Lives apart: A scene from the six-part South African series Soon Comes Night, which follows the story of former freedom fighter Alex Shabane, who has turned to a life of crime, and Sakkie Oosthuizen, the detective charged with hunting him down.
Although set in the post-liberation 1990s, the recent Netflix addition Soon Comes Night explores critical socio-economic issues South Africans still battle with.
Exactly 30 years later, the economic emancipation promised to the previously disadvantaged is marginal. Fees Must Fall, the unrest in July 2021 and the hundreds of service delivery protests sprouting all over the country are evidence of this discontentment.
Produced by Ochre Moving Pictures, and inspired by actual events, this six-part political series is about liberation and redemption.
Freedom fighter-turned-heist-king Alex Shabane (Kwenzo Ngcobo) seeks economic liberation for his people and himself. For Sakkie Oosthuizen (Albert Pretorius) — the dejected detective assigned to catch Alex — it is to find healing from old apartheid tenets and grief.
Both these men see themselves fighting for a righteous cause.
We are taken on a captivating cinematic voyage following these two similar, yet different, men battling with their demons after being betrayed by their seniors.
The recycling of some of the same old faces, a bit of overacting and questionable weapons handling by a few actors doesn’t detract from the stellar cast.
Kenneth Nkosi plays Minister Zungu, a former senior commander in the liberation camps who is now in government; Sisanda Henna plays Mpiyakhe Maseko, the minister’s right-hand man. Didintle Khunou portrays Thato Sekoati, a new police officer with a master’s in criminology, working alongside Sakkie.
Terry Pheto as the casting director complements Thabang Moleya and Sanele Zulu’s direction in showcasing local brilliance. The casting of younger characters in the 1990s and older characters in 2000 timelines was also well aligned.
Undeniably, the brightest star of the series is Ngcobo, who embodies Alex’s character well. From the first episode, we are introduced to a mountain of a man robbing a cash-in-transit vehicle with his ferocious crew.
Short-sleeved summer shirts, high-waisted pants and gold jewellery are his trademark dress code, reminiscent of Wesley Snipes as Nino Brown in 1991’s New Jack City.
Alex is theatrical and flamboyant. He robs from the capitalist system and gives to the disadvantaged. However, we wonder if his generosity is rooted in serving others or a self-serving project.
Alex and his crew are a representation of the discontented comrades, promised “spoils of war” that failed to materialise, who turn to crime. They are the township Robin Hoods trying to balance the economic scale on the other side of the rainbow.
Behind the cigarette smoke and menacing eyes, we wonder what will fill Alex’s endless craving for money. “More, isn’t enough!” is his stance when challenged by crew member Maskow (Mavuso Simelane).
Also a disappointed comrade, Maskow, however, is no raging bull in a china shop. He can tap into his emotional intelligence; a disciplined man who knows his place and limits.
Childhood girlfriend Lesedi (Gaosi Raditholo) also questions Alex’s rationale as a man and father: “You are no father. You are a man who kills other children’s fathers.”
Apart from the many medications hidden in his white plastic bag, Sakkie is carrying a lot. Grief, loneliness and the guilt arising from his manipulative superiors haunt his nights.
Ultimately, both these men are like broken boys who need safe spaces to offload — or even just a hug to begin to heal their hollowed-out hearts.
The swinging between the 1990s and 2000s time periods can be confusing but the story eventually comes together. These timelines offer a conversation between the older and younger generation — the liberators and liberated — on the trajectory toward a democratic country.
Through Alex, Minister Zungu and other comrades, the series focuses on the hurdles they must overcome to go from wartime guerrillas to public and private workers in civilian life.
Sakkie highlights the battles of former apartheid cops transitioning to a new, supposedly human-centric, police service.
It is the traumatic struggles of that generation that the younger generation might take for granted.
Soon Comes Night is a teaching moment for all South Africans. As painful as poking the wounds might be, having such inter-generational conversations could lead to better understanding, empathy and social cohesion. It could bring that despondent parent and unemployed graduate a bit closer in that they are fighting similar struggles.
Sympathy can be granted but only after contending with the notion of accountability.
For Sakkie, we question if “back in the day” justifications by former apartheid cops is enough accountability. Or if “a man needs to be rewarded for his hard work” arguments by former comrades justifies their corruption. It is this moral conundrum that adds an emotive and thought-provoking layer to the series beyond the guns and brawn.
The series showcases a South Africa still trying to find its footing.
The internationally influenced fashion, cars and other forms of materialism were symbols of success for the growing black middle class post-1994.
Mandoza, Trompies, and Skwatta Kamp were the sounds that captured those times. This nostalgic soundtrack was compiled by Kwelagobe Sekele, as music supervisor, added to with the overall score by Joel Assaizky.
The script — which is largely in English with textures of Zulu, Afrikaans and Sesotho — gives us an untainted South African series but with global appeal.
Soon Comes Night is a pulsating political thriller, with complex characters and timely themes which force the viewer to think about morality, redemption and the status quo in our country.
For the majority of South Africans, however, it could be a stark reminder of how things haven’t entirely changed for the better. If the voices of the electorate are muted, more artists are set to beam and stream our unsettling socio-political dynamics.
And, if the ruling party claims its triumphs in this election year, but the populace laments its failures, will we see more of the Alex Shabanes of our society — not only on the TV screens, but in real life too?
Soon Comes Night, distributed internationally by Red Arrow Studios, will air on SABC1 in 2025.