Before there was an Internet, before there was YouTube, before there was the breaking-news tweet, there was the British Pathé newsreel film clip.
You would watch these at the movies, between the trailers and the cartoons and the main attraction, and they would tell you, in a minute or two, what was happening in the world that week. Politics, lifestyle, culture, sport, events big and small, curiosities and oddities from near and afar.
Almost always, they were set to a soundtrack of sweeping strings and brass, rousing or solemn as the news demanded, and over this would be heard the voice, always male, of the narrator, enunciating in clipped consonants and rounded vowels the latest from the world of Pathé.
Now, in a generous gift to humanity, Pathé have uploaded an astonishing array of 85,000 newsreel clips to YouTube, spanning the years from 1896 to 1976. That’s 3,500 hours of footage, or just over 145 days, if you watch it all in one sitting.
The collection is a joy to browse and behold, and it is an exceedingly fascinating and useful resource for cultural anthropologists, students of history, and anyone who is looking for a good excuse not to get down to work.
Be warned, it is a real time-vampire, so the best way to use it, perhaps, is to search for something specific, and take it from there. I searched for “South Africa”. Here are 20 of the most interesting clips I found. I hope you find them interesting too.
This is silent out-take footage of what was once the biggest event of the year on the highveld. The Rand Easter Show. It was held at Milner Park, which is now the West Campus of Wits. If you’re a Witsie, you may recognise some of the landmarks.
A Children’s Day sports festival, open to all races, albeit not at the same time. “Among the many Non-European events is the wheelbarrow race,” enthuses our narrator. “This is one race where the winner definitely wins hands-down.”
In 1960, a referendum was held to determine, democratically, whether South Africa should become a republic, or remain a colony of the Great British Empire. Well, not quite democratically – only whites were allowed to cast their vote for Yes or No. “Women polled in strength while the men were at work.” These days, of course, voting days are public holidays, so we all get a chance to stand in a queue, make our mark, and enjoy the rest of the day off.
A massive tornado swept through the mining-town of Roodepoort, west of Johannesburg, in 1948. I grew up in this dorp, so it grates my ear to hear the narrator mispronounce it as “Rooden-port”. The only real legacy of this natural disaster, which left seven people dead and thousands homeless, is a street in Roodepoort named Tornado Cresent.
Christmas, 1936. The Wanderers, Johannesburg. In their dazzling whites, the Boks go out to bat against the Aussies for the Second test. The “hero of the match” is Dudley North, the “young South African bat”, with his smashing innings of 231. “But the match ends, as most good matches do, in a draw.”
Long before ANN7’s memorable mispronounciation, the motor-racing Grand Prix was a regular event in South Africa. This was the first such event to be held in the country, on the Marine Drive circuit in East London in 1934. The race was won by the wonderfully-named American, Whitney Straight, who was also a much-decorated Air Commodore. “He tore through the field in his Maserati, like a black bullet.”
As Stukas and Spitfires blitzed into battle over the green fields of England, a boatload of happy-faced young Britons dropped anchor at Table Bay. “Their first thought on landing, a cable to Mother. Arrived safely, love and kisses.”
I like the elegant rhythm of the envy-riddled voiceover: “Is it right that while the chilblain has its way over here, the children have their play over there?” The English, as we know, have a curious view of Spring. It is the cruellest month, complained TS Eliot. In South Africa, as this clip confirms, it is the mooiste, mooiste maand. Although I must say I’ve never seen this sort of Pagan welcoming of the season on our shores.
At the Wanderers, as war-clouds rumble over Europe, a very Catholic gathering on the Feast of Corpus Christi. Prayer Days in times of crisis are still a South African tradition, even in our nominally secular state. My favourite image here is the mass of nuns in procession. You don’t see that on the streets of Joburg every day.
That ancient rivalry at play and at war, this time at the SCG in Sydney. A day of mud, sweat, and possibly, tears, with the ground “sticking to the boys closer than a mother-in-law”. The Springboks, out to avenge a crushing defeat, won the test by nine points to five.
