No noose or barbed wire is thick enough to hide the sun

Solomon Mahlangu was a famed liberation fighter in South Africa hanged by Apartheid in 1979. His legacy is the subject of a new film.

Still from film Kalushi.

The 2016 feature film, Kalushi, on the life and times of one of South Africa’s most celebrated young hero-martyrs, Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu, resonates with recent youth revolt and longer, deeper movements for change. Directed and produced by Mandla Dube with stirring music by Rashid Lanie, the all-South African film stars Thabo Remetsi as Solomon, Pearl Thusi as Brenda Riviera, Gcina Mhlophe as Solomon’s mother Martha, with a bit part for Jacob Zuma (by Bhekisisa Mkhwane). It was shot on location in Tshwane, Johannesburg and Madibeng. From its opening sequences  to its powerful end, the movie is South African through and through.

The story, which can be glimpsed from the film’s trailer, is well known: Solomon grows up in Mamelodi, is radicalized, joins the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), and returns to contribute to liberation. In June 1977 in Johannesburg, the mission runs off the rails, there are tragic shootings, he is captured, tortured and under growing white pressure, is denied justice and brutally hung on April 6, 1979, despite widespread national and international protests and efforts of legal allies such as Priscilla Jana. All this is brought out well. In the moving final scenes of the trial, he defiantly declares: “All we want is freedom… equality… I am one of many, a foot soldier. There will be many to follow… [You] can’t stop the tide of revolution.” Jana visited him on death row after the controversial ‘common purpose’ law was used to sentence him: “His face was completely deformed … There should have been a maximum five years’ imprisonment…. He told me…: ‘Tell my people that I love them. Tell them to continue the fight. My blood will nurture the tree that bears the fruits of freedom.’’’

Solomon’s legacy, and the film itself, generated controversy and debate especially in South Africa when it first came out. Mamelodi is a township in Tshwane, controlled by the Democratic Alliance, so when the city’s mayor declared his “State of the Capital Address” in honor of Mahlangu, ANC supporters vigorously objected. There were struggles to secure finance, lack of footage of Mahlangu, and a need to educate the cast. One stimulus for Dube to make the movie was how little his students at Wits University in Johannesburg (he teaches film there) knew about Mahlangu; another was to confront burning issues, such as the predicament of youth and also xenophobia, adding on the latter that “if Solomon were alive today, he would be very upset with the situation.”

Critics could not agree, as is often the case with movies. A political analyst, Xolani Dube, characterised the film as romanticizing Kalushi’s politics, whereas film critic Sihle Mthembu felt it situated Solomon in his community/family context. Another critic saw its strength as its uncompromising politics. In the end, the movie received strong reviews and awards including the Zanzibar International Film Festival Chair’s Award, best film at Luxor African Film Festival in Egypt, Best Actor for Thabo Rametsi at BRICS International Film Festival in Chengdu, China, and Best Soundtrack/South African Film at Rapid Lion in Johannesburg. It was “the struggle film we have been waiting for even though we thought we had lost our appetite for apartheid atrocities on screen,” according to local Sunday newspaper newspaper City Press.

The film subtly reflects on South African history, politics and culture. Solomon ruminates that his family were “forcefully removed from their land and thrust into poverty,” his father buried on a barren scrap of land. History lessons regurgitated to him as a schoolboy were “Not HIS story but OUR story”! There is jazz, contestation over a prized Miles Davis LP, revolution is in the air; there is Mahlangu as a hawker helping to support his mother, and with his girlfriend Brenda. Mobilisation in 1976 against Bantu Education and the June 16 bloodbath spur eventual radicalization.

Others have earlier sought to give voice to Kalushi’s sacrifice. A 1982 documentary for the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa by activist, poet and director Barry Feinberg, The Sun Will Rise, included interviews with Martha and parents of others on death row; it was one of those very effective mobilizing struggle videos that made the rounds. Solomon was affectionately remembered by many poets, from Dennis Brutus, Sankie Nkondo, Rebecca Matlou and ANC Kumalo (Ronnie Kasrils) to Dikobe wa Mogale (Ben Martins), also a jailed and tortured MK cadre, who imagined Kalushi’s thoughts facing the gallows:

No noose or barbed wire / is thick enough / to hide the sun

Then there is the (auto)biographical novel Solomon’s Story, a fictional account of the true story of Solomon Mahlangu, by Judy Froman. Artist Judy Seidman drew telling posters in his honor.

Much later, still another artist, Brett Murray, exploited that same poster to take a very sharp dig at post-apartheid corruption, arousing intense controversy.

The film makes use of the heritage, the legacy of the liberation movement in a much more linear, but effective way. It is not only the moving story of Solomon, but also the story of black youth, of MK, the memorialization of a gigantic struggle encapsulated in the real life struggles of Solomon and his friends, comrades and families against powerful enemies with all their disjuncture and fateful decisions. It is national epic played out at the level of the everyday and ordinary people.

