The ‘Silverton Siege’ Soundtrack is the Sound of Resistance
At the end of Silverton Siege, Netflix’s new original movie, the gun-toting duo of Calvin (Thabo Rametsi) and Terra (Noxolo Dlamini) walk fearlessly towards the open bank doors for another standoff with the police. They knew their fate was death.
The scene drowns in alarming red lights, then cuts to black with the sound of gunfire. Zamo Mbutho’s “Asimbonanaga” plays next; the song is a mournful acapella invoking the mood of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.
Directed by South African filmmaker Mandla Dube, Silverton Siege features a soundtrack that grounds the film with tone and character. These songs are forged in an African revolutionary consciousness. From Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat anthem “Zombie” to Philip Miller’s “Hamba Kahle Umkhonto.” In the case of South Africa, they re-enchant the role songs played in galvanizing people against apartheid.
The Silverton siege was a flashpoint in the movement for Nelson Mandela’s release. In 1980s South Africa, anti-apartheid freedom fighters — Wilfred Madela, Humphrey Makhubu, Stephen Mafoko — aborted their planned sabotage mission at Watloo’s petrol depots and were on the run from the police. They hunkered down at Volkskas Bank in Silverton, Pretoria, where they held 25 civilians hostage.
In the film, Calvin is the de facto leader of the group, negotiating for safe passage out of the bank. The officer in charge, Langerman (Arnold Vosloo), reluctantly agrees to the demand and sends a helicopter manned by a solo driver. It’s a trap, though. Without their knowledge, the pilot Sechaba (Tumisho Masha) is going to deliver the group to the police once he’s been informed of their destination.
Fela’s “Zombie” starts to play when the trio, with a hostage taken along, leave the bank and head for the chopper. What transpires afterwards is the group knowing they have been set up. Sechaba is pulling out a gun when he’s preempted by Calvin. He’s disarmed, struck in the face and forced out of the chopper, then manhandled back to the bank along with the group.
Released in 1976, “Zombie” criticizes the military as tools of oppression by the Nigerian government. It strikes a parallel to the helicopter scene. Sechaba, a Black South African, is an asset of the police. By extension, he’s in service for the white ruling class aiding the capture of the freedom fighters. What’s teachable here is that in the process of fighting oppression, the enemy doesn’t always look like those in power, but could be anyone from the grass-root.
Although they look like the oppressed, these people aren’t committed to revolutionary warfare or liberation. Their orders come from above. The next time we hear another song in the background, it is Chicco Twala’s “I Need Some Money.” The scene finds Calvin and Aldo pushing out trolleys stacked with cash in the bank’s main hall. Soundtracking the scene with this song diffuses the tension, inverting the serious stakes with its shangaan-disco liveliness.
“I Need Some Money” was released in 1986, and it was the first hit from the South African artist and producer. What does it mean to need money during this time? The global economic crisis didn’t spare South Africa, with rising inflation, unemployment and weakening of its currency. But Calvin isn’t interested in the money. This is another inversion that occurs. An economic downturn in the country where seeking material provisions would be justified is juxtaposed with the revolutionary mindset of his group.
The trolley is now outside the bank, where Terra and Calvin hold a Black American man at gunpoint. While Langerman tries to reason with them, the American pours fuel all over the trolley on orders from the duo. Engulfed with fire, Johnny Clegg and Juluka’s “Impi” comes on. Calvin walks sideways towards the press with their cameras and shouts, “Free Nelson Mandela!”
This shifts the trajectory of the story. Nelson Mandela was sent to prison in 1964 for treason and opposing the apartheid regime. The clamor for his release in the film is underscored by the sheer stature of Johnny Clegg, who wasn’t just a singer and songwriter but a huge figure in the fight against apartheid.
His band, Julukua, was one of his successful racially mixed groups. Off their second album, African Litany, which was released in 1981, Impi is Zulu for ‘’war.’’ His version of “Asimbonanaga” was made with his other band Savuka from their album Third World Child and was dedicated to political prisoners, especially Mandela.
Silverton Siege isn’t a film without a body count. Outside the bank demanding for the release of Mandela, Calvin and the bank supervisor Christine (Elaine Dekker) have put away their differences. Unfortunately, she’s shot by a rooftop sniper from the SWAT team.
“Hamba Khale Umkhonto” permeates this scene where she dies. It’s forlorn and mournful. When Silverton Siege —which was released on Freedom Day last month — ends, the sacrifice of the trio becomes symbolic for what comes later: freedom.