SUBJECTS — World/South Africa;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Courage; Justice; Human Rights; Grieving; Father/Son; Marriage; Families in Crisis;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Responsibility; Citizenship.

AGE: 14+ Rated R for scenes of graphic violence;

Drama; 1989; 107 minutes; Color.

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TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.


Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.


Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.


The setting is South Africa during the Soweto uprisings of 1976. A white school teacher (Ben du Toit) investigates the death of his black gardener, a man he had known for 15 years. The gardener (Gordon Ngubene) had been searching for answers about his son’s death while in police custody. This had brought Ngubene to the attention of the “Special Branch” of the South African Police. He suffered the same fate as his son: death during interrogation. Du Toit comes to realize not only the injustices of the apartheid legal system and the repressive policies that supported it, but the necessity of action as opposed to words or resignation to the inevitable. Backed by an African cabbie, a liberal lawyer and a persistent reporter, he is opposed by his family (except for his young son), his school and his community. The film is based on the novel by the acclaimed Afrikaaner writer, André Brink. The novel was banned by the apartheid government of South Africa.


Selected Awards:

1990 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Supporting Actor: Marlon Brando; 1990 Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Best Supporting Actor: Marlon Brando; 1990 British Academy Awards Nominations: Best Supporting Actor: Marlon Brando.


Featured Actors:

Donald Sutherland, Marlon Brando, Winston Ntshona, Zakes Mokae, Marlon Brando, Susan Sarandon, Jurgen Prochnow.



Euzhan Palcy.


“A Dry White Season” shows that sometimes, no matter what the cost and no matter how futile it may seem, one must take action to oppose injustice. The film also explores the personal cost of resisting injustice that is accepted by one’s community and maintained by a repressive government. It will introduce the now abandoned apartheid system of South Africa, the Special Branch (secret police), economic and political oppression of the townships (Bantu System), and the arguments used by to justify apartheid.


SERIOUS. “A Dry White Season” shows brief views of a victim of torture, bloodied and disfigured, children being indiscriminately shot to death and beaten by police, a boy’s caned buttocks, and scars from beatings on a man’s back. Such footage is consistent with actions that occurred time and again from the 1960s to the early 1990s during South Africa’s effort to support the apartheid system against black resistance. They merit being shown. In this film, the violence and gore is not shown for the sake of thrilling the audience. See The Problem with Gratuitous Violence.


Review the concepts in the Benefits section with your children. While this movie is about one man’s road to resisting his government in the apartheid regime in South Africa, the situation faced by Mr. du Toit could be faced in any society. Ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question. If your child is interested in apartheid or in the message of the film as some of the other Discussion Questions.


See Learning Guide to Sarafina.

Racial tensions in South Africa date back at least to the eighteenth century when Dutch settlers expanding inland from the coast met Xhosa tribes expanding to the south and west. Though defeated militarily by the British in 1902, the Boers (descendants of Dutch, French and German colonists) gained the upper hand in 1910, when the Union of South Africa was formed. Almost immediately, the new government began to restrict the rights of blacks and persons of Indian or mixed descent. In 1948 the South African government adopted apartheid policies which excluded the black majority from nearly all facets of political, economic and social life. Africans were relegated to impoverished “homelands”. When blacks began to resist apartheid, beginning in the late 1950s, the South African government responded with repressive police state tactics.

Confrontation prompted the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, where police killed 69 unarmed demonstrators. A series of international sanctions were imposed on South Africa that year; measures were toughened in subsequent years.

The setting for the story shown by this film occurred in 1974 when the South African Minister of Bantu Education and Development, P.W. Botha, declared that Afrikaans would be the language of instruction in black schools. A government official was quoted as saying ” …an African might find that the ‘big boss’ only spoke Afrikaans or English and it would be to his advantage to know both languages.” Black high school students in Soweto responded on June 16, 1976 with a series of clashes with police and military units. As depicted in the movie, security forces killed 150 in the first week, with nearly 700 perishing before the year was out. Leaders such as Stephen Biko died, producing a military arms embargo by the international community upon the South African military.

In 1989 President P.W. Botha resigned as the leader of the National Party (the ruling party) due to illness. His successor, F.W. de Klerk, after negotiating with the African National Congress, released many political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela (who had been imprisoned since 1963) in 1990. (At one pont, Botha, now recovered, tried to return to power to reverse the reforms, but de Klerk prevented this.) De Klerk repealed pro-apartheid policies such as the Group Areas Act, the Land Act, and the Population Registration Act.

Whites voted to abolish apartheid in a 1991 referendum, paving the way for blacks to vote in the 1994 election. The African National Congress won 62.65 percent of the vote (but not the 66 percent necessary to empower it to draft the constitution). A Government of National Unity (GNU) was formed with the National Party, which finished second with 20.4 percent of the vote, in order to draft the constitution. Other participating parties (among the 19 on the ballot) include the Inkhata and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). Nelson Mandela was chosen as President by the legislature, while de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki were named Deputy Presidents. The peaceful transition of power from the white minority to the black majority is one of the most remarkable acts of political courage and restraint (on both sides) in the history of mankind.

