2018 has been a good year for South African pride with the release of the highly (and deservedly so) acclaimed Black Panther movie and specifically the decision to use Xhosa as the language of Wakanda.
The use of a South African language in a major Hollywood movie inspired me to dig a little deeper and try to find examples of other references to our beloved country that may be hidden in international movies or series.
And, much to my surprise, there are actually plenty of obscure references to South Africa, particularly in some of my favourite shows growing up, such as:
- According to the official backstory of Scrooge McDuck, the world’s richest duck spent a part of his youth in South Africa in search of riches and that one of his life-long arch-nemesis, Flintheart Goldglum, is actually a Boer from Limpopo.
- There is a spaceship in Star Trek Deep Space 9 called the SS Xhosa
- The full name of Nelson Muntz, the school bully from The Simpsons, is actually Nelson Mandela Muntz.
Besides the obscure referential gems hidden deep in the lore of old cartoons and sci-fi shows, I realised that surely there must also be numerous other off-hand references to South Africa littered throughout some of our favourite movies and shows.
However, much to my disappointment, I couldn’t find a single database or archive that has any information on South African references in international cinema.
Therefore, I have decided to start my own South African reference database, called the South African References in International Movie and Series Archive (SARIMSA) – because everyone loves a catchy acronym.
After many hours of research and countless google searches I have established a starting sample of 250 references from some of the most popular international movies and television series since the 1960s.
This list is by no means exhaustive as I have only taken the most popular shows and movies with certain criteria attached (for a full list of criteria see the notes at the end of this article).
Check to see if any of your favourite movies or series have ever referenced South Africa, click here.
However, while having a reference database is nice, no Safro article would be complete without some thorough analysis of all this new data.
Before we get into the meat of the analysis, firstly here is just a quick visual comparison of how popular South Africa is in international movies and series compared to other countries:
As you can see, South Africa is second only to Egypt as the most referenced country in Africa and the 29th most referenced in the world.
The Good, the Bad, and Laughable
Much like the average news cycle on News24, references to South Africa in international movies and series are often negative, sometimes positive, but usually mundane with the odd sprinkling of complete absurdity.
While 60% of references can be considered neutral – mostly off hand references to the country or some of its major cities as an exotic local for jet-setting onscreen adventurers – it is the remaining 40%, almost evenly split among positive and negative references, that are the most interesting.
While positive references are normally limited to Nelson Mandela and the scenic beauty of the country and negative references to the villainous trifecta of apartheid, international crime and an exotic birthplace-of-bad-guys, the real referential gems are those quotes that are so cynical or so ignorant that they are utterly laughable. Such as this beauty from the popular cop drama, The Shield:
The rest of this article will include some more of my favourite Laughable Onscreen Lines (LOLs) about South Africa peppered liberally throughout.
Diamonds are Forever (Associated with South Africa)
According to Hollywood, South Africa has only ever given the world four things: Nelson Mandela, Apartheid, Diamonds, and an exotic place of origin for international villians.
By far the most references to South Africa are in the form of name dropping the father of the nation himself: Nelson Mandela. Overall, 25% of all references are to Madiba, while 71% of all positive references are about the great man.
Unfortunately it seems that has former wife, the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, is not afforded quite the same amount of respect:
However, Madiba is only as prolific in Hollywood as the political system he conquered. Apartheid has very much been part of the scriptwriter’s lexicon since the late 80s, not only as reference to the political system of segregation in the South of Africa, but also as a catch-all term for any kind of societal segregation. One in eight of all references and 38% of negative references are to Apartheid.
Besides evil political systems and saintly political prisoners, South Africa’s two other famous exports are diamonds (8 references) and bad guys (17 references). The latter is so common that I’m starting to believe the only thing that BRICS countries really have in common is that they are all favoured countries of origin for Hollywood bad guys (I’m already predicting Iran or North Korea as the next BRICS member).
