Lionel Ngakane was a filmmaker, a writer, a director, an advocate and a political activist. Ngakane served South Africa during the apartheid era outside the country, by contributing to the advancement of Black filmmaking, and after apartheid he continued that legacy within South Africa as he sought to establish a new cinema industry there. During his life Ngakane sought to expose the injustices of apartheid through his film. He additionally sought to shed light on the injustices of man against man in other countries as well.


Lionel Ngakane, Artist in Exile, Film and Cinema, apartheid, Pan African Filmmakers Association (FEPACI), Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), Cry, the Beloved Country

Figure 1: Lionel Ngakane. Image source

One of the most important figures in South African cinema was Lionel Ngakane. He worked tirelessly throughout his life to develop meaningful cinema to expose the injustices of apartheid and man against man, resulting in films that helped spark action against the apartheid government in South Africa and questioned the rationality behind racism in England. Lionel Ngakane was a writer, actor, director, and pioneer in establishing Black African film and connecting those in European film-making to Africa, thus igniting the African film industry with his connections and films.

Ngakane was born to teachers on 17 July 1928 in Pretoria, South Africa and lived there until he was eight years old.[i] From a very young age, he wanted to be a medical doctor.[ii] Then his parents moved Lionel, and his brother Pascal, and four of their siblings to the Sophiatown neighborhood in Johannesburg. Lionel’s father set up a hostel with Alan Paton, writer of Cry, The Beloved Country (1951), a novel that was subsequently made into a film that Ngakane would star in. While in the same area as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, and other future leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, Ngakane joined the African National Congress (ANC) movement at a young age. Shortly after joining the ANC he became the Chairman of the ANC Youth League of Orlando Soweto.[iii]

During this early time with the ANC Ngakane became truly inspired and infatuated with film. It started when, at the age of seven, Lionel saw his first film. His father recognized Lionel’s great interest and brought home a 35mm projector. It was a present for Lionel, and he took a great liking to it. He would collect strips of film as he could and would look at them with the projector. This hobby caused a small fire in the projector one day, but it would not stop Lionel from pursuing his passion. Although he could project film in the house, at the age of ten, Lionel started helping organizers of a monthly open-air cinema set up.

Ngakane entered college at Fort Hare University and completed his degrees at the University of Witwatersrand.[iv] While at these schools, he would study political philosophy, geography, and native administration (colonial and Black South African administration). Although these were noble things to study this did not help Ngakane begin his career. Due to the poor job market his first career was as a young mechanic. After his white boss retired, he applied for the job as Head of Wheels with the Johannesburg buses, which he received.[v] Lionel was stuck in this job for some time, but at 40 he started working for Drum and Zonk as a freelance journalist. As a freelance journalist, he went to Great Britain to try to interview the director of Cry, The Beloved Country, Zoltan Korda. Korda did not want to be interviewed because he was in the process of casting people for roles in the film. Undeterred, Ngakane attempted to circumvent this issue by posing as an aspiring actor for the film. He was against tough competition as he was competing against Sidney Poiter for the role of Absalom Kumalo. He tried out and the audition went well, but the magazine he was working for at the time, Drum, did not like this.[vi] They felt that he was being distracted by this and decided to fire him. Korda learned this and hired Ngakane immediately as a personal assistant and for the role of Absalom Kumalo. Korda was going to hire Ngakane regardless because he felt he was the more appropriate choice for the part.[vii]

Despite being a named star in the film when they went back to South Africa to film, Ngakane’s co-star could only enter the country as an “indentured servant.” While filming neither of them or other Black people could stay in the hotels that the rest of the cast and crew were staying or sleep within the city limits due to apartheid laws at the time.[viii] This serves as an ironic reminder that this film is about the apartheid system in South Africa, and how it has oppressed Black people and given great power to White people. Once filming was completed Ngakane, who plays Absalom in the film, and the crew received great reviews. One writer for the New York Times said that film had both “beauty and power.”[ix]

