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The Power of One: TAP’s Movie of the Month for May 2015

May 5, 2015

Power 2Sometimes you watch the perfect movie at the perfect time of your life and the story hits you just right.  In 1992, The Power of One was that movie for me.

The world of the late 1980s and early 1990s was a world of constant change.  In 1989, a student revolution erupted in China, and for the first time, I found myself strangely connected to something happening on the other side of the world. I don’t know why the story of the tank man of Tiananmen Square struck a nerve, but it was the moment I started to become politically aware.

I began to see that Eastern European countries were slowly fighting for their freedom from the Communist machine that had been keeping them down for decades.  The Soviet Union, who had been the big, bad, scary threat in the world since long before I was born, finally crumbled.  The Berlin Wall fell.  Terrifying, but mysterious and fascinating things, were happening in places I wasn’t even sure where they were – Nicaragua, Liberia, Libya, Kuwait, Bolivia… The world was on fire, and I was engrossed.

Then I saw The Power of One, and I can’t fully explain the impact this movie had on me in 1992. I suddenly felt so sheltered and alone and helpless.  Before then, I thought I’d been getting the hang of the changing world, understanding who needed help, knowing who was the good guys and the bad guys.  I thought I was aware and astute, but that movie opened my eyes to how little I knew.  Until The Power of One, I’d never heard of Apartheid.  I had no idea what was going on in South Africa.  As aware of the world as I had become, I still knew nothing.

I’m hoping that for each of you, The Power of One opens your eyes to the way South Africa was in the middle of the 20th Century.  It wasn’t as simple as black and white.  The racism, the inequality, the anger, the fear…  The world isn’t simple and clean with a line down the middle to show you good on one side and evil on the other.  The Power of One is all about that gray area.

The Book

One of my all-time favorite books.  Strangely, though, there are no airplanes in the book at all.  Very odd choice for the cover.

One of my all-time favorite books. Strangely, though, there are no airplanes in the book at all. Very odd choice for the cover.

The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay is one of my all-time favorite books.  It is so very different from the movie.  I enjoy the movie, but I absolutely love this book.  If you decide to read one book about South Africa before, during, or after our trip, pick this one.

It’s a historical fiction novel set in South Africa during and after WWII.  Published in 1989, the book is widely considered Courtenay’s most popular, having been translated into eighteen different languages and selling eight million copies worldwide.  The book is a coming of age story written for adult audiences, but the incredible popularity of the novel, along with the lessons presented that would appeal to younger audiences, led to a “young reader’s” edition being released in 1999.  A movie version of The Power of One came out in 1992, and a sequel, Tandia, was published in 1991.  (I have not read Tandia yet, but I bought a copy for the long plane ride).

Bryce Courtenay was born in South Africa, met his wife while attending college in England, and later lived in Australia.  He held dual citizenship for South Africa and Australia. In college he studied journalism, but for over thirty years, Courtenay worked in advertising, writing novels on the side.  Over time he became one of Australia’s most commercially successful authors, winning numerous awards, including the 1990 British Book Award for The Power of One.  Most of his novels centered around his two homes, South Africa and Australia, The Power of One being about a young boy in the early stages of WWII, portrayed as about the same age Courtenay would have been then.

The main character of The Power of One is a young boy, age five at the beginning of the novel, and about eighteen by the end of the story, growing up in South Africa in the mid-1930 and 1940s.  In the early chapters of the book, the boy is only referred to by the derogatory nickname Pisskop by the Afrikaner students at his boarding school.   As the only student there of English descent, the boy is bullied mercilessly, and his only friend is a rooster named Granpa Chook (changed in the movie to a chicken named Grandma Courage for some reason).   His one year as an English Rooenik (a derogatory name given to the English by the Afrikaners) show the readers that there was a huge divide in South Africa even in the white population.  Since the Boer Wars, the English were seen as privileged oppressors, while the Afrikaners, or Boers (Dutch heritage), were seen as a lower class.  Poor Peekay, as he later becomes known, at just five years old, finds himself in the middle of a hate he just doesn’t understand.

