JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When advocating for poverty reduction, a stock-in-trade strategy is to use statistics to persuade others—enough statistics to emphasize the problem but not so many as to bombard, inundate or otherwise torture one’s audience. For example, in a discussion of poverty in Johannesburg, South Africa, one might begin by establishing context with some statistics:
Twenty percent of residents in Johannesburg are living in abject poverty. Forty percent are without proper housing, municipal electricity and municipal sanitation. Unemployment is at 30 percent. And so on.
While it is important to acknowledge these facts, the previous paragraph probably seems to lack a convincing level of pathos. Art can supply that necessary emotional power.
“Tsotsi,” the 2006 Oscar winner for best foreign film, gives life to the statistics. Viewers look at six days in the life of a gangster in Johannesburg’s slums. The protagonist, Tsotsi, which is a nickname meaning “thug,” has buried his capacity for empathy deep within himself as a defense against the hardships of poverty.
One night, Tsotsi ventures into one of Johannesburg’s gated communities, whose wealth stands in stark contrast to the shantytown in which he lives. He shoots a woman and steals her car, only to realize later that the woman’s son is in the backseat. Tsotsi sees something of himself in this helpless child and resolves to care for him. The rest of the film observes his personal growth as a result of this resolution.
Impoverishment drives Tsotsi’s behavior, but the film draws a distinction between two types of poverty.
On the one hand, Tsotsi is materially impoverished. After leaving his abusive father, he is forced to live with various other homeless children in stacked construction pipes on the outskirts of the township. He later moves into the upper story of a ramshackle house, but his lifestyle can only barely meet his physical needs.
On the other hand, Tsotsi is psychologically impoverished. He has no education, except for his acquired knowledge of how to steal from others, kill those who resist him and suppress his anguish with liquor. He has been molded into someone who can only take, but enduring his father’s cruelty has left him desperate to become someone who can provide for others.
Thus, Tsotsi steals the baby because he hopes caring for him will reduce his own psychological impoverishment. The film gives viewers a rare look into the mental effects of poverty, which statistics can rarely communicate.
However, as mentioned before, much of the film’s power derives from its ability to show viewers the implications of poverty statistics. It is a shocking fact that the shantytown in Johannesburg houses one million people yet lacks the infrastructure to supply homes with water. However, one cannot understand the impact that fact has until one sees the queue of hundreds of people waiting to draw water from a makeshift well.
In the end, though, “Tsotsi” reminds the viewer that people are more than just statistics. In one scene, Tsotsi offers to buy a piece of art from a woman. He scoffs at the price she sets and describes the piece as “broken glass.”
“You only see broken glass?” she replies.
“What do you see?” Tsotsi asks.
At the beginning of the film, it is a rare viewer who sees Tsotsi as more than just another piece of broken glass. By the end, one cannot help but see the color and light in him.
– Ryan Yanke
Sources: IMDB, Roger Ebert University of Johannesburg, Institute for Housing and Urban Development, Joburg