The South African authorities are extremely sensitive to world opinion, and when white defence counsel Rina Van Niekirk (Prunella Gee in her feature film debut) quotes from the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, the court has to tread warily.
The occasion is the trial of Shack Twala (Sidney Poitier), a black revolutionary leader who is accused of violating the Terrorism Act – a measure that was passed during the fifth year of his 10-year jail sentence, which Shack has just completed. Rina points out that what Shack did five years ago was not then a criminal offence, so he should now be freed.
After some deliberation, the judge agrees and pronounces Shack a free man.
Shack, Rina and her British tourist boyfriend Jim Keogh (Michael Caine) head for Rina’s flat for a celebration bottle of champagne, thinking that their troubles are over. But for Shack, they are only just beginning.
Their car is stopped by police who demand to see the pass which all black Africans have to carry in South Africa, and although Rina tries to explain the circumstances, saying that Shack is to have a pass issued later in the day, it is to no avail.
In any civilised country, an established barrister with a High Court Judge’s order in her pocket for a man’s release would be instantly believed, but it is different in a police state where uniformed thugs appear to make up their own laws as they go along.
Shack is yanked out of the car and handcuffed to a row of frightened blacks who have been picked up elsewhere. This glaring injustice is more than British flesh and blood can stand, and Keogh lets fly into the brutal policeman, felling him to the ground.
Believing that justice will prevail if they go to the authorities, Keogh has it quickly pointed out to him by Rina and Shack that the police are the authorities, and they had better get out of Cape Town and South Africa fast if they are not to end up in jail.
Naturally, the Cape Town police are outraged at what has happened, and roadblocks are set up on all roads leading out of the city. But Major Horn (Nicol Williamson), a particularly obnoxious member of State Security, has the roadblocks withdrawn, much to the annoyance of the police commandant who just wants to get his hands on “the white thug and the Bantu black”.
The Major, however, has a more far-reaching plan in mind and is content to track the fugitives, keeping a little way behind without attempting to overtake them.
Keogh learns from Shack that before his arrest, he was vice president of the Black Congress (the ANC). A fortune in diamonds – which are to supply the Congress with the funds it urgently requires to carry on its work – are also involved.
Although set in South Africa, the picture was made in Kenya as it was considered too politically unstable to film in SA. It was the first major English-language movie of Rutger Hauer.
Rina Van Niekirk
Rijk de Gooye
Blane Van Niekirk
Joe De Graft