Wednesday, September 20, 2017



Last year, I wrote a post examining the phenomenon of Lance Spearman (CLICK HERE). Known as the black James Bond, Spearman was the superhero spy of a long running series of South African fotoboekies (look books or photo books). This term was coined for magazines featuring action photographs accompanied by comic strip style captions. Relatively unknown in America, these hybrid comic mash-ups had a rabid following in other parts of the world from the ‘60s thru the late ‘80s. In Africa, fotoboekies served as surrogate movies—a way to tell film-like stories at a time when commercial African cinema had not yet been invented. 

Recently, I came across an interesting short documentary on YouTube (CLICK HERE) celebrating South African fotoboekies kultuur—which translates as pulp photo story culture. I also came across a trove of covers for a photo-book series named after its gorgeous title character, Tessa, a platinum blonde who battled evil in urban South Africa clad only in a bikini and high heels. Clashing with sinister looking individuals wearing bad suits and sunglasses, Tessa always came out on top (so to speak) without a strand of her bottled blonde hair out of place. 

To her ardent, continent-wide fans, Tessa, the bikini-clad, karate kicking government agent, was akin to a goddess. Every 30,000 copy issue of Tessa sold out almost instantaneously on the newsstands—creating a lucrative secondhand market. Those 30,000 copies in today’s Internet savvy market would equal numbers to put the Kardashian’s Twitter followers to shame.

The South African publishing company, Republican Press, were the low-budget force behind the phenomenon of the photo comics Tessa and Kid Colt, as well as the Playboy knockoff Scope. At its zenith, Republican Press was printing 20 different fotoboekies a month. 

Grafting Western influenced literary myths onto African settings, fotoboekies were most often written by authors based in Johannesburg—many of them black South African students working for minimal pay—then photographed by white professional shutterbugs using a team of black actors in Swaziland. 

The actors were mostly locals from working-class neighborhoods. While the top fotoboekie models were paid 25 to 30 rand a day—which at the time was a lucrative way to pay your rent—most appearance fees were negligible. The recognizable main male actors were generally consider eccentric, hard-living, womanizers. Working quickly, an entire book could be shot in one to three days depending on the complexity of the simple sets. 


There were also army heroes—Swart Luiperd, Wit Tier, Kaptein Duiwel, Grensvegter (Black Leopard, White Tiger, Captain Devil, Grantsman) and others. They were most often depicted in the jungle clutching their wooden machine guns, killing cigar smoking Cuban clones. Almost always, the villains held the proverbial disheveled damsel in distress captive after her convoy/aircraft/helicopter/hospital was invaded/crashed/broke down. The real South African soldiers who read these outrageous tales only wished their own lives could be as exciting as these figments of fervent imagination.

Fotoboekie cowboy heroes were also featured regularly in their own titles. Danie van Rensburg was Ruiter in Swart (Rider In Black), one of the first photo books published by Republican Press in 1966. Ruiter in the Swart became arguably the most popular of the cowboy fotoboekies

The storyline focused on  the character of Ben riding across the 1880s Lowveld—a low-lying subtropical climate where broad-leaved trees and thorn trees co-exist in relatively open woodland, interspersed with long grass and lots of game. After his son is kidnapped, Ben makes it his life's ambition to root out evil while searching for his son.

When the series ended after 17 years and 491 issues, Ben's son was still missing, but many evil-doers had been put down. In 2012, the character was still fondly remembered. Ruiter in Swart Productions produced a film version, which brought Danie van Rensburg back to his most popular role 30 years after the last print version. 

In the movie version, Ben is retired from the ZARP (Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek Polisie). When evidence his long lost son, Eben, is leading a gang of cattle rustlers. Ruiter in Swart has no hesitation in donning his famous black outfit, strapping on his gun belt, saddling his black stallion, and setting out in pursuit.

In the real world Ruiter in Swart’s manly star, Danie van Rensburg, was married to Elize, the woman who played the lead fotoboeki character in the seriesTanya Die Vegter. Elize and Danie remained married until Elize died in her sleep next to Danie at the age of 70 in 2012.