The new constitution produced a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which would promote national unity and reconciliation by hearing cases of human rights abuses during the apartheid era. Led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the TRC heard more than 20,000 statements in their investigations. A report was delivered to the government in 1998.

In 1993, Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.” The Nobel Committee stated that:

From their different points of departure, Mandela and de Klerk have reached agreement on the principles for a transition to a new political order based on the tenet of one man, one vote. By looking ahead to South African reconciliation instead of back at the deep wounds of the past, they have shown personal integrity and great political courage.

Ethnic disparities cause the bitterest conflicts. South Africa has been the symbol of racially conditioned suppression. Mandela’s and de Klerk’s constructive policy of peace and reconciliation also points the way to the peaceful resolution of similar deep-rooted conflicts elsewhere in the world.

The previous Nobel Laureates Albert Lutuli and Desmond Tutu made important contributions to progress towards racial equality in South Africa. Mandela and de Klerk have taken the process a major step further. The Nobel Peace Prize for 1993 is awarded in recognition of their efforts and as a pledge of support for the forces of good, in the hope that the advance towards equality and democracy will reach its goal in the very near future.

André Brink was born into a South African Dutch family. He insisted on confronting the social and political realities of his country. He moved to Europe for a time but later returned to South Africa to “accept full responsibility for everything I write — not as a writer for a small white enclave, but as a writer belonging more to Africa than to Europe.” Mr. Brink has received numerous awards, including three CNA Awards, South Africa’s most prestigious literary prize, and Britain’s Martin Luther King Memorial Prize. France has made him a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur. His work has been published in twenty countries.

Two of Mr. Brink’s novels, A Dry White Season and Looking on Darkness were banned by the South African government. While the script of the movie departs from the book in many specifics, the film retains the thrust of the story, a story written by an Afrikaaner telling an authentic tale from his own tortured community.

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1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


2. School teacher Ben du Toit’s response to the caning of Jonathan (Gordon Ngubene’s son) and later Jonathan’s death by torture was one of sympathy for his friend’s loss, but the key message was “Nothing can be done.” How do his words come back to haunt him? Could something have been done earlier to prevent future, more terrible acts (i.e. clearing up Jonathan’s police record to keep him from being victimized again)? Or was the system simply too unjust for any action within its parameters to make a difference?


3. Gordon Ngubene referred to the caning of his son as causing “mental wounds.” What did he mean?


4. In the movie (and in reality) children were tortured to force them to disclose the names of the ringleaders of the Soweto uprisings. What sorts of domestic or international laws exist which forbid such practices? How effective are they?


5. Zakes Mokae, the cabbie, tells Ben du Toit to help “if it makes you feel good.” Is “white guilt” the motivating factor behind du Toit’s actions? Or is the cabbie being unfair?


6. Ben du Toit hangs out in a club of white colleagues staffed by black servants and teaches at a whites-only school. His only contact with blacks is through master-servant relationships. Before Gordon Ngubene’s death, is du Toit deliberately blind to the injustices around him, or simply naive? Is naivete an excuse for inaction?


7. A black works as a torturer while another is a secret policeman who rats out Gordon. Why? Compare the situation in South Africa to the ability of the English to control Ireland for centuries, partially through the use of local informants. See Michael Collins.


8. Zakes Mokae (cabbie) says “Hope’s a white word.” If so, why do so many, like Nelson Mandela, struggle for so long?


9. Mrs. du Toit argues that if the blacks won, “they would do the same to us.” She points to the mess that the rest of Africa is in. Was she correct? In your answer, include references to the events of the 1990s and the current conditions in South Africa.


10. Melanie (the reporter) notes that people won’t be able to ignore the repression if enough bodies exist. Is white defiance a matter of suppressing the press or ignoring such reports? Did the press have an impact on the end of apartheid in South Africa?


11. How did the attitudes of South Africans of British descent differ from Afrikaaner attitudes? Why is it important that Ben du Toit is an Afrikaaner? Is it important to the message of the book that the author of the book on which the film is based is an Afrikaaner?


12. Some would compare South Africa’s apartheid system to the “separate, but equal” policies of the United States before the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Would we have deserved economic sanctions from a liberal minded world of yesteryear? Would we deserve such punishment today?


13. The Reagan Administration refused to back international calls for economic sanctions upon South Africa, preferring a policy of “constructive engagement” (attempting to bring about change by working with the existing government and power structure). Is such a policy similar to Ben du Toit’s earlier stance? How might it be different?


14. The Reagan Administration was strongly condemned for its policy of constructive engagement. Compare that policy to the United States’ present policy to bring about change in “Communist” China. What are the similarities and what are the differences?


15. Why would the papers containing affidavits have any utility in an apartheid regime of South Africa?


16. What is the significance of Ben du Toit’s note that “No one can be free until all are free?” Who is the target audience? How does that saying apply to the United States in its treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII and to its treatment of Arab Americans after September 11, 2001?