In 1951, after filming ended, Ngakane returned to England. He needed to do this because there was nothing left in South Africa for him. He knew that his job prospects were low and his brother, Pascal, had just been sentenced to three years on Robben Island.[x] He feared the same for himself, and he wanted to continue to advance his film career, so he returned to England with the encouragement of Zoltan Korda. Lionel wanted to attend a film school, but the South African government would not give him a scholarship to one of the two film schools in the world. He persevered though, and was not diminished by this. Ngakane decided to buy a car, a 16mm camera and choose to experiment the camera. During the next 43 years in self-exile Ngakane would fund his passion and his life through a variety of jobs. Among them were: a journalist for Africa and West Africa magazines, an actor for many stage, film, TV and radio productions, as well as a trinket and antique shop operator. This eclectic mix of occupations gave Lionel a great deal of flexibility to pursue his dreams of film.

His first attempt at making a film resulted in a short film called Sunday in London (c.1956), which was produced around 1956. This project, which took nine months to film, allowed Ngakane to test his technical skills, so that he could begin creating his first major piece in 1957, called Vukani – Awake.[xi] This piece, intended for an audience outside of South Africa, explored the challenges of being a Black person in apartheid South Africa. The film gives insight into the political situation in South Africa from the viewpoint of a Black South African. The film served as a guiding point for the anti-apartheid movement. Vukani begins by establishing some of the goals of the anti-apartheid movement among them are “equality before the law,” “human rights for all,” and “peace and friendship.” The documentary continues by stating the urgency and importance of this by noting “4 in 10 children die before they are one year old because of white apartheid laws.”[xii] It continues with the many laws of apartheid that have harmed Black South Africans and the effects of them. Ngakane paid special attention to separate the anti-apartheid movement from the hate of the apartheid government. He described in the documentary that it is a movement of love for man. At the end of Vukani – Awake Ngakane challenges the world to support the movement by isolating South Africa through, “economic, diplomatic, sport, and any other means.” [xiii]

Released in 1962, due to the film’s great organization and narrative, Vukani – Awake served the anti-apartheid movement well in activating supporters around the world to unite against apartheid and the South African government. The documentary was shown at rallies and meetings across the world, except in South Africa where it was banned. It was also very notable because it was the first film that was filmed in Africa by a Black African.[xiv]

Four years after the release of Vukani – Awake, Ngakane showed the world what is regarded as his best work, Jemima and Johnny (1966). This short movie follows two children, a Black girl and a White boy, through west London around the time of the Notting Hill race riots in 1958. It highlights the lack of consideration between Black and Whites. Ngakane was inspired to do a film about these riots, because he had to be bussed out of the studio where he was rehearsing for a BBC show with a police escort due to rioters and protesters.[xv] It is a mostly silent film that was shot in 1963 in London, in black and white to ensure that the nature of the violence of the riots was not glorified, because “ [e] ven a slum looks beautiful in color.”[xvi] Some of the plot inspiration comes from The Red Balloon (Albert Lamorisse, 1956), that also follows the viewpoint of children.[xvii]

Ngakane entered Jemima and Johnny into the 1964 Venice Film Festival for Britain, where it won first place for Best Short Feature Film. As a result, Ngakane felt that this would launch his directing career, but it did not. Black directors were a rarity and there were racist ideologies and tendencies that prevented Ngakane from receiving more support and recognition for his efforts. Instead, the extent of the Jemima and Johnny’s appreciation was it being shown as a prelude to full feature films till the 1980s. This film too was not shown in South Africa until the end of apartheid in 1994 at the Durban Film Festival.[xviii]

Ngakane choose to not just cover injustices against him and those around him. He also covered human rights issues in Holland with his film, and also the political and economic situation in Nigeria with Nigerian Transition (1989).[xix] Ngakane also made, what is likely, the first documentary on Mandela in 1985, while Mandela was still in prison, and a film for the Liberian government, called Once Upon a Time (1975).[xx] [xxi] He also took part in other films by assisting with writing and other technical matters, including A Dry White Season (Euzhan Palcy, 1989) where he served as a consulting technical director.[xxii] Without Ngakane these projects would not have been made and the stories they tell would not have been known. Not only did Ngakane make these films happen, he also knew the importance of his work.