Etienne van der Westhuizen starred as Kid Die Swerwer (Kid Colt), a fotoboekie cowboy who would share pages with Tessa when the popularity of the photo book began to declined. Born in a province of South Africa known as Free State, Etienne van der Westhuizen was an outstanding college rugby player.

While sitting on the beach when the weather was to bad to go fishing, he was approached by a fotoboekie scout who asked if he was interested in playing a part in a Western photo story. Fortunately for Etienne, he could ride horses and do stunt work. After the first week, he was hired to work on a regular basis. 

Many of the cowboy fotoboekies where shot at an old monastery, which was the perfect backdrop for a Western. Etienne was constantly riding horses for every issue only to have to fall off them again and again to be sure of capturing the right photo. 

Another regular Western set was established amongst the scrub bush and sand dunes found around the outskirts of Umgababa. The dunes were so steep the horses couldn’t be used. However, if a script called for desert sequences, Etienne and the other actors had to create the scenes on the difficult slopes. Etienne eventually became an organizer—taking charge of photo stories and organizing the wardrobe, changes of clothing, and continuity.

Of his time starring as Kid Die Swerwer, Etienne is quoted as saying:

Friends from yesteryear still call me Kid—but back then it was very much a name. At one stage, right at the beginning of the book, it was very hard to sit in a restaurant and not have kids point at you and have people ask whether you were that guy from the book. At the end of the day, I thought of myself more as a stunt rider than anything else, but I got to meet lovely people from all walks of life. Whenever we needed extras, we’d go down to the beach and chat to folks—usually backpackers from Australia or New Zealand—and offer them bit parts. It was great fun.

The Hang Fire Books blog features a post (CLICK HERE) with an account from Dianne, a model who was often featured as a secondary character in the Tessa books...

Most of the filming was done at Republican Press in Mobeni, Durban. They had a separate section which was used for photo stories and they had various sets arranged—a jail, operating theatre, doctors office, etc.

On the whole, it only took a morning to shoot the entire book. We used to get there by 0830 and were finished between 1200 and 1400 depending on your part in the book. We would bring three day outfits, one evening outfit, and a bikini. All of us became quite adept at changing in the back of the Combi [a slang word for the VW van used on sets as a trailer for the actors]. It was a good laugh to go through the books when they were published and see all the mistakes that were made!

These mass produced popular culture pulps, along with many similar fotoboekies, were considered disposable at the time of their publication. Today, they have become lovingly remembered, hard to find, collectors items, and even considered a literary history of their times.


  1. Hi Paul
    Compliments on your site, it sure does bring back a lot of memories.
    However I would just like to correct you on one fact if I may.....Danie Van Rensburg was married to Elize Van Rensburg, the lady who played "TANYA die vegter" she however died in her sleep next to Danie at the age of 70 around 2012

    Kind Regards
    Fanie Engelbrecht

  2. Fanie. Thx for your comment. I appreciate the correction (which I have made in the post above). Information on these magazines is scarce, and anytime someone can add to it or make a correction, it is important to do so. From your comment, I assume you were involved with the magazines, knew some of the people who were connected to them, or simply know far more about the genre than I do. If so, I would enjoy corresponding with you about the genre, which I find fascinating. If you would like to share your info, I can be reached by email via the contact button below the blog banner. I hope to hear from you.

  3. Is the Tessa charater still alive and what does she look like now ? She was my icon as a young girl ...

  4. Good question, but I don't know the answer. Chances are she has passed, but I don't have any solid knowledge. Information about this subject and the people involved is very slim...

  5. Hi....according to my knowledge both Tessa's have passed, one was a m/v accident the other, not sure......

  6. Thx as always, Fanie. I appreciate you sharing your knowledge. Do you know what the actresses names were?

  7. My mate Ken has told me all about these picture books as he starred in several during his time in Durban, he has very good memories of his adventures

  8. Hi Paul
    Can you pls ellaborate on your friend Ken....for instance what role he played in which story's and photos as well if you have please...would love to hear....

    Fanie Engelbrecht

  9. Hi Paul
    Sure, the first Tessa was Erna van der Westhuizen (Davids) and the second was Barbara Cronje



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