Father Trevor Huddleston stands tall as a man of grace and goodness in the story of South African politics and culture. This is a recollection of his works and humanity on the eve of his recall from St Peter’s Church in Rosettenville, Johannesburg, back to the headquarters of the Anglican Church in England. “His slogan,” the narrator tells us, “is ‘black and white are both entitled to a full life’. Not a popular view with South Africa’s rulers.” This clip includes a quick glimpse of Father Huddleston walking with Alan Paton, author of Cry, the beloved Country.
“The girls of Durban, South Africa, in the land of perpetual sunshine, believe in beauty culture too.” A mass exercise on a school playing field. Nowadays, of course, they would just head for the nearest Virgin Active.
Sitting at a drawing-table in the shade of a garden in Cape Town, the Princess Elizabeth, who would go on to be crowned Queen within six years, delivers a message to the people of the Great British Commonwealth on the occasion of her 21st birthday. It is 1947, and the “terrible and glorious” years of the Second World War are still fresh in memory. In her wondrous accent, through the marvel of radio, she dedicates herself to a life of service, “whether my life be long or short”. She is still Queen today.
A rare colour travellogue, taking us from the untamed Umfolozi, on a donkey-safari led by a young Ian Player (he would go on to became a world-renowned conservationist) to the “Land of the Red-Blanket People”, or the Wild Coast of the Transkei, as we know it today. The narration here has a tinge of pith-helmeted paternalism – “here’s a happy-go-lucky village community” – that brings Monty Python sketches to mind. And we learn too, that even back then, the white rhino was in danger of dying out.
The Royals of the House of Windsor, all dressed in white, sit with umbrellas close to hand and watch as the “sons of Shaka” perform their traditional Zulu war-dance, in this dispatch from the Royal Visit of 1947. Not everyone was in favour of this expedition, and Die Transvaler, a newspaper edited by one HF Verwoerd, who would later become Prime Minister, would only let its readers know that there would be traffic congestion in the streets of Johannesburg on the day of the visit. Today, of course, Afrikaans newspapers and magazines devote hectares of space to the Royals, whether or not they are on a visit to South Africa.
A delirious celebration, in full colour, of the wonders of Durban, “the gayest holiday resort in Southern Africa”.
In 1962, in a symbolic shift from the customs and traditions of the Commonwealth, South Africa introduced a new system of coinage, personified by the bouncy rock ‘n roll jingle of “Decimal Dan, the Rand-Cent Man, gets his cents for pennies wherever he can”. This colour clip includes some fascinating footage of early 60s fashions and the busy interiors of South African banks and supermarkets. Boy, handbags were really cheap back then.
The title says “Race Problem, 1955”, but the concluding footage here seems to show the famous Women’s March of 1956, when thousands of women arrived at the Union Buildings to protest against Apartheid. The narrator tells us that HF Verwoerd, then Minister of Native Affairs, refused to meet with the deputation, because it was racially mixed. The cold, mad logic of Apartheid bureaucracy.
In April 1960, while observing a parade of cattle at the Rand Easter Show in Johannesburg, Prime Minister HF Verwoerd was shot twice in the head by a man armed with a .22 pistol. Verwoerd survived the assassination attempt, and the country was plunged into fear and tension. “Where it is calm, outwardly,” says the narrator, over footage of people crossing the road in Cape Town, “the news is all of race hatred.” This was just a year before the massacre at Sharpeville, and six years before Verwoerd was stabbed to death in Parliament by Tsafendas.
Johannesburg traffic was just as crazy and intense in the pre-war era. Maybe even more so, because there were trams and horse-carts to compete with the motor-cars. This clip is silent, alas, but if you listen carefully, you’ll be able to hear the roars and screeches and hootings in your head. And just look at those outfits. People really went to town when they went to town. These days, no-one will blink twice if you wear a tee-shirt and shorts to Hyde Park Mall. As long as it’s a Giorgio Armani tee-shirt and shorts, of course.