Ode to all the Poppies in our midst

QUIET protests in a time of conviction: Poppie Nongena (Clementine Mosimane) encounters the women of the Black Sash. Photograph courtesy

CLEMENTINA MOSIMANE SHIMMERS with magnetism in Poppie Nongena, Christiaan Olwagen’s beautiful and rich translation of arguably one of South African literature’s more important novels. Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena was crafted by Elsa Joubert in 1978, and in bringing to life a character who becomes an evergreen black South African woman under apartheid, the novel spawned several stage productions and a radio drama version. Offering just a slice of the tale of an ordinary woman downtrodden but not beaten by the system of apartheid, this refined and oft difficult to watch period piece will leave you feeling both bruised and rewarded. It is available on Showmax.

Like its radio counterpart, directed by the inimitable Margot Luyt and broadcast on Radio Sonder Grense in 2012, the work focuses on the climax of the novel in the torrid 1970s which sees Poppie, a domestic maid in suburban Cape Town, coming face to face with the terrible notion of being a foreigner in her own town and being forcibly removed from her husband and children and employer by a whim of the apartheid legislation and the appalling pass laws.

Evoking Jean van de Velde’s An Act of Defiance, the work gives you a sense of the turquoise tinctured times of the 1970s (tinctured thus by photographic chemicals and technology of the era), when blatant discrimination was de rigueur and the cruelty of the system was brainwashed into the thinking of the youth, enabling them to arbitrarily humiliate a woman old enough to be their mother. Because they could. It’s a horrendous tale of the iron arm of a bewilderingly hateful bureaucracy, and the love a woman could still hold for a child, a grandchild, a child of the community.

Bringing in some of South Africa’s top performers, including Anna-Mart van der Merwe, Sindiwe Magona and Nomsa Nene, the work is unequivocal in the racial positions it articulates, but it is Mosimane’s presence which lends it the grit and fierceness that keeps it human. Not only is Poppie a maid. She is also a mother and a wife, a daughter and a friend. There is a blurring of narrative that offers a moment of reaching out to the ancestors in a structural ambiguity making it not clear as to whether Poppie is dreaming or experiencing this otherworldly experience. This lends an understanding of the criss-crossing of church and spiritual values that underplay, but are subject to, apartheid violence. And arrogance.

Everything from the Black Sash women to the maid’s well-intentioned madam (van der Merwe) and her husband (Dawid Minnaar) who is caught in his own web of job responsibility and officialdom, from the empathetic white social worker, Mrs Retief (Nicole Holm) to the intersecting layers of township life, are handled with a careful eye and an astute sense of history. The costumes are beautiful in their sense of aesthetics, their appropriateness and the way in which elegance was a front for terrible discrimination.

It’s a work that will leave you bruised because of its unequivocal exposure of an appalling set of values, but one which will uplift you in terms of what it offers and shows by way of bringing an historical text to relatable life, giving muscularity to an understanding of a tough iconic woman with shoulders broad enough to carry many. As you step back from this film, you remember that still, almost three decades into democracy, there remain many ‘Poppies’ in our midst, holding the tough threads of lives together with intimate domestic chores of those better off as their currency.

  • Poppie Nongena (2019) is directed by Christiaan Olwagen and features a cast headed by Kathryn Beulah, Susan Danford, Chris Gxalaba, Nicole Holm, Sindiwe Magona, Rolanda Marais, Dawid Minnaar, Letlotlo Zimkhitha Mohlabeng, Clementine Mosimane, Deon Nebulane, Nomsa Nene, Thembalethu Ntuli, De Klerk Oelofse, Cintaine Schutte, Aphiwe Sithole and Anna-Mart van der Merwe. Written by Saartjie Botha and Christiaan Olwagen, based on Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena by Elsa Joubert, it is produced by Helena Spring, and features creative input by Vicci Turpin (cinematography), Eva Du Preez (editing), Quinton Lavery, Tracey Lund, Christa Schamberg and Karin van der Laag (casting), Birrie le Roux and Surisa Surisa (production design) and Sylvia van Heerden (costumes). It is available on ShowMax.  

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