The work that Ngakane was doing brought great pride to him, because he knew the changes that it affected. Vukani – Awake sets the bar for the changes his works have made and continues with the artistic celebration of Jemima and Johnny. His films sent powerful political messages to a wide range of audiences, in a way that speeches and rallies on TV could not do. The medium that Ngakane spoke through was under-represented. He needed to be the best image and voice for Black people that he could be, so more people like him could have their voice heard. Even before Ngakane’s return to South Africa in 1994, after apartheid had ended and the first democratic elections had occurred, he began to work on behalf of the future of Black South African filmmakers. By simply being in the industry for all his years in exile and doing the work that he was doing, his credibility was

established, thus allowing him to speak knowledgeably on film to those inside and outside South Africa.

In 1967 Ngakane conceived of an organization of filmmakers in Africa, now called the Pan-African Federation of Film Makers (FEPACI). The goals of the filmmakers’ Federation were to,

“promote independent film productions, to organize the distribution of African films on this continent, as well as internationally, to persuade governments of the significance of film as a means of social, economic and cultural education, and to create film schools for Anglophone and Francophone students.”[xxiii]

Ngakane served as Regional Secretary for Southern Africa. In this role, he was responsible for coordinating efforts between different filmmakers’ associations. Additionally, he helped film festival juries in Tunis, Leipzig, Edinburgh, the Commonwealth Film Festival and others for two decades as the sole South African representative. Ngakane also served the successor to FEPACI, the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO).

After the fall of apartheid, Ngakane returned to his homeland within months. When Ngakane got back, he knew that there were very real issues with exposure to films to Blacks in South Africa. There were only two cinemas in the Soweto area of Johannesburg for close to two million residents.[xxiv] Ngakane knew that Black African film could not take off if Black people could not see the fruits of their own labor, so he took action. He sought out to create cinema chains across South Africa to expand viewership of films. He did this, but there were great struggles in keeping them open at the time.

In 1997, Ngakane received an Honorary Doctorate in Literature from the University of Natal for his numerous contributions film and advancing the South African film industry. In his acceptance speech, he noted the need to develop the training of filmmakers, distribution of their films, and quantity and quality of documentary films. These are all very important because the market had already been saturated with high quality European films and to do anything less than what the Europeans had done would undermine all the work that Blacks had made in the South African film industry.[xxv] He also challenged those with degrees to accept positions of responsibilities and not of privilege.[xxvi] He continued this work by devoting himself to the national efforts to enhance the film industry in South Africa through the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF). On 8 April 1999, Ngakane accepted a position on the NFVF as a board member. In this role, he dedicated all his efforts to developing and promoting only South African films.

Shortly after returning to South Africa from exile the following was written about Lionel by June Gavanni in the Black Film Bulletin:

We cannot do justice to his colorful personality including an infectious charm, an incisive sense of humour and a great voice, or praise enough his many talents, not forgetting the depth and range of his contributions to African and African diaspora cinema. But a profile sketch is important for those not lucky enough to know him.

Lionel Ngakane died on 26 November 2003 at 75 from complications from a stroke the month before. Just before he passed the NFVF set up a scholarship in his name. Later that year he posthumously received The Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for “outstanding achievement in the field of movie-making and contribution to the development of the film industry in South Africa and on the continent.”[xxvii] This award given by the President of South Africa is a very prestigious award.

Without Ngakane’s many meaningful contributions to cinema, particularly exposing human rights injustices and promoting quality South African cinema, the industry would have been worse off, not just because a lack of diversity or for missing his many great works, but because of his ability to inspire others. He has effected great change in the film industry, both in South Africa and aboard, for both South Africans and for those who were prejudiced against Black people. He mentored young people to make their world better through their films and perspective, and his legacy continues today as the South African cinema industry reaps the benefits of his work. Whether through scholarships endowed in his name or the inspiration that comes from his works, South Africa, as a whole, will also benefit from his dedication to his cause of exposes man’s injustices against man.