A Tale of Three Cities
Of course it is not only countries that are mentioned by name on film, as most major cities themselves also have a cinematic presence. As synonymous as New York is with alien invasions, and London is with gritty British street gangs, so too are South Africa’s major cities frequently referenced on screen.
Johannesburg: the city of gold. Not only in our hearts and minds, but also in the hearts and minds of international scriptwriters as eGoli takes first place as by far the most prolific go-to destination for fictional characters. Johannesburg serves as the exotic backdrop for everything, from real estate conferences (Ghost Whisperer s01e21 2006), to Mkungu (Swahili for Midwife) conferences (Law & Order: Criminal Intent s01e16 2002), to… major international mini golf tournaments (?):
At the other end of the country, the most scenic of our tourist traps, Cape Town, is unfortunately a distant second in the race for most often mentioned South African cities. The most interesting Cape Town reference is when the series, Law & Order, confirms what the rest of the country has long suspected about those privileged enough to be born at the foot of Table Mountain:
Last on the list is our diplomatic and executive capitol, Pretoria. Unfortunately, unlike other great international capitols such as Washington DC, Pretoria is not nearly as respected in Hollywood with only a measly five references – and only 1 in the last 20 years. However, the Jacaranda Stad at least has the distinction of being the only South African city (and probably the only city, ever) that has been cast as a fictional independent city state ruled by a white military government willing to use French-made neutron bombs as a last line of defence:
There’s a Zulu (and sometimes a Xhosa and an Afrikaner) on my Stoep
A country with 11 official languages and an accompanying cornucopia of cultures is bound to have some international references that specifically reference individual languages, cultures or people.
Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans are not only the biggest languages and cultures in the country, but also play the most prominent role in Hollywood’s depiction of the South African diaspora. Each of the three cultures have their own distinct set of stereotypes that could perhaps be seen as indicative of international opinion:
Zulu’s – the noble savage. Zulu is by far the most referenced of the South African cultures, however many of the international references to Zulu are actually to Shaka Zulu himself, often portrayed as the noble African warrior. Otherwise many references to Zulu culture are usually quite negative as Zulu culture is caricatured on screen as fond of witchcraft (ER s03e20 1997), voodoo (The Break-Up 2006) and cannibalism:
Xhosa’s: the strange and exotic. The Xhosa language and culture is only referenced directly twice, in the “classic” 2010 movie Free Willy: Escape from Pirate’s Cove and in Home Improvement (s03e02 1993) – the latter informing the audience that in Xhosa culture “a young man’s father would choose his first, sometimes even his second, wife in exchange for a sack of barley or a goat”. However the Xhosa language is also often used in Hollywood movies as the exotic tongue of African characters such as in Black Panther or in 1995’s Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.
Afrikaners: the quintessential bad guys. Lastly, the Afrikaans language only has three direct references (Elementary s03e05 2014, New Girl s04e14 2015, NCIS s10e22 2012), neither of which are particularly negative. However, don’t believe that the Hollywood has given the Afrikaner a pass on stereotyping, as almost every single South African that is ever portrayed as a bad guy in international movies and series is either white or, more specifically, has an Afrikaans sounding name.
Lawyer Detective Simpson Spy
Although there are 104 different television series that reference South Africa in my sample group, most have only one, perhaps two, references to South Africa throughout their runs.
But then there are those shows who clearly work hard to meet their annual Mzanzi movie reference quota.
And there are definitely certain types of shows that prefer South Africa more, specifically procedural crime dramas, such as Law & Order and NCIS, and spy-themed shows such as Alias, The Americans, and Blacklist. This of course fits the Hollywood narrative of South Africans naturally being a bunch of criminals embroiled in all kinds of international crime, such as developing uniquely deadly strains of Anthrax (Law & Order: Criminal Intent s02e23 2003).
At least The Simpsons also favours the land of Pap and Rooibos, and mostly not in a negative light either. This is of course probably only because the Simpson is the longest running primetime scripted series ever.
2010: A Soccer Odessey
Looking at the dispersion of references over time since 1961, it is clear that there has been a definitive increase in references per year. This does not necessarily indicate increased international interest as there has also of course been a massive increase in the amount of series and movies produced annually since the 60s.
