Fifty years ago, Zulu premiered in London. A jingoistic portrayal of the 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift, when 150 British soldiers held off 4,000 Zulu warriors, the film has become a classic for many patriotic Britons who take delight in its portrayal of military bravery. Yet others find the film racist and offensive. Next month, a UK charity is hosting a gala event to mark the film’s 50th anniversary. This Is Africa spoke to Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a veteran South African politician and Zulu leader who acted in the film, about the occasion.
TIA: Many people don’t know that you were an actor. Was Zulu your only film?
MB: It was my first film, but I worked on others. Cy Enfield and Stanley Baker (the director and producer) needed extras to shoot the battle scenes, and so they approached me, as a Zulu leader, for help. When Enfield saw me he noticed my resemblance to King Cetshwayo, my great-grandfather who was portrayed in the film, and he persuaded me to play the role. It all happened very quickly. Later on I acted in the film Tokoloshe (1965) and assisted with the BBC documentary Black As Hell, Thick As Grass (1979).
TIA: Did acting influence your political career?
MB: I was involved in politics long before I did any acting, and I don’t think people treated me any differently afterwards. It didn’t have much effect.
TIA: Were you paid for your performance in Zulu?
MB: Yes, but not very much. It wasn’t a film star fee. I was only on set for two weeks.
TIA: And did you get to watch it when it was finished?
MB: Censorship was terrible in South Africa, and the film, which showed white and black people fighting and killing each other, was banned for black audiences. The government had this silly attitude that the scenes of blacks killing whites would incite people to violence. But we requested permission for the Zulu extras who participated to see the film, and so a few special screenings were organised in Durban and some smaller KwaZulu towns.
TIA: Many people have criticised the film for glorifying the British Empire, and for celebrating its military conquests in a racist way. Do you feel that it’s appropriate to be celebrating its 50th anniversary?
MB: I’m a historian, and I take the film to be a record of history. I don’t think that you repeat the past by showing the history of a country and its people. And I don’t think that the film glorifies anything: later on, Zulu Dawn (the sequel) showed the victory of the Zulu people over the British. So I don’t see things that way.
TIA: But that’s interesting, because Zulu Dawn wasn’t nearly as successful as the first film.
MB: It wasn’t as successful as Zulu, definitely not.
TIA: What are your thoughts of the film’s portrayal of Zulu people, and of Africa and Africans in general?
MB: The film told things how they were. My only problem was this: my late mother was still alive in 1963, and she was invited to teach some of our traditional songs to the actors, because those older songs weren’t in use anymore. But later the director changed his mind and used contemporary Zulu songs instead, because he preferred the way they sounded. I wrote a letter at the time expressing my disquiet, because that wasn’t accurate. That was the only exception I took to the film.
TIA: There are many reports of the film’s British producers being ‘horrified’ by the racism they encountered in South Africa. What was your experience of working with them?
MB: Working with them (as white people) felt normal, and that was unusual. It was my first experience of that, as well as for the rural people who participated as extras. It was a unique experience for us. We were treated completely differently to what was normal in apartheid South Africa at the time.
TIA: Is it ironic, then, that the film ended up glorifying Britain’s colonial conquest?
MB: That’s an interpretation of the film I don’t agree with. I’ve already explained that. I just see the film as part of our history. In fact, the filmmakers said they wanted to portray bravery on both sides, Zulu and British.
TIA: You played your own great grandfather, King Cetshwayo kaMpande, in the film, and yet you weren’t allowed to attend the premiere due to apartheid restrictions. Will you attend the 50th anniversary screening in London next month?
MB: I wasn’t allowed to go to white cinemas. Like I said, we had to watch the film at special screenings. I hope that I can attend in June, but I’m not sure yet.
TIA: How does knowing that 50 years have passed make you feel?
MB: Nostalgic, that’s all.
TIA: A Zulu choir will be singing at the event. Do you feel there is a risk of perpetuating narrow stereotypes about what Africans are, and how they behave?
MB: This film is about a specific people in a specific country at a specific time. So I don’t think there’s a danger of that. What’s wrong with portraying an aspect of African culture? I see no problem.
TIA: The anniversary screening has been organised in support of Walking With The Wounded, a charity that supports injured ex-soldiers. Do you see a difference between the wars they are fighting today—in the Middle East, for example—and the colonial wars that Zulu depicts?
MB: The theme linking wars that were happening then and now is greed. Human greed. If people are prompted by getting oil or power now, then to me that’s comparable to colonialism and motivated by the same human instinct of greed.
TIA: Do you feel like South Africa is free from its colonial legacy? Do you think this country is still being exploited?
MB: While we now have our freedom, I don’t think that all the problems created by colonialism have been disposed of. There is the issue of land, for instance, which looms very large and could be the cause of big future conflicts, as we have seen in Zimbabwe already.
TIA: What lessons can we learn from the film today?
MB: It’s like the comparison you just made between wars happening then and now: human nature has not changed, and human beings have the same instincts to grab from the weak to become strong.
TIA: I have one last question. Zulu: 50th Anniversary Edition is currently available on Blu-ray. Do you imagine many Zulus will buy the film, or are they likely to find it offensive?
MB: I can’t speak for the Zulu people today, but at the time the film was made many of our people participated, and there was no flack about that. I don’t know how people will feel about it now.
The 50th anniversary premiere, which will raise funds for Walking With The Wounded, The David Rattray Memorial Trust and Sentebale, takes place in London on 10 June. For more information visit www.zulu50.com.