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The jobless laugh, limp and die the American way

The Good Hope and the Rio bioscopes in Johannesburg are cinemas with a difference. They are homes for the hundreds of thousands of unemployed blacks in and around the metropolis. The jobless arrive at the cinemas in their hundreds from as early as 10am each day. They remain there until 2pm, when they give way to the next shift. Once these have left, many more arrive at seven in the evening and remain till10.30pm. 

The patrons arc part of an estimated six million unemployed men and women in South Africa. Many have not worked for as long as four years, while others have been doing temporary or casual jobs in South Africa’s largest city. Patrons pay an admission fee of R1,20 for any one of the three sessions, compared to the R7 or more a film costs at luxury houses like Ster Kinekor. The Good Hope and the Rio were opened in the 1950s and 1940s respectively and have maintained their structures ever since only visible transformation was made to the Rio 36 years ago, when the leather scats were re-upholstered. 

In the 1950s, the cinemas were popular among blacks for their colourful character.  The films shown at these venues o a large extent influenced our culture. American ideology had a monopoly. Movies such as The Street With No Name and Roadhouse, which were once banned in this land, had an impact on the youth. Many fellows imitated the gangster characters in the films. Gangs mushroomed in black townships, resulting in many people going to jail. Popular gangs in Johannesburg were the Sophiatown-based Americans and the Spoilers of Alexandra. 

The films also influenced our language and style of dress. Township folk used to twang in American slang, I was among the snobs who aped the Americans. We dressed, cheated, laughed, cried and died like Americans. I once thought laughing like an American was laughing like God. I recall the day during my teens when we viewed an American western. Our hero was shot in a gun battle. He escaped and limped, and we limped all the way home. It was the influence of American movies that made me join the league of trendy dressers who bought rejects from Johannesburg stockists of American clothes such as American Showroom and B Kruger. We were label crazy: shoes had to be Stetsons or Florsheims and suits had to be tailored by Daroff. 

The Rio staged live performances as well as film shows. Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz and Variety Show was a box office smasher. The cinema was the home of the Manhattan Brothers, African Inkspots, the Harlem Brothers and songbirds Dolly Rathebe and Miriam Makeba, among others. I revisited the cinemas this week for the first time in many decades. I paid my fee and look a scat two metres from the screen in the front row in the packed Good Hope cinema. My neck was in pain and my sight was blurred as I looked up at the screen. Could the old cinema, like good wine, have matured with the passage of time? I inquired inwardly, Every scat inside the Good Hope was in shreds. 

A co-manager at the Good Hope said of the standards at the cinema: ”If we raise the standards we’d have to raise the fee, and it’ll be the end of entertainment for the unemployed.” Patrons were cheering aloud at their hero: Rambo, the lighting machine, acted by Sylvester Stallone, They laughed aloud when they mistakenly thought one of the characters in the movies was called Msuthu (an African name). The moviegoers were mostly job-seekers. They believed going to the cinema was a better pastime that drowning their sorrows in liquor. Some of the patrons, who worked night shifts, found in convenient to kill time in cinemas before returning to the townships or going to work.

Conditions at the Rio were slightly better, but the films are also largely about violence. Showing shortly at Good Hope are films like Update with Stallone and Hit List. On Wednesday patrons viewed The Destroyer, paired with a Kung Fu film Against the Drunken Cat Paws. Said the manager of the Rio, Les Lund, of the selection of violent films: ”We once introduced soapies and other love stories, and the patrons complained, while others disappeared. We reverted to violence and we got full houses. ”In the 1950s we used to screen The Life of Christ for a whole week and we packed the place, but not these days. I suppose politics have changed the minds of the people.”

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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