Thembi explores the living conditions of South African female inmates


The feature film Thembi casts a spotlight on the everyday life and living conditions of South Africa’s female prisoners.

The film is based on the incarceration of a mother, Zizi at the historic Number Four – now popularly known as Constitution Hill – and her daughter Thembi, who relives this tragedy while battling her own demons as a modern, successful woman of today.

The story is the brainchild of Dr Victor Phume, a father and executive chairman of Zallywood Productions. He shared the story with his daughter, Ruth Mabona and son, Victor Phume Jnr who are the director and producer of the film respectively.

“Often stories are told through the eye and the voice of a male and I wanted to change this by leading with a strong feminine touch. It was important that the title also carries a female voice,” shares Phume.

lnnocent Sadiki plays the lead female character in this science-fiction film that uses time travel to tell the story. “Thembi is caught between two worlds, the present and the past. She is also trapped largely in her mother’s thoughts and encounters somehow,” shares Phume.

In an effort to better understand and depict the journey of Thembi, Phume consulted former female inmates who had served at correctional facilities.

Currently, South Africa has 243 prisons, with only 22 of them providing for female inmates and with poor living conditions. This inspired Phume to tell these past and present untold stories through Thembi, which is based on real human experiences.

“As much as our apartheid history has been explored, little has been said about the experiences of women who were incarcerated for criminal (not political) offences at that time. Not much has been told about how black female inmates were raped, insulted and degraded by the officials who were protected by the system. Equally so, the collaboration of some black inmates with white warders to maintain the status quo is not often shown in other stories. This film depicts that,” says Phume.

The story starts with Thembi discovering the shocking reasons behind her mother’s captivity and the horrific conditions that she had to endure while incarcerated. As a result, Thembi suffers a mental breakdown which causes her severe headaches. As she falls asleep, Thembi wakes to another world where she relives everything that her mother told her.

“The lead Innocent Sadiki, has one of the difficult tasks of playing a successful, sophisticated and young lady in a democratic South Africa and yet has to adjust to the role of being an inmate in an apartheid prison during the late 1970s.”

It is behind bars where Thembi is confronted by the struggles and survival tactics of prison life. She meets different characters, which include a shady female warder named Du Plooy, played by Nina Marais.

“The white female warder Nina Marais ‘Du Plooy’ does not walk a straight line. While she is entrusted with the authority of maintaining order in the system, she corrupts it by aiding and abetting nefarious activities carried out by some black prisoners.”

Thembi struggles throughout the film as she finds herself battling between these two worlds and time zones. Her flourishing career and marriage begin to suffer, and her once loving husband now finds himself in the arms of another man.

The film was shot on the Sony FS7 and took just over three weeks to complete.

To show the difference between the past and the present; subtle symbolism and sound effects are used in the film. Post-production duties were handled by Refinery.

Thembi, had its first premiere in November 2017 and will be having its second screening on 9 February 2018 at Maponya Mall in Soweto. More screenings are also underway, as well as plans to showcase the film at various international film festivals.

Reflecting on the audience response at the film’s premiere, Phume says: “The response was overwhelmingly fantastic. Many expressed delight and wonder through a rapturous applause after the film. They remarked of the twists and turns of the unpredictability of the storyline. We are humbled.”

The film has so far received much publicity from morning news shows including Morning Live on SABC 2 and Sunrise on e.TV. Maxi boards are also booked and mounted to advertise the film on the bustling M1 route.

Thembi tells the untold story of South Africa and it has all the ingredients of a superb film. We hope to get the dialogue initiated about the conditions of women who are incarcerated. Furthermore, to highlight the importance of women in our society,” Phume concluded.


  • Camera: Sony FS7

Writer: Dr Victor Phume
Director:  Ruth Mabona
Producer: Victor Phume Junior
DOP: Kabelo Thathe
Gaffer: Elliot Sewape
Sound Mixer: Morena Maile


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