The Power of One is one of those books where the good guy is also the “bad guy.”  Not that Peekay is a bad guy, he’s just his own worst enemy in a lot of ways.  He decides early in life that the bullying he endured at boarding school will be the last time he’s going to be bullied, but through his eyes we meet and witness the cruelty and racism present in South Africa during Peekay’s life.  Peekay befriends numerous people that are viewed as second class citizens in their own country.  A German immigrant, a colored prisoner, an Afrikaner boxing coach, a black African who would be chief, a Jewish teacher, and a Russian mine-worker all help show Peekay who he could be and enable him to see The Power of One.  The only thing standing in Peekay’s way is himself and his inability to let go of the fear and hatred his five year old self felt.

The Power of One is all about the journey that Peekay takes to find the peace he needs.  It’s a fantastic book, full of rich characters and exciting moments, that teaches you the history of this fractured and broken country.

The video below gives you a little insight into Bryce Courtenay’s writing process, but you’ll also see a little bit of Peekay and Doc in him while watching.


Morgan Freeman

Red Redding + Nelson Mandela + Scrap Iron Dupris = Gaal Piet

Red Redding + Nelson Mandela + Scrap Iron Dupris = Gaal Piet

Haven’t we seen him in one of our Movies of the Month already this year?  As if the world conspired to make this happen, three of my all-time favorite Morgan Freeman movies he plays a prisoner (The Shawshank Redemption), a South African (Invictus), and a boxing coach (Million Dollar Baby).  In this movie he plays a South African who coaches boxers while in prison.  Pretty cool.


South African soldiers in WWII had all the other Allied forces jealous of their short pants.

South African soldiers in WWII had all the other Allied forces jealous of their short pants.

South Africa was in a very difficult position when WWII erupted.  Here in the U.S, we focus on the conflict of Apartheid and simplify the troubles of South Africa as a White vs. Black issue. The racial/ethnic divide ran much deeper than that.

The Anglo-Boer Wars were two separate conflicts fought in the 1880s and the early 1900s.  By the late 1930s, South Africa still had not entirely healed from those wars.  Afrikaner (Boer) people with German/Dutch heritage and the Anglo (or English) South Africans did not have the same beliefs, political ideals, or plans for the future of South Africa.  The white population of South Africa was still greatly divided.

In 1939, Hitler’s army invaded Poland.  Two days later, Great Britain declared war on Germany.  South Africa (still called the Union of South Africa) was still a British commonwealth and constitutionally obligated to join Britain in the war.

This ignited a furious debate in South Africa’s Parliament (like Congress).  The Prime Minister of the country at the time was JBM Hertzog.  To simplify things, we have Democrats and Republicans who don’t get along on a philosophical level – the South Africans had the National Party (Hertzog was their leader) and the South Africa Party (led by Jan Smuts, who was Prime Minister before Hertzog and became Prime Minister again later in 1939, replacing Hertzog).

The National Party was pro-Afrikaner and anti-British.  Someone’s political ideals are never simple, so keep in mind that this is an incredibly basic version of their beliefs.  The National Party worked to take away the rights of Colored South Africans (mixed race – the Black Africans already had very little voice).  They eventually were the ones to put the Apartheid laws into place.  Their agenda was to make South Africa primarily an Afrikaner country.  In terms of WWII, they either wanted to stay out of the war altogether or support Hitler and the Axis Powers.

The South Africa Party is an even more complex one to discuss. Let’s just leave at the idea that they were pro-British.

In 1934, five years before WWII began, the National Party and the South Africa Party merged together to form the Union Party – obviously things from the past hadn’t been put aside and the members of the Union party were divided (some for Smuts/British some for Hertzog/Axis).

Eventually, South Africa did join the war on the side of the British.

