“Tsotsi” means “thug” in South African dialect. Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae, in a remarkable debut) is a thug, all right, from the slums of Johannesburg. He glares constantly, as if always boiling with rage. He is cruel, violent, and humorless. He surrounds himself with other thugs, and together they go to the central train terminal, where they find their victims. They rob people who are unguarded enough to flash a wad of bills when they are paying for a newspaper. When they return to their slums, they spend their stolen money gambling at dice, and when it runs out, they go steal again. Tsotsi seems to be practically unredeemable. And then something unexpected happens.
While venturing on his own to the “nice” section of town, he comes across a prosperous-looking woman having difficulty with the remote control to the gate outside her house. She gets out of her luxury sedan long enough to walk to the intercom in the rain and ask her husband to push the button from inside. That’s just enough opening for Tsotsi, who races across the street, points a gun at her, and gets in the driver’s seat. When she approaches him, protesting, he shoots her, and he drives away erratically, because he’s never owned a car, and rarely driven one. On the road back to his “slum,” he hears a baby crying, and suddenly realizes that there is an infant in the back seat. He’s so startled that he runs into a road sign and wrecks the car. He’s unhurt, and intends to flee the scene, but something inside him, perhaps the last vestige of humanity, causes him to go back and retrieve the baby.
Now what? He realizes he does not have the resources to provide for this infant. But holding the baby stirs something in him–childhood memories of a mother who loved him very much, before she got sick. That child, David, becomes Tsotsi.
Tsotsi is no longer concerned about his gang, only about providing for the baby (whom he wants to name “David”). By now, news of the kidnapped baby has spread through the slums, and the police are hot on Tsotsi’s trail. But he has one more thing to do: return the baby. It doesn’t exactly make things right. But it completes the transformation of our former “thug.” He now has a heart.
“Tsotsi” possesses a raw power, and carries a heavy emotional impact. It was awarded the “Best Foreign Film” at the Oscars for good reason. See it on the big screen, if you can. You will not forget it easily.
Questions For Discussion:
1) When the police take Tsotsi into custody, what should be his punishment?
2) Part of Tsotsi’s transformation is apologizing to his friend whom he beat unmercifully for “disrespecting” him. What apology was the hardest for you? What apology do you have yet to make?
Ron Salfen is pastor of First Church, Terrell, Texas.