Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 25, 2005

In My Country

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on February 25, 2005

Ordinarily I do not review films that I hate. However, I will make an exception for “In My Country,” a film that deals with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings in South Africa of the late 1990s and that achieves an awfulness of biblical proportions. It is of additional interest that the political and dramatic failings complement each other. This is not like a John Sayles film putting forward progressive messages woodenly. Nor is it like a John Ford western with a reactionary message wrapped in a thrilling story. It is guilty on all counts.

Basically, this is a film that exaggerates the importance of the TRC hearings. It is understandable that in the celebratory mood that accompanied the end of apartheid that such a film might be made. But with a decade of steadily degrading living conditions in South Africa and the rise of a new ANC bourgeoisie, it is disturbing to watch a film that turns these hearings into some kind of vindication of “unbuntu,” a word that can roughly be translated as the “interconnectedness of all people.” In the context of post-apartheid South Africa, a bit more “disconnectedness” might be needed, especially on a class basis.

Moreover, the characters are not believable, the dialogue is stilted, the plotting is mechanical and everything is bathed in a melodramatic schmaltz that makes one gag for air. At the critic’s screening last night, I had to resist the urge to yell out loud at the screen. I did manage one “bullshit” under my breath, however.

“In My Country” is based on Antjie Krog’s memoir “Country of My Skull.” Krog is a radio reporter and poet of Afrikaner descent. In the film, her character becomes Anna Malan, played by French actress Juliette Binoche. In the film and in real life, Krog/Malan is the quintessential liberal who understands the apartheid era as a function of bad character rather than political economy. Her father and brother are racists who don’t think twice about shooting black African cattle rustlers on their ranch, as is depicted in the film’s opening scene. She, on the other hand, wants all Africans–both black and white–just to get along together.

Set against her “Kumbaya” yearnings is Washington Post reporter Langston Whitehead, a fictional character played by Samuel Jackson, who comes across as someone to the left of the Black Commentator. When Whitehead and Malan first meet, the sparks fly as they debate whether the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings will do any good. Let’s put it this way. Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn will not have to worry about being displaced in film history by this rivalry. Screenwriter Ann Peacock invented the Whitehead character as a kind of everyman, who would be “the window through which the outside world experiences the TRC.”

Suffice it to say that the Washington Post was a window through which the State Department could experience South Africa, not some ostensible “everyman.” This newspaper and the N.Y. Times did nothing to resist apartheid when it was in its ascendancy. At the time that the TRC hearings were taking place, they were covered by Lynne Duke, an African-American reporter whose articles can best be described as neutral reportage. Late in the film, a faxed article describing the apartheid years as genocidal is depicted with Langston Whitehead’s byline and his editor’s “great work” inscribed over it. “Genocidal” is certainly not the sort of word that Lynne Duke would have used and if she did, her editor would demand a rewrite–or a resignation letter.

Most of the film consists of testimony at the TRC hearings with Whitehead and Malan squabbling over their effectiveness in the evenings over beer or whiskey. Eventually they end up in the sack. Their romance has about as much persuasiveness as toothpaste commercials. We understand that Malan will eventually win the argument because everything in the film is obviously set up to demonstrate that “ubuntu” is the way to go. For example, at one hearing an African boy in the witness stand sits silently. He has not spoken since he saw his parents killed by the cops. When one of the cops approaches the boy on his knees and begs for his forgiveness, the boy gives him a big hug signaling that all is well. This is when I muttered “bullshit.”

The other major character is Malan’s soundman Dumi Mkhalipi, played by Menzi Ngubane. He is there to offer comic relief with constant boozing and suggestions to Whitehead to “lighten up.” There is not a single black African character in the film who offers an articulate critique of the TRC hearings, even though they did exist in large numbers during the period.

It is difficult to look at the TRC hearings without thinking about Nuremberg or any other War Crimes Tribunal. In South Africa cops and soldiers received instant amnesty if they fully disclosed their crimes and declared that they were following orders! That was no excuse for Eichmann and it should have been no excuse for the five cops who killed Steven Biko. All went scot-free as did Jeff Benzien in 1999, who was the master of the “wet bag” torture. Prisoners had a wet bag wrapped ever more tightly around their neck until they revealed names of their comrades. Many died of suffocation during interrogation. Benzien received amnesty in 1999 after expressing remorse.

In Cuba, they put people like Benzien up against the wall in 1959 to receive justice. This first act of the Cuban revolution was singled out as “barbarous” by the US government. Of course, what was truly barbarous was US support for Batista’s torturers over the years. Looking back at the TRC with hindsight, we can understand now that it was exactly the kind of proceeding that would be acceptable to imperialism and the local ruling classes. Instead of a clean sweep that rendered justice as part of a total emancipatory struggle, you had compromise. The ANC would be allowed to take power while multinational corporations would be allowed to continue to make super-profits out of the sweat and blood of the black proletariat.

In 1999, the South African government reduced the corporate tax rate from 35% to 30%. People in the highest income brackets also found their taxes reduced by R1500. These reductions were offset by reductions in social services, including compensation to the victims of apartheid who testified before the TRC.

“In My Country” was directed by John Boorman, an English director who is probably as well-meaning as Antjie Krog. He also directed “Emerald Forest,” a film about capitalist encroachment on indigenous lands in the Amazon rainforest that is well worth watching. (See my review at: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/emerald_forest.htm) In the production notes, Boorman says that he traveled widely in South Africa during the apartheid years and grew to respect oppositionists such as parliamentarian Van Zyl Slabbert, who saw his wife spit upon in the street by a racist. In many ways, the stance of people such as Boorman, Krog and Slabbert mirrors that of Northern liberals after the end of Jim Crow. With the abolition of legal segregation, it is possible for such people to become assuaged, especially when they see a layer of the black population rising to their own economic level–thereby vindicating the superiority of bourgeois democracy.

“In My Country” was produced by the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa Ltd, a self-financing, national development finance institution established in 1940 by an act of Parliament. The chairman of the board is Wendy Luhabe, who also sits on the board of Vodacom, a telecommunications company, along with Sizwe Nxasana. A South African website devoted to high technology reported on Nxasana’s keynote address to a recent telecomm conference. In it he says that South Africa’s telecommunications liberalization offers many new opportunities.

This is the face of the New South Africa. The black bourgeoisie sees limitless horizons while the poor get the right to sit in the same restaurant as a white. I’ll end this review with the perceptive remarks of Trevor Ngwane, a leader of the new movement to resist the kind of liberalization and privatization championed by Luhabe and Nxasana:

We managed to get rid of apartheid, at least formally, in terms of removing the racial foundation of legislation. Secondly we won the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom to organize collectively for mass activism organizing unions, meetings and thing like that.

But what has been bad is that the rich have been getting richer and the poor poorer in the past ten years. This is according to all social and economic indicators, both by government and non-governmental organizations.

The other thing that is more serious for the working class is that the power of the rich–the capitalists and big business–has been strengthened. What has happened in South Africa is–instead of the old ruling classes being replaced by a true people’s government, a democracy– the old ruling class has been reinforced by elements from the peoples camp. So we find that the top leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) leadership, the top leaders of Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the top leaders of the communist party are all in the government or in the private sector running some big corporations. Now, some of them for the first time are owned by black people, but the bottom line is that the ruling class has not been shaken. Rather, it has been reinforced by elements from our own ranks.

So this is the problem in South Africa. This makes me pessimistic about getting rid of this phenomenon where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It looks like this trend will continue.

full: http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=11501

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