The impossibility of being both Shepherds and Butchers


Set in 1987 in South Africa, Shepherds and Butchers details the unspoken psychological horror of complicity as the covert white noise in the background and the cacophony of overt oppression occupies the fore in the country’s apartheid narrative.

This film reveals the scope of apartheid-related trauma by bringing into focus the consequences of state-sanctioned violence through the eyes of Leon Labuschagne, the protagonist, who is both caretaker and executor to his metaphoric flock on death row. The horror of Labuschagne’s complicity is too much for even him to bear as he experiences amnesia after murdering seven black men for a seemingly random motive.

The apartheid state treatment of white youth as impersonal pawns in the game of political domination is highlighted by Labuschagne’s inadequate training and blind obedience. The audience longs to believe his innocence, but his zombie-like countenance chillingly communicates his jeopardised mental health as a result of maintaining the functional penal system.

As Labuschagne testifies, he begins to thaw the cold indifference he has developed as a coping mechanism to fulfill his duty as a guard for inmates on death-row. Shepherds and Butchers challenges the inhumanity of the death penalty by considering the psychologically detrimental effects it has on all those involved, even those in positions of power. The film illustrates how the naturalised violence in the sadistic apartheid prison system terrorised both prisoner and guard.

In Shepherds and Butchers, the audience sympathises with Leon as a person instead of as a guard. He is faced with a fundamental contradiction as articulated by one of the characters: “The only thing worse than killing a stranger is killing someone you know.” The film comments on the ubiquity of violence and its power to damage both the oppressed and the oppressor.

Shepherds and Butchers will be screened again on 5 July at 10pm at Olive Schreiner Hall at the Monument.

By Ayanda Gigaba