What is clear however is that South Africa becomes more mentionable in the movies whenever it makes international news. Looking at the timeline of references, all the spikes correspond neatly with major South African events or citizens making international news at the time:
By far the biggest spike in references was when South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup. In 2010 we simultaneously welcomed billions of international eyes from all corners of the globe while also scarring countless foreign ears for life. Perhaps this is why the Vuvuzela only has one singular reference to date:
“My dressing room has regular potato chips, but my contract specifically stated half regular, half ruffled!
Krusty, please Forget it!
Forget it! The gig’s off! I ain’t gonna play Sun City.
Vuvuzela me out of here.
(vuvuzelas blowing) Three days later, South Africa freed Nelson Mandela from prison.
Krusty the Klown, your selfishness has saved the world.
-Simpsons S22e01 2010
That’s All Folks
So there you are.
Now we know that according to Hollywood, South Africa is a country renowned for its racism as much as for its really expensive rocks; as famous for its historical system of segregation as it is for producing the great man who defeated it; where warlocks and witchcraft co-exist with international mini-golf tournaments and snooty accents; and South Africa is home to the most villainous of international criminals as well as the most secretive of international spooks.
Truly it must come across as a fascinating and contradictory country for the average foreign viewer.
But then again, that’s South Africa for you – interesting, contradictory and a little bit funny at times
Here are some more of my favourite quotes from the archive:
“I’m guessing South Africa?
Oh, you’ve got a good ear. Most Americans think I’m, uh, Australian.
Immediately go to the “shrimp on the Barbie” thing.”
-Grimm s02e15 2013
“I’ve been in jail longer than
Nelson Mandela, so maybe you
want me to run for president.”
– The Rock, 1996
“ But in South Africa, the Earth’s crust is older than in most other places, so it’s had more time to cool. “
– Journey to the Center of the Earth 2012
“This is because I am half Australian…
…half Mount Everest.
So this is what you’re hearing.
it must be really nice there…
…since they got rid of the apartheid.
Oh, yes, the weather is much cooler.”
– Don’t mess with the Zohan 2008
“Mouth on that kid makes Mel Gibson sound like Nelson Mandela.”
– House M.D. s07e15 2011
“And as for you, like Nelson Mandela, I bear no ill feeling or rancour to my captors.”
– My Family s10e06 2010
“Yeah, we kept drinking and tried to think of just two people who’d made it past 30.
You know, who’d gotten their dream later in life.
And all we could come up with was Nelson Mandela and Danny Aiello.”
– Nip/Tuck s02e01 2004
“You’re gonna be changing diapers covered in spit-up.
All right? You’re not gonna have sex for a long, long, long, long time.
– No “Hide the Penny”? – No.
– No “Me Girl, You Boy”? – No.
– No “Dirty Zulu Warrior”? – No.
And that one’s racist.”
– Scrubs s09e09 2010
“Every famous nigga that gets arrested is not Nelson Mandela! Yes, the government conspires to put a lot of innocent black men in jail on fallacious charges, but R.Kelly is not one of those men!”
– Boondocks, s01e02 2005
“If the Zulu’s had called Michael Caine a naughty man He would have laughed so hard he would have irrigated the veldt.”
– Thin Blue Line s02e05 1996
The current archive consists of only about 250 references from some of the most popular international movies and series and is meant as a starting sample group of references and is by no means exhaustive.
The following criteria was selected for references to be included in the starting sample (these will become less restricted as the archive grows):
- Cannot be a South African produced movie or series
- It has from a movie or series where the primary focus is not South Africa – hence no Invictus or District 9
- Has too be english language
- Has to be from a popular movie or series (currently based only on those that I have heard of)
- Cannot be from a documentary or real life show such as Top Gear
Most of the reference were taken from extensive combing of a great website called springfieldspringfield.co.uk, which has an very large library of transcripts from the most popular international movies and series.