It would be impossible to overstate the importance of “Dear Mandela”, a documentary now showing at the IndieScreen Theater in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn through tomorrow evening. After a decade or more of Hollywood movies like “Invictus” or “In My Country” that can best be described as public relations for the ANC, a fierce documentary directed by Dara Kell, a South African now living in the U.S., and Christopher Nizza, finally catches up with reality–a system of economic apartheid has replaced one based on race.
Just as the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 helped galvanize a movement against racial apartheid, the slaughter of 36 miners in Marikana creates the political context for a new freedom struggle based on class. To understand how South Africa has entered a new terrain of struggle, there is no better introduction than “Dear Mandela”, a film that focuses on the struggle against slum clearance in the name of “development” that took place in the outskirts of Durban. We meet three young activists of Abahlali baseMjondolo (Residents of the Shacks) who are committed to the rights of the poor to live in informal settlements. Despite the promise of President Nelson Mandela that every South African would have the right to a decent home, the new ANC pushed through legislation that would give the government the right to demolish the shacks that the poor were forced to live in. Each day “Red Ants”–work crews in red coveralls–come to the slums and raze their shacks to the ground and each day community members rebuild them. They had learned that ANC promises to build new homes were empty.
The only solution was to challenge the constitutionality of the law that allowed the state to rob the poor of their only shelter. Minister of Housing Lindiwe Susulu is heard defending the law and expressing surprise at the movement of slum dwellers against it. As the daughter of Walter and Albertina Susulu, she is about as apt a symbol of the ANC’s degeneration as can be imagined. When I visited the ANC’s headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia in 1987, I met Albertina Susulu whose husband was serving his 24th year in prison at the time. Like most activists opposed to apartheid, I never would have dreamed that 20 years later their daughter would defend a law that could have been written by the De Klerk government.
The three main protagonists of “Dear Mandela” are Mazwi, a high school student, Zama, a mother and university student, and Mnikelo, a shopkeeper and activist who I had the good fortune to interview this morning while he was in New York for a nationwide tour coinciding with the film’s debut.
In the film, Mnikelo goes to recently evicted slum dwellers with a copy of the South African Constitution to tell them about their rights. When he and other members of the movement boycott national elections under the slogan “No Land, No House, No Vote”, he becomes a target of the ANC.
The relationship between the ANC and such activists provides the central dramatic tension throughout the film. In one of the more memorable scenes, Mazwi speaks to a rally of slum dwellers and leads them in chants directed against rightwing parties that they eagerly take up. But when he yells out “Down with the ANC”, he is met with stony silence. Later he explains that the old folks still have a fondness for Nelson Mandela that is expressed in his portraits seen on the walls of many shacks. Some, however, have grown tired of this nostalgia as demonstrated by their willingness to deface graffiti from decades past. They have crossed out the word “Free” in “Free Nelson Mandela” and replaced it with “Hang”.
You can understand the rising anger. In one of the more terrifying moments of the film, activists scatter for their lives as a group of armed men invade the community with the intention of killing people like Mazwi, Zama, and Mnikelo. Instead of apprehending the invaders, the cops end up arresting a group of men assigned to provide security for the shack dwellers—a deed that anticipates the Marikana disaster.
When I raised the question of Marikana with Mnikelo, he thought that it marked a turning point for the ANC. When cops can kill miners in this fashion, it shows disrespect for the nation’s laws. A responsible police force might have resorted to rubber bullets to disperse a violent mob, but shooting people in cold blood was an unlawful act. As always, Mnikelo demonstrated his mastery of constitutional law.
For those who have grown disillusioned with the ANC, the film is an inspiring reminder that “the struggle continues” in South Africa. At one point, S’Bu Zikode, the leader of Abahlali baseMjondolo is described as the new Nelson Mandela. It is hard to argue with this claim after seeing “Dear Mandela”. I would add that the three young activists remind me of the young ANC’ers I met in Lusaka back in 1987 before they were born. Their idealism, their intelligence and their willingness to put their bodies on the line are qualities that once defined the ANC. Fortunately for South Africa, a new generation has once again risen to the occasion.
If “Dear Mandela” was nothing but a clumsy Youtube video with zero production values, there would still be a compelling need to watch it as a document about South African reality today, so much so that it would probably go viral in a couple of days. The good news is that “Dear Mandela” is a top-notch production that will certainly earn my nomination for best documentary of 2012. With a superb score by Ted Reichman, who has worked with Marc Ribot and other leading edge musicians, the film’s dramatic moments receive just the right accompaniment. The cinematography stands out as well, a function no doubt of acclaimed Director of Photography Matthew Peterson’s involvement. To his great credit, Peterson worked for free. Funding came from the Sundance Institute, an outfit that I have faulted in the past for its tendency to foist the worst art-house clichés of young narrative filmmakers. But with this brilliant, powerful and timely documentary, I can say all is forgiven.
Although “Dear Mandela” runs only through tomorrow in Brooklyn, a national and global roll-out might bring it within nearby viewing distance. Check the schedule on the film’s website and make sure to put it on your calendar if it is coming to your neck of the woods.