Touching on the theme of economic diversity we can see in the film that the rich live in a nice area, filled with exceptional beautiful housing. Tsotsi and his friends live in shacks. They are in the very deep slums of Johannesburg. The shacks do not have much in them. Tsotsi takes the baby to the pipes where he lived and where a bunch of little kids are currently living, which further emphasizes how the poor, especially the young, suffer because of economic disparity. Tsotsi and his gang must rob the rich to survive. It is implied that this is how Tsotsi was even able to get a shack, in the first place. The difference between the gated home of the babys parents and Tsotsis slum neighbourhood is quite dramatic.

The context in which this film was made and released revolves around the time of post-apartheid the film helps us to understand the struggles that blacks face today years after their mistreatment under apartheid. Symbols such as dice, light and journeys are used in this film to develop the ideas of luck ,chance and hope it was created to make viewers understand how unjust, demeaning and dehumanising apartheid was, It also reflects the countrys post-apartheid potential, struggles, dilemmas and frustrations also this film is about life today in the South African townships (slums) Tsotsi takes place in current day Soweto, the largest township (900,000+ inhabitants) outside Johannesburg, It provides a vivid picture of the hardscrabble urban lives that many Black Africans suffer today in the South African townships, the randomness of life there and and the slim chance one faces of escaping the grinding cycle of poverty.

In my understanding I strongly believe that what Tsotsi did was caused and created by what he went through as a child, he had no escape and the only escape he had at that time was turning to the gangs, he needed to provide for himself because after his mother was taken away from him he knew nothing about himself he had nothing to his name and he stood to lose nothing either although at the end of the day even if he had to kill and go to jail just to make ends meet. He had to do what he had to do because of the circumstance he was in. Tsotsi is an embodiment of South Africas rich political history and is a testimony to the negative effects of apartheid, not only shown through the experiences of Tsotsi, the gangster protagonist of Fugards only film, but also through the hardships many of the other characters face on a daily (tricks, 2009).

Watching this film now in this day and age just makes one aware of how the apartheid era actually did separate people of colour although south Africa is meant to be a rainbow nation the film shows that we are not as united , we are dealing with different struggles as people of colour, the film also highlights how people do certain things because they are trying to make ends meet ,trying to get a better life , trying to be seen and understood this film highlights wrong and right also bearing in mind that Tsotsi the character is a man without memory, name or age though one assumes he is in his early twenties. His name is simply a banner, an indicator of the guiding force behind his life and actions of  Violence.

Tsotsi undergoes transformation when he accepts his traumatic past and moves from ruthless killer to a man who develops empathy. Tsotsi regains his lost humanity by confessing his story. Tsotsis future is destroyed when a pass raid devastates his childhood. As a young child David (as Tsotsi was called before his trauma) is content living with his mother while the two of them wait for his father to return home the following day, presumably from protesting as a part of the African National Congress (ANC).

Upon Tsotsis adoption of the baby as his surrogate son comes the moment when Tsotsi understands the injustice of the apartheid state. More importantly, Tsotsi realizes the baby will become him; he will grow up to be a man without hope of escaping the fate set before him. Looking at the baby Tsotsi ponders, The police raid, the river, and Petah, the spider spinning his web, the grey day and the smell of damp newspapers were a future awaiting the baby. It was outside itself. He could sympathize with it in its defencelessness against the terrible events awaiting it.

Although the baby has helped Tsotsi pick up the pieces of his former life, perhaps the most notable effect the baby has on Tsotsi is helping him find empathy, first for the baby and later for others he would have otherwise killed and without hesitation. Tsotsi does not realize that he is changing, and only when he chooses Morris Tshabalala and fails to murder him, does he come to an understanding of how he has been transformed from a killer to a man that feels.

At the beginning of the novel, survival is attained in a savage and animalistic way. To survive Tsotsi kills and ribs innocent people in order to get money. As the story develops, so does the theme of survival. It becomes less of a physical survival and shifts to an emotional and spiritual survival. Not only does Tsotsi save himself but others too, he gives them hope. In saving others Tsotsi saves himself & his conscious. Examples are shown through the secondary characters or Morris and Boston and MIRAM. When Tsotsi lets Morris live after hours of stalking him, he saved Morris from his ultimate fear of death & saves his own kind-hearted personality, taking one step closer to becoming his old self, David. Tsotsi saves a Boston from death, by nourishment, like a mother figure.

After beating him only two days before because he asked questions. Along with taking care of the man, Tsotsi is also asking questions to Boston about life. Tsotsi has abandoned one of his rules that made him the thug he is. These actions show that Tsotsi is becoming a new man, regaining and saving his soul. Fugard wants us to understand that survival is not only your physical presence but the mental state of yourself. You can be alive but your respect for others, positive attitude and kind-heartedness is diminished then you are dead as a soul (tricks, 2009).

The movie is a very moving, sensitive and emotional story of redemption. The tale of how a young heartless thug can change into a soft-hearted guardian. This demonstrates that despite the poor living conditions, awful events and how heartless someone may seem. You can adapt to your surroundings and situations; you can also change your life. Everyone has good in them you just choose whether to value it and use it or not appreciate it and discard it.


  1. Ebert, R. (2006, may 20). journal. Retrieved from review website.
  2. guardian, T. (2010, june 15 ). the gardian . Retrieved from the guardian website.
  3. tricks, m. (2009, march 10). wordpress. Retrieved from wordpress website.

Cite this page

South African culture through the prism of the film "Tsotsi". (2019, Nov 21). Retrieved from

South African culture through the prism of the film "Tsotsi"
Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7