Poppie Nongena is about a woman, who finds out the week before Christmas that she has now been deemed an illegal immigrant in the country of her birth. The film is set 1970s apartheid South Africa, when the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act deported black South Africans to territories the government had assigned to each ethnicity. As a Xhosa woman, Poppie is scheduled to be deported to Transkei, a place she has never been.
I didn’t even know about the Bantu Homelands scheme, it was just one of the many atrocities that get wrapped up and buried in the word ‘apartheid’. The history that its beneficiaries now sell of apartheid is one of separate buses and doors, as though it was merely an inconvenient unfairness. Not living in a state of permanent terror that the government, and police, and pretty much any white person with a mind to, could do anything they wanted to you with impunity.
Poppie Nongena is a film about a woman coming to the end of her strength. Of having worked and struggled and swallowed all she can take in a world that is perpetually set against her existence, and having weathered each wave of hatred over the years, as it takes new forms, new laws, waiting to see if this one will be the one that drowns her. And finally she has met the wave that is about smash her family to pieces.
Poppie’s husband is disabled and can’t work. If he was working, she could apply to stay, and he spends the film frustrated and desperate to save the family he has seen her carry on her back for years. She tries to get her employer to intervene, and tries to get help from anti-apartheid activists, and begs her friends. All want to help her, but the juggernaut is unstoppable.
While she’s trying to keep her family united in the face of this adversity, it is falling apart. Her eldest son has joined organised radical resistance against apartheid, who take direct action to destroy government property and halt government activity. Their worldview is simple and clear, because they are ideological and young. They resent the accommodations the older generations have made, which has bartered their children out of a future. The necessary sacrifices their parents have made, their daily negotiation through apartheid, is seen as collaboration, which must be ended, by force if necessary. They spend almost as must time policing their own people as they do fighting the source of their oppression.
As the younger generation seem born in fire to fight without compromise, Poppy feels her own strength waning. She feels like she is coming to the end of a very long fight she no longer believes she can win, and is about to blow away like leaves.
This film in a way is about the strength that got generations through apartheid, not just worked to overturn it. The generations of women who held their families together. That provided for their families. That got their kids their schooling. That passed down the sense of self-respect and dignity necessary to survive in a world determined to tell you you were entitled to neither.