In The Power of One, this divide is huge.  The bullying Peekay endures at the beginning of the story is simply because his ancestors are English and all of the other kids at his school are Afrikaners.  The young Boer students are obvious supporters of the Germans and Hitler, and torment Peekay even though he has no idea what all the controversy is about.

Here’s a little taste of South Africa’s involvement in WWII.


As we’ll likely see when we visit Robben Island, the prison Nelson Mandela spent a great deal of his incarceration at, the prison system in South Africa during and just before the Apartheid era was terribly unjust.

Black prisoners were given different rights than colored prisoners, who weren’t given the same rights as white prisoners.  Different meals, different clothing, different living conditions, and different treatment by the guards were all quite common.


The Bantu Education Act of 1953 was not very popular.  You saw the tail end of this in Sarafina!

The Bantu Education Act of 1953 was not very popular. You saw the tail end of this in Sarafina!

As you can see in both the movie and book versions of The Power of One, there was a great deal of disparity as to the level and quality of education the people of South Africa could receive during this time period.

After the British won the Second Boer War (also called the South African War or the Anglo-Boer War) in 1902, Sir Alfred Milner, the British High Commissioner for Southern Africa, brought thousands of teachers in from England, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.  These teachers were brought in to instil the English language (remember, the Boers spoke/speak Afrikaans) and British cultural values.  Schools designed like this began popping up all over South Africa, but most commonly in the two states that had been Afrikaner republics.

The Afrikaners did not simply accept this assault on their language and culture.  They began an education program sponsored by Afrikaner Christian churches to instill pride in Afrikaner language and tradition.

At first, the government refused to fund this type of program, but Jan Smuts convinced the federal government that education should be a local issue (hello, we’re looking at you Common Core) and felt that allowing the Afrikaner schools to adopt their own programs would go a long way towards healing the fracture in South Africa’s white population.

Eventually, as the National Party (see above) gained control, they were able to take advantage of people’s fears and build support for their Christian National Education.  After that passed in 1948 (Peekay would have been around 14), all South African students were required to be proficient in English and Afrikaans to graduate high school.

Most of the Black Africans Peekay meets in the prison are unable to read or write.  They likely grew up in the years between 1900 and 1948.  During that time period, government education funds were only used to fund the schooling of white children.  The only education black kids could receive was through schools set up by churches and other religious organizations.  These schools attempted to provide the same level of education white kids go in government funded schools.  (The book does get into these ideas quite a bit near the end).

However, in 1953 (probably near the end of The Power of One), the Bantu Education Act was passed and the government eliminated financial assistance to churches that were educating black children.  This forced many churches to either sell or close their schools.

The South African government then began a system called the Christian National Education, which eventually led to education that was designed based on race.  Black students were educated to prepare them for menial service jobs, while white children were given much more opportunity.   The black schools received 10% of the funding white schools did.

Throughout The Power of One, you can see the disparity of education and opportunity given to South Africans based on their race – English, Afrikaner, Colored, or Black.


Here is the movie The Power of One:


I hope you all enjoy The Power of One as much as I did the first time I saw it.  It’s an emotional roller coaster, and a fantastic story (although the book is far superior).  There are so many special moments in this film that will give you insight into South African history and the lives of the people there.  Apartheid, education, the prison system, the country’s involvement in WWII, and the underlying racism that went beyond black and white. This movie well worth a few hours of your time before we fly to South Africa.

As always, grab yourself some rusks and billtong and watch our Movie of the Month, The Power of One, along with the other videos we’ve posted today.  You can find The Power of One embedded right here in this post, so no reason to search the local libraries or streaming sites.  We ask that all of our South Africa travelers take the time to watch our Movies of the Month, then come back here to discuss the movie, the history, and the impact this story had on the people and places we’ll visit.  The longer and more in depth our discussion gets, the better it is for all of us.  

