/ 4 February 2024

The essence of a nation being born

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It is an unexpected and poignant moment in our telephonic interview. “This was definitely a tough one for me to play,” actor Kwenzo Ngcobo says, as his tone dips.

The 32-year-old is talking about his lead role in Ochre Moving Pictures’ new action-drama/political thriller series on Netflix Soon Comes Night. In it, he plays Alex Shabane, a tough former freedom fighter. 

The hyper-realistic Soon Comes Night is as violent as the time it was set in — 1990s South Africa.

I can hear that Ngcobo is searching for the right words to express what he is feeling. 

“While we were shooting the show, my dad passed away.” 

I give him a moment and he continues: “It was very difficult to play these emotions, especially the killing scenes, because he was also shot. 

“I did not want to think about what happened; I managed to close it off,” he says softly.

All the emotions were present on screen. Ngcobo’s Alex — a former freedom fighter returning to a land in the throes of transformation — uses all the pain he felt. 

He discovers a bitter reality where the spoils of war have been claimed by his political comrades, leaving him with the remnants of their promises. 

He turns to doing things his way — through the barrel of a gun.

Assigned to the case of catching Shabane is Detective Sakkie Oosthuizen, a former apartheid policeman now working for his previous adversaries. 

Oosthuizen, once an elite cop, is a shadow of his former self, broken by personal tragedy and a life dedicated to ideologies that have eluded him.

In the intricate dance between Shabane and Oosthuizen, Soon Comes Night encapsulates the complexity of a nation grappling with its past, forging a path towards an uncertain future. 

Shabane’s is the story of many of the freedom fighters who made sacrifices for South Africa to be free of the oppression of the apartheid government yet have been forgotten and are unsung heroes in the eyes of their families.

Ilse van Hemert, who is one of the producers of the six-part series, says it is based on a real-life character, which is one of the reasons why it is so quintessentially South African. 

It also was an obvious choice to use local actors. 

“For this particular story, there was no way we could use anyone who was not from South Africa because this story is so rooted in South Africa,” Van Hemert says. 

In a film industry feeling the pressure of a waning economy, they had to cut to the proverbial chase. 

“We shot for eight weeks and the postproduction period was much longer — it took about nine months,” she says. 

The series captures the era so well through beautiful, clean colour grading, wardrobe, as well as the hair and make-up. 

Van Hemert says going back to that time for the series was a challenge.

“So much of the story takes place outside, on roads, and it costs the earth to close down roads and fill them with period cars, so we had to be as clever as possible about when we see roads and to show people travelling without showing what cars they were using,” she says. 

Homes were less of a problem because there are many in the townships that have not been renovated and still reflect those times.

In the first episode, there is a wide-angle shot of the street where Shabane lives. It is indicative of how most townships are still set up — a street of four-room brick homes with one or two modern ones.

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Ngcobo says that preparing for the role of Alex meant channelling people who he thought carried his energy and swag. 

“The first person I looked at and read about was [slain liberation hero] Chris Hani. 

“I felt I had to channel his spirit often when playing this role. I also watched a lot of Sophiatown videos. 

“The most important reference was of my older brother, who wore clothes like Shabane and has a similar hairstyle, so he was also an inspiration to some degree,” Ngcobo says.  

He sees quite a bit of himself in Alex, a man who has a fighting spirit and who longs for the next chapter in his life — whatever that might be.

Van Hemert says the series was five years in the making in total. 

“We struggled to get funding from the department of trade and industry, like many companies, so we had to really work through all those challenges,” she says. 

The series carries proudly South African vibes throughout the soundtrack of carefully curated songs, transporting you straight to a time where South Africa was in a transitional period and kwaito was part and parcel of it.  

Van Hemert says they had almost been persuaded to set the series in the present.

“Kwaito musicians were quite revered and people thrive off that kind of nostalgia. We had to keep it to the original period because the one thing we got is music, so we put a budget aside for the soundtrack,” she says. 

In the end, they were able to get 10 songs written for the series. 

“That’s good enough but, if budget had allowed, we would have had three original kwaito songs per episode,” she says. 

What does Van Hemert think viewers will feel as they watch the series?

“I hope they are forgiving of the things we could not achieve but celebrate what we were able to achieve which is to bring them a rich story which could only have happened in this country. 

“I hope they are moved and not just entertained. 

“I hope they get insight on how complicated it is to be South African today,” the producer says.