Let women lead! Let women be free!

Gracetown 1955 South Africa, 30-year-old theology student and widow Nozizwe, a woman whose desire is to become a priest in the Methodist church, however the sabotage of her leader Mr Mvelase shutters her dream. Left with nothing to lose, her community throws her into leading them against the forced removals of the apartheid government.

The film opens with a high angle shot of our protagonist ( a leading/ starring character in a film or series), Nozizwe washing blood off her hands in a bowl of water. A candlelit on old furniture; softly crying she says, “Lord how did we get here?”- underneath sorrowful horn instrumentation by Neil Solomon. 

Walking out of her home, Nozizwe wears a red and white Methodist church uniform cheerful to see her friend and they walk together to their theology class. Red represents the blood of Jesus but also in the film, it represents the blood that will be on Nozizwe. The colour red is dominant throughout the film, further representing the danger that is always ahead. 

The church is established on a high angle shot, this shot is frequent in the film as it represents a higher power watching over the people’s deeds. In Joko Ya Hao, the higher power is God. The high angle reveals Nozizwe and her friend being the only two women in a room full of men. As Mr Mvelase puts his coffee cup down, the horn stops playing indicating that what is about to be said requires our full attention, “the church is being evicted” said Mr Mvelase.  

Mr Mvelase quickly shuts Nozizwe down as she attempts to offer up a solution,  “A woman must know her place” Mr Mvelase exclaims.

The shame is not only in discriminating against Nozizwe’s gender but also in the oppression of another Black person. Her first character binary of conforming is established as she does what she is told, she shuts up. Mr Mvelase aggressively tosses the two women’s theology portfolios to the side as they submit them another “power move” to remind the women of “their place” – clearly upholding patriarchy. The high camera angle at this moment represents God’s eye.

The historical, award-winning drama short film Joko Ya Hao (2020) demonstrates the hardship of a compassionate vocal Black woman living in an apartheid system. Not only is she antagonized by the injustices of apartheid, but she also has to endure the injustices of being a woman.

Soon after, we are taken to the Methodist church, the only place that seems to offer a safe space to express joy through song. A reality that was soon tarnished by that callus entrance of police officers reminding the congregants of the imminent eviction. With a heavy heart, Noziziwe points out the fact that the police officers were allowing the white oppressors to use them against their people and to destroy the only space that supported their hope.

Nozizwe and Yeni are both theology students and seem to always glance at each other every chance they get. However, deeply she may feel for Yeni her purpose to fulfill her goal of becoming a lay priest outweighs her feelings for Yeni and she declines his marriage proposal; she would rather miss out on being happy with a man than be trapped in a patriarchal system that will only restrict her to just being under his shadow. 

As she dodges the bullet, we are taken to a scene of Mr Mvelesa replacing Nozizwe’s name with Samson’s name – officially sabotaging and killing her dream of becoming a leader in the church. The camera tracks from behind him to a high angle shot, reminding us that God is watching all our deeds.

Nozizwe’s friend, Yeni and a few other community members ask her to be their leader, protesting against the Areas Group Act (1950). Nozizwe is hesitant: “I am not a leader,” she says. After some convincing, she finally agrees. This is an important moment for us to see her gain some confidence. She is ready to fight against the injustices of those who oppress her and her people. 

“Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”- 1 Peter 2: 7. What the apartheid government and Mr Mvelase underestimated is the power of righteously angry Black woman, and the power of a community uniting in the war for their freedom. As Nozizwe was appointed to lead them against the forced removals of the Areas Group Act (1950), Mr Mvelase does everything in his power to frustrate and disrupt their movement. A medium close up shot on Mr Mvelase as the white officer places a photo of a member of Noziziwe’s team next to his face, while his hand pretends to shoot and he exclaims “shoot him dead” in Afrikaans – Mr Mvelase is essentially killing himself.

After all the chaos of the police shootings, the pacing of the film is slow, and the horn is back to heighten the sorrow, Nozizwe is crying, her hands filled with blood, now we know more about the establishing shot in the beginning as Mmabatho cuts back to it “if it is your will, let it be done”. The pacing and the horn continue as the community walks to the church with the caskets. Nozizwe’s character has now arched, and she refuses to conform. We see a clear example of this when she is stopped by police officers and Mr Mvelase at the door of the church and Nozizwe boldly steps forward and forcefully goes inside the church for the burial of her two friends.

Neil Solomon plays hymns with the horn throughout the film, nostalgically taking me back to some of my favourite moments with my late grandmother, laying in bed and singing to me her favourite hymn “thato ya hao( your will)”, this was the last year I saw her.

As the night falls, a White officer arrives at Noziwe’s home, rushes her out and whips her till she bleeds. While the other officer sings “Amagugu alelizwe ayosal’ emathuneni (all the precious treasures of this world will remain in the grave).” I think Mmabatho used this hymn to imply that our true South African heroes remain dead while we are left with deficiency.  

Joko Ya Hao is a film inspired by the late icon activist Winnie Madikizila Mandela, portrayed by Simphiwe Dana. A compassionate, non-conforming, vocal and very active freedom fighter, just like Winnie, Nozizwe carried the yoke of human oppression and chose to lead her community to fight for freedom. The constant statement that Nozizwe makes is, “we all have a load to bear, what matters is how we carry it”. Every generation bears a yoke, and as a young black woman today, unfortunately, I still bear the yoke of the injustices Winnie Mandela carried. 

Although they fought away the guns and unfair apartheid laws, In 2022 I still experience racism, patriarchy,  gender-based violence, marginalisation from the economy, and no greater representation of women in Parliament and corporate. This made me question the title I was given, ‘born free’, and also made me question, how am I carrying my yoke? How are you carrying your yoke?