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Cameron Smith permalink
    May 14, 2015 7:16 pm

    I think this is one of the better movies that we have seen so far. I really enjoyed how this movie showed the main protagonist slowly getting older through out. I feel like this is a unique style and is under appreciated in my opinion. It was strange to me though that even though the narration is told in past tense the narrators voice changes as he grows up. (is he narrating is whole life as he grows up?) The narration also stops about half way through the movie which was really strange to me. Maybe there is some kind of secret artistic meaning behind this decision and I just haven’t noticed it. For me the end text before the credits really provoked thought of how this movie might of inspired people who watched when it came out. Now apartheid is over but when this movie came out when apartheid was still going on it may of inspired viewers at the time to try and stop apartheid.

  2. Austin Stein permalink
    May 14, 2015 8:00 pm

    This is my second time watching the movie (the first time I did, I was a freshman) and after now fully understanding the history of South Africa, this was a huge eye opener. The biggest thing I learned from this movie is that you can learn about the history of a place, but it never sticks until you see how it affected other people. I felt awful for PK during both sittings, but while shock was the dominate feeling the first time, disgust is what set me over the edge this time. People can be cruel, and they are cruelest to the innocent. This movie makes that clear with how PK, Doc, and Maria all end up being punished but in reality they hadn’t done anything to deserve it. However, the ironic twist to the abuse is that it inspires people to prevent what happened to them happen to others. PK shows that people need to stand up to the evils they may face, even if they do not succeed the first time. Despite injustice, we have to fight back. I’m glad I got to watch this again because it really let me focus on the greater theme and allowed me to better grasp the reality that history does happen and affects people in real ways.

  3. Gianna Kriechbaum permalink
    May 15, 2015 8:44 am

    Alright. I honestly dont know where to start with this movie. But as always, we’ll start with the beginning. P.K. was such a cute little kid and his mom dying was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. When he was sent to the school I was so scared for him because he’s British and man was I scared for a reason. They bullied and tormented this little boy so badly I just felt so awful for him. I almost threw up when they peed on him and was crying when they killed his chicken. But as he grew up I’m very glad he met Doc and that Doc was so nice and acted as a grandfather figure to help him grow and flourish. Since P.K. could speak both English and the language of the people in the jail, it was very easy for him to communicate with the inmates, and help them perform the little skit they put on that was against the guards and for their own people. When Doc didn’t even survive his own sentence… It was tragic. It was absolutely horrible and I didn’t know how P.K. would hold through. Also with Piet. Piet was a very big guide towards P.K. in helping with his learning to box and such. As P.K. grows up, he is a very smart student and fights for the right of all people against apartheid. He ends up starting to teach the Africans how to speak English secretly, seeing as how only whites are aloud in this time period. When he began secretly dating Maria (seriously what’s up with his sneakiness), it was like she made him feel so good and inspired him to keep at what he was doing. When she died it was heartbreaking. Although it was a very bad death scene. But in the end everything turned out quite alright, and the Africans were starting to learn English all thanks to P.K. and him never backing down. This had an impact on the history and people simply because of the apartheid. Its a big problem in the movie and it was a huge problem in real life. But in this movie they really tried to show the push forward that they wanted to make against the apartheid.

  4. erin seymour permalink
    May 15, 2015 7:16 pm

    This movie was very moving. There was a lot of violence and I did not like that but it really taught me about racism and world war 2. At times I just wanted to reach my fist through the screen and punch someone in the jaw but I decided that would get me in trouble with my parents. I have to say I cried at some parts. I respect people who don’t care what race other people are and this movie. The English were a big part of the apartheid too. The Germans and Afrikaners did not respect them at all and it made me think, why. What does it matter what part of the world you are from, and why are people so evil. I liked this movie. I really grasped the theme of the movie. The disgust overwhelmed me sometimes. People bully and in really terrible times kill and this movie showed how wrong racism is.

