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After the opening credits, the following written statement appears: "This film was made secretly in order to portray the true conditions of life in South Africa today. There are no professional actors in this drama of the fate of a man and his country. This is the story of Zachariah-one of the hundreds of thousands of Africans forced each year off the land by the regime and into the gold mines." Although the onscreen credits include a 1959 copyright statement for Lionel Rogosin Films, the film was not registered for copyright.
As noted in a 1967 Los Angeles Times article, the film's title was taken from that of the African National Congress anthem. All of the characters have the same name as the actors who play them. Although the main character is spelled "Zacharia" in the opening credits, his name is spelled "Zachariah" in the written statement. Some of the dialogue is spoken in African dialect with English subtitles. Throughout the film, scenes of Zacharia's fictional plight are interspersed with documentary footage of life in Johannesburg and Sophiatown, contrasting the metropolitan city with the rural, poverty-stricken village. Native music is heard throughout, and in one scene, noted South African folk singer Miriam Makeba, making her feature film debut, sings two unnamed songs. According to a modern source, as a result of Makeba's performance in Come Back, Africa, Harry Belafonte arranged for her U.S. concert debut and a recording contract with RCA Victor.
As shown in the film, Sophiatown was a black rural settlement outside of Johannesburg. The town was established in 1904 and quickly became a lively refuge for black South Africans, as well as Indian and Chinese citizens. On February 9, 1955, the government forcibly relocated the residents to Meadowlands, Soweto in order to create in its place Triomf, a residential area restricted to whites. Over the following eight years, removals continued until the town was razed and 65,000 blacks relocated, some of whom were forced to separate from their families because of government racial classifications.
An April 1960 Time article described the lengths director Lionel Rogosin had to go to in order to capture film footage in apartheid South Africa: He entered the country in 1957 as a tourist and lived there for a year before obtaining a government permit to shoot a "musical travelogue." Shooting lasted for three months and was accomplished largely in secret; even the actors were not allowed full access to the script. Rogosin "discovered" Zacharia, a Zulu office worker, at a railroad station. The director financed much of the film's $70,000 budget himself.
According to a 1967 Los Angeles Times article, Rogosin edited the raw footage in London, where he also "dubbed in the dialog," although much of the film's dialogue was clearly captured during the production. The Time article also noted that, upon the film's completion and after its European release, Rogosin was unable to secure an American exhibitor. In response, he bought a three-year lease on the Bleeker Street Theater in New York and ran the film there.
Come Back, Africa played out of competition at the Venice Film Festival in September 1959 and there won the Critic's Prize. In America, reviews were generally laudatory. Although many critics found the quality of the direction and acting lacking, they widely praised Rogosin's attempt to portray the plight of contemporary South African blacks and applauded his ability to obtain footage under difficult restrictions. The Hollywood Citizen-News reviewer, however, reproached the picture for its "prejudice," calling it "detrimental to the cause of integration and equal rights." Time magazine named the film one of the top pictures of 1960.
In May 1978, Box Office reported that Rogosin planned to reissue Come Back, Africa "in view of the current African situation." At that point, the film had never been shown in South Africa. A November 2004 Variety article stated that the film had recently been restored by Italy's Bologna Institute for South Africa's National Film and Video Foundation, and that this version had its premiere on November 19, 2004 in Johannesburg. Although that article stated that Henry Nxumalo, a journalist who helped inform the world about the treatment of blacks in South Africa, appears in Come Back, Africa, Nxumalo died in 1957.