The rising bitterness of South Africa’s black majority

'Dear Mandela' questions whether the history of South Africa's ruling party obscures its corruption and immoralities. And what kinds of movements it would take to challenge the ANC's power head on.

Still from the film "Dear Mandela."

Midway through the film, Dear Mandela (directed by Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza and winner of Best South African Documentary at the Durban International Film Festival, and Best Documentary at the Brooklyn Film Festival), one of its young protagonists, Mazwi Nzimande, is rallying a crowd. He’s nervous. He looks down at his hands as he takes the microphone, wearing the trademark red t-shirt of his organization, Abahlali baseM. “We are fighting for what is ours!” he declares, his energy tangible to the gathering. “Down with people who disrespect our leaders! Down with people who discriminate against shack dwellers!” he cries. “Down with the IFP party, down!” People are answering his calls with enthusiasm, united by his determination. He’s part of a group who have been tirelessly fighting for the rights of shack dwellers in the informal settlement of Kennedy Road, in the outskirts of Durban. Encouraged and at ease, Mazwi shouts on: “Down with the ANC party, down!” But with this chant, an excruciating silence halts the crowd.

This scene seems to encapsulate all that ‘Dear Mandela’ is concerned with.

As viewers, readers and writers we are well-used to narratives reminding us of the struggles undergone by activists and the ANC under the Apartheid regime. It is a heavy history to bare, and impossible to ignore. But ‘Dear Mandela’ questions, without ever explicitly asking the question, of whether the ANC’s history now obscures its corruption and immoralities. For Mazwi, part of a new generation of politically aware young people, the ANC is not the untouchable political zenith, not just the liberators of South Africa, no, now they are a government failing him. For Mazwi, life is frustrating, he and many like him feel let down. The film therefore takes the new government of 1994 as its point of departure and instead asks: what were the promises made to a new generation of South Africans when the new ANC took over? Have they been delivered?

In the case of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the group of activists fighting for their rights to stay in temporary settlements without the fear of eviction and violence, the promises have been continually broken or ignored. They fight against the newly written ‘KwaZulu-Natal Elimination and Prevention of the Re-Emergence of Slums Act’ and in particular against Section 16 that allows for the immediate eviction and destruction of shacks or ‘impermanent housing’. They file a suit against the government and demand section 16 be removed for it is ‘unconstitutional’. “They think we don’t know the law. They don’t think we know the constitution. You can’t evict people like us, we know.” I won’t tell you what the outcome is, you’ll have to watch it to see.

But this isn’t just another good documentary about activism. It takes these questions — of political legacies, of the pressures of the historical burdens on younger generations — and examines them. It isn’t just another film about inequality in South Africa, although it does this extremely well — particularly in one scene where members of the group, exiled from Kennedy Road due to threats of violence against them, are kept in a ‘safe house’ somewhere closer to Durban’s port, and realize ‘the grass really is greener of the other side’.

‘Dear Mandela’ dares to document the rising bitterness against the ANC, and its figurehead — Nelson Mandela — by a generation of young people who feel let down by their government. These are people like Mazwi, who are determined to “write a new Long Walk To Freedom, one that takes into account the lives that have been lived in the shacks” and the broken promises of the ANC.

In many ways, the film follows a classic documentary format; smart politicians are shown defending their policies and weaving sugared, neutered statistics to camera, while the tired and determined activists show how hollow those statements really are. Scenes of violence in ‘the shacks’ by anonymous thugs threatening to kill members of Abahlali and their houses destroyed are ignored by police, and politicians fake surprise at the statistics. “We have not been informed of this,” they say.

It’s a usual juxtaposition in political documentaries, yet here it is all the more sharp for the ANC’s self-imagined demi-god-like status in South African politics, and at its head the chiefly untouchable “Jesus Christ figure, Mr. Nelson Mandela”. Can you criticize Mandela? The silence in Mazwi’s speech shows that people are uneasy doing so, and find it difficult to separate Mandela from the ANC. Is it too soon? ‘Dear Mandela’ is asking.

Interspersed with these moments of bold and honest film making are truly beautiful sequences that add another layer to the story, as if the filmmakers had shifted a filter, and a different world is exposed. Kaleidoscopic sequences a little slowed down reveal the intimate and slow gestures of the everyday in Kennedy Road, and uncover another rhythm to the informal settlements. The colors jump, the movements are graceful and moving in the delicacy of their capture. These moments affirm the importance that the people in the difficult conditions of Kennedy Road are a part of something, and are willing to fight together.

In a beautiful end sequence, another young protagonist of the film says “You don’t need to be old to be wise. That is why we need to show our character while we are still young.” True indeed, and ‘Dear Mandela’ is a beautiful and insightful portrait of how young people are trying to define a new politics that does not follow in the long shadow cast by an increasingly problematic ANC leadership.


Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.