“The Uprising of Hangberg” is filmmaking at its incendiary best. Part agitprop piece, testimonies, campaign document, and popular history, the film recounts the violent events of September 2010 when municipal police on the orders of the Cape Town’s Democratic Alliance (DA)-run council invaded the favela on the edge of the Hangberg mountain in Houtbay, outside Cape Town. What transpired is now the common response by authorities in South Africa when the poor majority demand rights. Houtbay, for those trying to place it, situated on the southern edge of Cape Town, is a combination of declining fishing industry and a reservoir of cheap black and coloured labor on the one hand, and, on the other, white privilege. With scenes recalling Apartheid’s police state, cops stormed into houses, dragged out residents, shot people in the eyes and assaulted pensioners and pregnant women. The residents are mostly coloured and loyal to the DA. The city council’s spin doctors quickly framed events in the local, compliant, media. As reports from Hangberg filtered over local radio and on TV news, a template emerged: the Hangberg residents were illegal squatters, were living on a firebreak, most of them were criminals selling drugs (especially the Rastafarians amongst them), and the city and provincial government (personified by its “Iron Lady” Premier, Helen Zille) had residents’ best interests at heart. Filmmakers Aryan Kaganof and Dylan Valley, decided to drive out to Hangberg and film events. What they pieced together–with help from footage shot by local activists–puts a lie to mainstream propaganda. Affected residents also turned on the DA. So much so that the city, and the DA tried to astroturf the film (see also below) with little success. With local government elections looming in South Africa, it is unclear whether the events will cost the DA, but the film suggests it may portend a shift in local politics–especially coloured working class politics–in the town and perhaps further afield in the Western Cape province. I sent Dylan Valley a few questions.
How and why did you get involved in the events at Hangberg
The politics of the events are complex, as the City of Cape Town went in to remove what they called “unoccupied” structures from a firebreak (a path that prevents fires from spreading and for fire fighters to gain access to fires) in Hangberg, Hout Bay. Hangberg is a “coloured” neighbourhood in the town of Hout Bay, one of the most picturesque areas in Cape Town and, as such, prime property. It turns out that people were getting evicted [without a] court order, [that] occupied structures were being demolished and people were literally dragged out of their homes by [the city's police force]. The force with which the police went into the area was totally uncalled for, and at least four people had each lost an eye in the clashes with cops. I was not planning to get involved initially with Hangberg at all. I heard about it through the local media, but didn’t get a real sense of the urgency of what was happening there. The media reports, while seeming balanced, were very much one sided and made the residents seem unruly and violent. My co-director, Aryan [Kaganof] actually suggested we go and find out what was happening or possibly film some stuff. He llived in Hangberg briefly a few years ago and knew that the community he knew was not the one that he was reading about in the papers. Something was wrong with the picture.
Did you expect the kind of hysterical response from the governing party in the Western Cape, including what is probably a fake, negative review of the film.
I was actually expecting the worst. This project really opened my eyes to how easily disinformation can be spread. The same DA councilor, JP Smith, who forwarded us that review of the film, had hosted a press conference where he released photos of 3 of the Hangberg residents, who had each lost an eye, throwing stones at the police in a group photo. The intent was to show that their story of innocence was false, and that they had deserved to get shot. However two of the residents, Ikram Halim and Delon Egypt, were falsely identified in the police pictures, i.e. it wasn’t them. In the local newpapers, The Voice and The Cape Times, the Hangberg residents were branded as liars, totally unquestioning Councillor Smith’s story. In the film we expose this and find and interview the actual people in the police photograph.
How would you describe the Cape Town media’s reporting of class and race inequalities in the city?
I think we as a middle class have become quite used to media reports of “service delivery protests” that never quite convey the situation on the ground. Also in their subtle use of language, they generally seem to be on the side of the local government. I actually know someone who is a reporter, and who said to me once, “People in townships just want to catch on kak (cause shit).” And even when the journalists do try; I think the term “service delivery protest” is very similar in effect to what was called “unrest” during Apartheid. When middle class people read it they immediately think “that doesn’t really have anything to do with me” or “the government needs to do something” or “these people are just complaining for nothing.” I think people have an immediate response to the term, without going into the specifics of every incident or story.
City officials and the Premier of the Western Cape province, Helen
Zille, and some in the mainstream media, quickly declared the protests being the work of “The Rastas,” who were deemed as violent (as having provoked the police violence) and of doing drug dealers?
That was the most ridiculous thing. They singled out the rastas in the media because they are an easy target. Also the Rastas in the Hangberg are very politically savvy and are spreading an ideology of reclaiming their indigenous Khoi heritage. The Khoi were an indigenous group in Southern Africa, and are often spoken of as “the original people.” Most of what we call coloured people today in South Africa have some Khoi or San heritage. However with the creation of coloured identity in the South Africa, which was seen as better than black, an institutional rejection and amnesia of the Khoi and San occured and people generally didn’t want to identify with any kind of African heritage.
Q: Helen Zille is the face of government in the Western Cape and also the focus of residents’ anger. She is good with spin and PR. She also enjoys good press and can’t do no wrong, yet recently some of her government’s decisions have been exposed for its callousness, the toilet saga in Khayelitsha and now Hangberg. Did she and the DA overreach here? How are her whites constituents and supporters responding to it? How are her coloured constituents responding?
Helen Zille and the DA-run city council definitely overreached here … One white person who reviewed the film said he always supported and appreciated Helen Zille, but after watching the film he is questioning everything he believed about her. The majority of the (coloured) Hangberg community actually voted for the DA, but there is an overwhelming backlash against the DA now. We have yet to see what other “coloured” DA supporters think, but think that sentiment will spread as far as the film spreads. You can’t watch it without realizing how little they care for the poor. I also want to make clear however that it wasn’t our intention for people to vote for another party (like the ANC), but rather to expose the hypocrisy of the DA- led City of Cape Town.
Cape Town and the Western Cape is a graveyard of populism, pandering and divisive race politics to which both the governing DA and at times even the ANC are equally guilty of. What do you think are the hopeful politics that can emerge out of Hangberg? What is next for the people of Hangberg?
I don’t think party politics as the answer, as I believe none of the major parties in the Western Cape really care for this type of community. A unified community with strong leadership reaching for the same goal is the solution. I think this attack on the community has actually helped to bring people together. Also they have taken their case to not be moved to the Cape High Court and it is imperative that the community wins; which could have serious repercussions elsewhere in the country. Most of all, I would like for them to be acknowledge as the descendants of the Indigenes of the area, the Khoi peoples. There is a growing movement in the Hangberg community to embrace their Khoi heritage, as opposed to the blanket “coloured” identity.
You have been showing the film in venues around Cape Town. What has this taught you about film exhibition in postapartheid South Africa? Are you going to put the film online?
Well there is only one independent cinema in Cape Town, where we screened the film. We haven’t really tried to screen it in the mainstream cinemas, but unlikely that we would have been able to. Since we don’t have distribution funding as of yet, and we are not aiming to make a profit out of the film, we’ve handed out quite a few DVDs and they are apparently doing the rounds; people are copying the film and passing it on. We just want to get the story out there. We are planning to eventually put the whole film online. There is a condensed 6 minute version on http://www.hangberg.co.za.