  5. Brian Cottingim permalink
    May 15, 2015 11:37 pm

    The beginning took a bit to catch on, and the audio on the video made it hard to hear the little boy talking at some parts. I had no idea that WWII effected South Africa that much. P.K.’s character was very strong and brave. He has lost so many treasured things in his life. His mother, his caretaker, his chicken, Doc when he went to Germany, Piet, his girlfriend Marias, all the native people that considered PK as family. I feel like this contributed to the movie in many ways. I also like when the film was made, we learned about how the rest of the world left out South Africa to punish them, to push them to get rid of the apartheid. We left them out of the Olympics, musical artists spoke out against it, and now we are calling them out on movies. I feel like the whole entire world helped South Africa out of the nutshell.

  6. Stephanie Melendez permalink
    May 25, 2015 4:28 pm

    To start off, all I can say is WOW! This movie really opened my eyes and showed me that our world isn’t perfect. Just like Mr. Curtis said, I feel helpless because there is nothing I can do to change the world all by myself. But if there were a bunch of people that felt the same way as I did then we could probably find a way to change the world. Personally, I think this movie was made to show how people were actually treated in South Africa. Then those people would want to make a difference in the world but especially in South Africa at the time. Next, I would like to discuss about P.K. PK did everything he possible could to get equal rights across South Africa. The way these people were treated just makes me sick. Still to this day I don’t know why people have such hatred towards one another. Why can’t we all just except each other and be acquaintances? Anyways, PK is a very strong/brave individual. He lost his mother, his mother, his chicken, Doc, Piet, and Maria. Even though he lost almost everyone important to him in his life, that didn’t stop him from trying to make a difference in South Africa.

  7. Jordan Springer permalink
    May 30, 2015 12:22 pm

    I loved this movie. It was a roller coaster, and I loved that. I knew that the National Party supported Hitler, but I had no idea how much so. The young Afrikaners at the school reminded me a great deal of the Hitler Youth and made me wonder how people so young could hate so much. I loved seeing all of P.K.’s friends and their “mad” dedication to creating a better South Africa and a better world. It was so inspiring to see them sacrifice everything that they had for the possibility of a future that would hold more for them. I agree with Erin in that there was many a character that I simply wanted to punch (I’m looking at you, Botha). It was interesting to see Apartheid from the viewpoint of a white South African, as we mostly have seen Apartheid through the eyes of black South Africans. Even though we’ve learned so much about Apartheid, I’m still constantly shocked by its brutality. Piet’s death was a particularly gruesome and grim reminder of this. The boxing was fun to watch, but what interested me most was the multitude of languages featured in the movie. One of my favorite things about traveling is hearing languages that’re totally foreign to me. South Africa is one of the best places for this, as it has 11 official languages, and it was great to see that represented to the film. Even though my appreciation of it was slightly lessened by its use by the corrupt policemen, it was cool to hear Afrikaans and see how it related to German and English. In addition to this, I was able to pick out some basic words such as “Ubuntu” and “Yebo” when Zulu was spoken. Although I wasn’t necessarily happy about it, I feel that the movie accurately represented the moods and opinions of people in South Africa at the time, including the racism and the discrimination. Overall, the movie was very enjoyable and showed many aspects of South Africa.

  8. Ronnie Stovall permalink
    June 6, 2015 7:00 pm

    I wouldn’t call this the best movie I say in TAP, but it was okay towards the end. I couldn’t really understand what they were staying half the time cause the sound was a little jacked up. I got that the kid’s father died by being trampled by an elephant. With his mother not knowing how to tend the farm animals she grew sick and died while he was left at a school that he got be up in and other things. I knew parts of the war were in Africa but didn’t know there was word in South Africa I learned it was on the coast like Egypt or Algeria. I wondered why would the Afrikaners would support Hitler. I thought it was cruel to kill the kids best friend even if it was a chicken. Every step of P.K’s life someone died he was close too. The discrimination and the racism was stronger when the war was going on and the only place it was outlawed was in the ring were black and white fought side by side as friends. The cops didn’t like that or that PK taught the Africans how to read or learn. The end of the movie he made somewhat of a difference but there still was discrimination after so many have died

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