17. The movie was released in 1989, a year before radical changes in South Africa. Does that make this movie irrelevant?


18. In many movies about South Africa (“Cry Freedom,” “The Power of One”), the chief protagonist is white. Is this significant? Does this help reinforce the role of blacks as second class?



1. The organizers of the Soweto uprising knew what the police would do, but held their demonstration anyway and even threw tear gas back at the police. Are they partially responsible for the consequences of their actions?


2. Would you be willing to make the same sacrifices for racial justice that Ben du Toit made (loss of personal safety, job, family, friends, and reputation)? What would you be willing to sacrifice?


3. Compare the courage of a man like Ben du Toit and people in his position with the courage of men like de Klerk and Mandela.


4. Compare the courage of a soldier who risks his life with the approval and upon the demand of his society and the courage of a man like Ben du Toit who risks his life for his community and his vision of the world, but who does it virtually alone and persecuted by his community and his government. Who has the greater courage?



5. Jurgen Prochnow, the Special Branch Captain, argues that his agency is on the front lines defending South Africa against terrorists and communists. What is the relationship between civil liberties and the government’s obligation to keep order and to defend the country? Can “wartime” conditions justify a partial suspension of civil rights? Apply your answer to the United States with respect to Japanese Americans in World War II and with respect to Arab-Americans after September 11, 2001.


6. Ian MacKenzie, the attorney, states that justice and the law are “distant cousins.” What does the statement mean? Compare this to the system of justice in the United States. First, describe some of the compromises in the U.S. justice system which subordinate the concept of justice to other needs. Then compare these to what Ian McKenzie must have been talking about. [For example, witnesses have the right not to testify about certain things (they have the right not to incriminate themselves, and not to disclose communications with their spouse or their attorney). Often, in civil law suits, justice is compromised just to get the litigation completed within a reasonable amount of time (e.g., statutes of limitation, sanctions for failing to provide information in pre-trial discovery). In criminal cases, if a defendant is not brought to trial quickly, or if the police illegally seize evidence, or if the defendant acts out in court, actions will be taken that compromise the concept of justice for other goals.] Are these the types of actions that McKenzie was describing?


7. Ian MacKenzie, the attorney, claims that often the law was changed after he won a human rights case, so that he could not win another on the same basis. Does this show that such victories cannot be won? Isn’t this the right of a government?


8. Melanie’s father likens the struggle for justice to a series of dance moves (some forward, some backward). But media reports focus on the dramatic, cataclysmic events (Mandela’s release, the 1994 election, etc.). Does justice spring from a series of small steps or a few bold moves?



9. How did Gordon Ngubene grieve for his son?



10. Do you think Johann’s (Ben du Toit’s son’s) actions are the result of loyalty to his father or recognition of injustice? If the former is true, why don’t Ben’s wife and daughter share Johann’s convictions?


11. Was there any way in which Ben du Toit could have saved his marriage?


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.



(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends and country)


1. Ben du Toit was accused of being disloyal to his Afrikaaner community. Do you agree?


2. Ben du Toit’s wife felt that he was not recognizing his obligations to his family by putting them in jeopardy for his political beliefs. Do you agree or disagree with this comment? Look at it from the wife’s perspective. What does the fact that Ben du Toit earned the admiration of his son by his actions have to do with the answer to this question?



(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)


3. Who, in this film, was attempting to evade accountability for his actions?



(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)


4. Can you think of a way that Ben du Toit could have done his share to make his community better without destroying his own life?



Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.

Reading: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.

Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.

Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.


Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, Reflections in Prison: Voices from the South African Liberation Struggle Marc Maharaj, editor, Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2002; “Soweto:16 June 1976” Essay Collection: Kwela Books. For Instructors: From Protest to Challenge Nadir and Resurgence 1964 1979 (From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1) by Thomas G. Karis & Gail M. Gerhart, Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White by Joseph Lelyveld, Times Books, 1985.


In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • Democracy Factfile’s “Supporting Democracy in Southern Africa: South Africa” by Ron Walters;
  • “The Legacy of the Soweto Uprising in South Africa, 25 Years Later” Published in The Progressive Magazine;
  • “Soweto Uprising Remembered” by Susanna Loof, Associated Press (June 16, 2001),
  • The Afrikaans Medium Decree: From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1990; Volume 5: Nadir and Resurgence, 1964-1979 by Thomas G. Karis and Gail M. Gerhart.

Acknowledgments: This Learning Guide was written jointly with Dr. John A. Tures, Assistant Professor of Political Science, La Grange College, La Grange, Georgia. Teachwithmovies.org thanks Dr. Tures for his invaluable contribution to this Learning Guide.

This Learning Guide was last updated on December 9, 2009.

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TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.

Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.


Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.


Thomas Jefferson once said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” Can you envision situations in which Ben du Toit could serve as a model for Americans?

Suggested Response:

First, we must remember that there were times in the U.S. when citizens were called upon to risk their lives or livelihoods to protect others from injustice or persecution. These include abolitionists before the Civil War, civil rights workers during the 1950s – 1960s, opponents of McCarthyism from approximately 1948 – 1954. It could happen again if a group got control of government or a popular following which sought to oppress one group or another.

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