List of Works


Sunday in London, c. 1956

Vukani – Awake, 1962

Jemima and Johnny, 1966

Once Upon a Time,1975

Nelson Mandela: The Struggle is My Life, 1985

Nigerian Transition, 1989

Radio Plays (all dates unknown):

The Chicken

Gold in the Streets

The Heaven or Hell Man

Jacket and Tie

The Killing of Mrs. Dube

The Revenge of a Dead Man

Select List of Pieces Acted In


Cry, the Beloved Country, 1951

Dark London, 1952

Duel in the Jungle, 1954

Safari, 1956

Odongo, 1956

The Mark of the Hawk, 1957

Nor the Moon by Night (aka Elephant Gun), 1958


The Green Pastures, 1958


Albertyn, C. 2011, Vukani – Awake! (1962) A Cinematic Context. Available: http://electricjive.blogspot.com/.

Bourne, S. 1998, Black in the British frame: Black People in British Film and Television 1896-1996, Cassell: Arts Council of England, London ; Washington D.C, pp 148-153.

Bourne, S. 2007, Ngakane, Lionel (1928–2003), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. Available: http://www.oxforddnb.com/.

Crowdus, G. 1986, South African Filmmaking in Exile: An Interview with Lionel Ngakane, Cinaste, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 16-17.

Crowther, B. 1952, The Screen in Review; Alan Paton's 'Cry, the Beloved Country,' with Canada Lee, Opens at Bijou Theatre. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/.

McMurtry, M. 1997, Conferment of the Degree of Doctor of Literature, Honoris Causa, upon Lionel Ngakane, University of Natal, Durbin, South Africa. Available: http://web.mit.edu/.

Ngakane, L. 1997, Thoughts on my Life in Film, South African Theatre Journal, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 259-268.

Ngakane, L. 1962, Vukani – Awake.

The Presidency Republic of South Africa, Dr Lionel Ngakane (1928 - 2003). Available: http://www.thepresidency.gov.za/

Ukadike, N.F. 2002, Questioning African Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp 73-83.

End Notes

[i] There are conflicting sources saying that he was born on the same day in 1920. The 1928 birthday makes more sense in regards to Ngakane’s life timeline.

[ii] Lionel Ngakane. 1997, Thoughts on my Life in Film, South African Theatre Journal, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 261.

[iii] There is no known date for when he becomes the local chairman of the ANC Youth League.

[iv] Stephen Bourne. 1998, Black in the British frame: Black People in British Film and Television 1896-1996, Cassell: Arts Council of England, London ; Washington D.C., pp 149.

[v] Ngakane, 261.

[vi] Ngakane, 261.

[vii] Bourne, 149.

[viii] Bourne, 149.

[ix] Bosley Crowther. 1952, The Screen in Review; Alan Paton's 'Cry, the Beloved Country,' with Canada Lee, Opens at Bijou Theatre. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/.

[x] June Givanni. 1994, Return to the beloved country, Black Film Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 3.

[xi] Givanni, 3 .

[xii] Lionel Ngakane, Original Format: Unknown, Vukani – Awake! (1962; London.) Online Available: http://www.nytimes.com/.

[xiii] Ngakane, Vukani – Awake!.

[xiv] Chris Albertyn, 2011, Vukani – Awake! (1962) A cinematic context. Available: http://electricjive.blogspot.com/.

[xv] Bourne, 151.

[xvi] Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike. 2002, Questioning African Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp 75.

[xvii] Ukadike, 75.

[xviii] Ukadike,75.

[xix] Ukadike, 75-76.

[xx] Givanni, 3.

[xxi] Gary Crowdus. 1986, South African Filmmaking in Exile: An Interview with Lionel Ngakane, Cinaste, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 16.

[xxii] Stephen Bourne. (2007), Ngakane, Lionel (1928–2003), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. Available: http://www.oxforddnb.com/.

[xxiii] Mervyn McMurtry. 1997, Conferment of the Degree of Doctor of Literature, Honoris Causa, upon Lionel Ngakane, University of Natal, Durbin, South Africa. Available: http://web.mit.edu/ .

[xxiv] Ukadike, 77.

[xxv] Ukadike, 78.

[xxvi] Ngakane, 268.

[xxvii] The Presidency Republic of South Africa, Dr Lionel Ngakane (1928 - 2003). Available: http://www.thepresidency.gov.za/.

This article forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project

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