Cinema that cut through the divides of apartheid
Kismet’s history highlights Cape Town move to find ways of integrating city still held apart by apartheid
Six decades ago, Shiba Patel, who had immigrated to SA from Gujarat, India, about 20 years before, opened the Kismet cinema in Athlone, Cape Town. It was a vibrant, mixed area about 10km from the city centre. Patel and his family lived on George Street, near the Kismet and a café he owned. His neighbours were black African, coloured, and white.
The cinema was the biggest of three in the area. It seated more than 1,300 people and was hailed by a newspaper at the time as the first "luxury cinema in a coloured township".
The Kismet soon became a centre of Athlone life, attracting people from around the Cape Flats, including the townships of Langa and Gugulethu.
The cinema usually showed double features on a Friday night — the late show ended at 4am and people walked home to the townships afterwards. Locals pronounced them "double futures", says Premesh Lalu, a history professor at the University of the Western Cape and a former student activist in Athlone, who has researched its cultural history.
"Athlone was a space that cut through many of the group areas divides," he says. "That little CBD was a hive of activity, partly because it was a transport nexus and because the offices of major trade unions were there." These were the General Workers Union, which organised mainly African migrant workers, and the Cape Town Municipal Workers Association, both of which played a major role in the formation of Cosatu. "But it was the cinema that was a place of great importance," Lalu says.
It was a classic "crossover" area even in the face of relentless apartheid legislation.
He is a participant in a year-long workshop run by Edgar Pieterse, head of the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities, that is involving policy makers, civil society activists and researchers to find ways to integrate the city.
"We have overstated the narratives of the divided city," he says. "I’m not making light of the legacies of apartheid. But if you narrate the city only along these lines, you do so in relation to a narrative given by the [apartheid] state. What is missing is Cape Town’s history of aesthetic sensibilities," Lalu says.
Yet it is hard to ignore apartheid’s massive footprint. Shiba’s son, Kantie Patel, recalls how, three years after the Kismet opened, George Street was torn apart by the Group Areas Act.
His family had to move to Ryland’s Estate, an "Indian" area, the African family on the street had to move to Langa and the white family to a nearby suburb. Patel senior had to get a permit to operate his cinema.
Patel senior had paid for the cinema with money he had made from his café, but he had to nominate an "agent" to run it after the Group Areas Act hit.
Kantie Patel, who began working in the Kismet as a "tray boy" selling ice cream, chips and peanuts, remembers how government censors classified films by race and age. Those rated A were suitable for everyone, B for whites only, and C meant "no 4-12 and no Bantu".
We as cinema owners took it up with the film company. We said, you’re promoting a movie, and our people can’t enter the competition. And then we boycotted the film
"So, if you were a 13-year-old coloured or Indian you could go see the movie … but a 25-year-old African man could not. And that was one of the things that woke me up," he says.
In 1968, the Kismet screened a double feature of I Want to Live with Susan Hayward, and the spaghetti western Train for Durango. When Patel arrived there after school, "I saw blacks in the foyer and cops in their blue uniforms, carrying canes. The cashier was paying people out." I Want to Live, a film about a white woman sentenced to death, had been deemed not suitable for black people. The Kismet had to refund their black customers and was fined R300, a sizeable amount in 1968.
Another genre frequently restricted were "kung fu" films "because of the violence … and because of this connotation of it being Chinese", Patel says.
The purveyors of cultural sensibility at the government censors allowed "strongman stuff" such as Sampson and Hercules, and biblical movies: Ten Commandments, Ben Hur and Sodom and Gomorrah. "Those made a lot of money," he adds.
A new era was heralded with South African films such as uDeliwe, which starred Simon Sabela, Cynthia Shange and gave the legendary late Joe Mafela his first big break; and later, the classic tearjerker eLollipop. Such films were "a troubling assemblage of productive sadness", Lalu writes in an academic article. eLollipop, directed by Andre Pieterse, "made us an absolute fortune", says Patel. It starred Noman Knox and Muntu Ndebele, child stars who played two friends across the racial divide at the height of apartheid. The politics of the cinema was almost subterranean until that point. But an unlikely film brought it into the open. Saturday Night Fever, the classic disco film, was released in 1978 — the same year the Patels opened the Galaxy nightclub in Rylands.
Until then, "nonwhite" cinemas had to wait for films until after they’d been shown on the "white" circuit. But Saturday Night Fever marked a transition. The distributors had organised a disco dancing competition at a Sea Point club, open only to whites. "Some coloured people tried to enter the competition and they couldn’t," Patel says.
"We as cinema owners took it up with the film company. We said, you’re promoting a movie, and our people can’t enter the competition. And then we boycotted the film."
The boycott made international headlines.
Patel told the distributors that Americans were treating black South Africans the same as the apartheid government; it was unfair and they needed to change their policy.
Shaken, the distributors did so. But Patel never screened Saturday Night Fever.
In the 1980s, the Kismet and the Galaxy became venues for political rallies. One Sunday, the entire cinema was draped with the red insignia of the South African Communist Party. Patel was not there, but the security police summoned him the following week and accused him of "promoting communism".
He explained the cinema business was "quiet" then. "I just hire out the venue, I’m in business. They said, ‘you must be careful what you do. The next time, we’ll lock you up’."
The Kismet was also a venue for the world-class musicians Cape Town produced: Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Dollar Brand, who became Abdullah Ibrahim, Basil Coetzee, Robbie Jansen and Jonathan Butler, who was born in Belgravia, around the corner from the Kismet.
Two decades after the end of apartheid, Patel still runs the Galaxy nightclub and the office centre where the Kismet once stood. Lalu, whose family moved from Wynberg to Athlone because of the Group Areas Act, is at the forefront of a battle of remembrance to honour art, music and cinema in the "crossover" spaces of Cape Town. "We’ve overstated this narrative of the divided city, and in the process, we’ve forgotten that there was a dimension of an aesthetic education … that presented those places with horizons beyond apartheid."
One way of connecting the city without building new infrastructure is to emulate a Mexican project, the Digital Cultural Centre, a physical and virtual space that connects citizens, he says.
Lalu’s Centre for Humanities Research will host a special exhibition of art, installations and a digital platform at the Castle in Cape Town in August called Athlone in Mind.
The point, he says, is to look at public spaces in Athlone not only as "sites of atrocity" or of underdevelopment, but "rather as a space of imagination, ideas and dreams".