The legacy of Solomon himself has grown. The Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College was founded in 1977 at Mazimbu, near Morogoro, Tanzania, and played an important role in exile, building skills and political understanding among a new generation of fighters. The then ANC leader, Oliver Tambo, described Solomon as “towering like a colossus, unbroken and unbreakable. In his death this spirit towers over us.” Kalushi is commemorated in Solomon Mahlangu Freedom Square in his hometown Mamelodi, where on April 6 1993 his body was solemnly reinterred. In the square stands his bronze statue, erected in 2015. In Durban, South Africa’s third major city, a major arterial road honors him.

Dube took his  own dramatic license, as all directors do. In my opinion the result succeeds both as movie and reasonably accurate historical narrative. There are subtle plays on debates around the effectiveness of the liberation struggle. Courtroom reconstructions work well, even if such encounters are well known from other movies. The early sections are to me some of the best: the conscientization of youth; the myriad social and cultural contradictions swirling around young people — surely appealing and realistic to any generation.

The film was released against the background of the spirited and militant student/youth “Fallist” (#FeesMustFall) protests on South African university campuses from October 2015 through 2016. Under student pressure, Wits Senate House was renamed Solomon Mahlangu House. And activists enthusiastically took up and emblemized a song about Solomon.

This was not the first song in his honour. At the University of Zimbabwe in 1988, the Zambuko/Izibuko community theatre group, which included novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga, sang a song of Solomon when staging Katshaa! The Sound of the AK: A Play in Solidarity with the Heroic Struggle of the South African Masses. They sang of Solomon’s struggle, death, and retaliation for it:

Kulukhuni sekulusizi Nxa esegwetshwa obesilwela Noma kubi siyophindisela. We Qhawe, Solomoni Hamba kahle Solomon! Hamba kahle Mahlangu Sowanqoba wonke, olaluoaoa Wonk’ amabhunu Nank’umkonto uzobagwaza Lala qhawe, nsizwa yomkonto.

[In summary: Despite the sadness when the our hero warrior-activist Kalushi was sentenced, go well, Solomon!, for we will grab the Spear and retaliate against the Boers: Farewell our hero!]

But it was another Song of Solomon, “‘Iyho uSolomon,” which gripped the imagination of the younger generation in 2015/2016. Much earlier, In 2010, “Iyho uSolomon” had been a runaway hit at the ANC general council meeting in Durban; one journalist suggested it had overlaid Jacob Zuma’s “Awuleth’ Umshini Wami” (Bring me my machine gun) as the ANC’s new struggle song. The words go:

Iyho uSolomon!

Isotsha lo Mkhonto We Sizwe!

Wa yo bulala amabhunu eAfrika!

Translated: “Oh Solomon  / The soldier of Umkhonto we Sizwe / He killed the Boers in Africa.”

The song became almost an anthem of the #FeesMustFall students. It was, mused journalists Pontsho Pilane and Kwanele Sosibo in March 2016, “a rallying cry: a link to the defiance of a bygone era.” Kalushi, as social work professor Linda Harms Smith puts it, had “become the figure that students honour.” The song appears to have complex and diverse roots.

Several MK veterans reportedly are unaware of “Iyo uSolomon.” The ANC Youth League may well be the source; former League secretary-general Sihle Zikalala says, “This is a youth league song aimed at conscientizing young people … It is not a new song or an MK song but is about our young comrades celebrating and acknowledging” Kalushi. Some comrades at the online “Communist University” pondered its origins in 2011. Dominic Tweedie, who stood vigil in Trafalgar Square on the night Kalushi was hung, then helped many others build the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College at Mazimbu, saw Kalushi’s memory as “an important part of my political life,” yet felt “the new song adds nothing to this legacy, but only exploits Solomon Mahlangu’s memory cheaply.” Others disagreed. Overall, the film, rather than the song, gives real depth to Kalushi’s life.

Today it is highly unlikely, if not entirely improbable, that one day some soul will make a movie “celebrating” South African President Jacob Zuma or his successor Cyril Ramaphosa: young martyrs are always less problematic than ageing politicians and tycoons with blemished records. Yet questions remain about the intersections between life and myth, legend and narrative, politics and culture, past and present. At the end of the day, Solomon’s story continues to inspire, not least among the youth of today.

This contemporary political and generational resonance should in theory have guaranteed a substantial reception. But the weak domestic box office underlines limited purchasing power of many social strata, together with promotion inhibition in commercial circles, notwithstanding government and other efforts to promote the film. The shift of a substantial number of people to online viewing should nudge producers to explore wider forms of accessibility.

The obvious but powerful thing is that Solomon was a foot soldier, with no fancy suits, no compromises, untainted by corruption; and, by all accounts, a disciplined member of the liberation movement. He is shown, following the meaning of his name, as a shepherd of people. Solomon Mahlangu and his life and times will always resonate with the South African public. Critics will argue about this or that aspect, but it is good to have this film, and to talk about it.

Further Reading