Pambazuka Interview With Christopher Nizza and Dara Kell on ‘Dear Mandela’

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: The first question is on the title – Why ‘Dear Mandela’ and not Mbeki?

CHRISTOPHER NIZZA AND DARA KELL: ‘Dear Mandela’ examines how the lives of the poorest South Africans – those who had the most hope when Apartheid officially ended in 1994 – have changed in the 17 years since Mandela was released from prison. . Again and again, we heard appreciation for what Mandela did – that he sacrificed twenty-seven years of his freedom for the freedom of South Africans. The name ‘Dear Mandela’ emerged after spending time with shack dwellers who told us they saw Nelson Mandela as a ‘second Jesus Christ’. For many South Africans, when Mandela was released from prison, a ‘better life for all’, which became the rallying cry for the newly elected ANC government finally seemed possible. The people we interviewed often wondered how Mandela would feel if he was allowed to visit the informal settlements, if he saw that conditions have not only failed to improve since the end of Apartheid, they have worsened. Mandela seemed to many of the people we spoke to, to be the one person who could change things, and so this short film almost takes the form of a plea – not just to Mandela, but to the world – to see what has been deliberately kept from view by a current South African government intent on creating ‘world class cities’ in preparation for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Can you talk to PZN about the evictions? How are they reminiscent of the apartheid government? Or is that too much of a stretch?

CHRISTOPHER NIZZA AND DARA KELL: While we were filming in Durban with Abahlali baseMjondolo, we spoke to many shack dwellers who were facing eviction. Zamise Hohlo, a sixteen-year-old girl who was born and still lives in the Shannon Drive informal settlement, told us that municipal workers came and demolished her shack while she was at work. Sitting amidst the wreckage, she told us that she was at a crossroads: she could rebuild her shack, but the municipal workers had informed her that if she rebuilt, they would just come and tear it down again.

We have found that there are stereotypes about shack dwellers that go against all of our experience in the time we spent with them. These stereotypes make it easier for the public to turn a blind eye to what is happening them, and make it easier for municipal workers to do their job of ‘clearing the slums’. One of the reasons we want to make this film is because by letting the shack dwellers speak for themselves, their dignity is respected, and our hope is that viewers will be able to see the shack dwellers not as illegal squatters who should be pushed out of the city, but as citizens of South Africa who have the same rights to housing under the Constitution.

Yes, in some ways the evictions are reminiscent of evictions during the Apartheid era. The notorious new ‘Slums Act’ certainly evokes the Native Land Act of 1913, The Group Areas Act of 1950, The Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act of 1951 – acts which remove people from their communities and place them far away from the city, away from work, school, clinics. Some shack dwellers told us that what they are experiencing is a ‘New Apartheid’ between the rich and poor. Indeed, several people we interviewed said that life was better under Apartheid. The statistics suggest that life for the poorest of the poor was better under Apartheid – a UN study showed that the number of people living on less that $1 a day has doubled since 1994. These charges are sure to stir controversy and that is one of the motivations we have to continue on this project, to illuminate the rarely told story of post-apartheid South Africa?s most marginalized.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Can you talk about the role of film in bringing about change?

CHRISTOPHER NIZZA AND DARA KELL: In much of the world, the way we communicate is visual. The visual medium is a language that everyone understands from advertisements on the street to television to a growing use of the Internet. While we are working towards a longer film, we posted the 6-minute version of ‘Dear Mandela’ on YouTube and were able to share the insights and struggles of South African shack dwellers instantaneously. Within days, hundreds of people had watched the film. In an age where the gap between rich and poor is increasing globally, there is a need for stories which show not just the plight of the poor, but the fight that they are engaged in. This is one of the main ideas behind Sleeping Giant, our media collective/production company. The corporate media and even some prominent left academics tend to stereotype the world’s poor as being this unruly mass of dangerous, lazy, uneducated people unable to contribute to discussions about issues affecting them most. Through film and video projects produced involving groups like Abahlali we hope to smash those stereotypes by providing a space for people to tell the story of their plight and fight thus projecting a more realistic portrayal.

Those who are struggling to survive while organizing for a better life need our encouragement and support. The film is a celebration of the work of Abahlali as well of the almost sacred meeting space they have created, where old and young are welcomed and respected; of their refusal to accept the broken promises of the government; of their continuing to march in peaceful protest in the face of intimidating police brutality. And so while many of the stories in ‘Dear Mandela’ are disheartening, what we want to portray is a community that is figuring out the real meaning of democracy – democracy that is a far cry from ‘one man, one vote’ – it’s what Abahlali calls a ‘living politics.’

We’ve done research, and some preliminary filming, and the six-minute film ‘Dear Mandela’ is the culmination of that effort, but we intend to return for a much longer time, where we aim to interview government officials and other relevant players, to show many more sides of a very complex situation

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What other films have you made/are making?

CHRISTOPHER NIZZA AND DARA KELL This is our first venture into the world of feature documentary filmmaking. We have both worked as editors on other documentaries, like the Academy Award-nominated Jesus Camp, State of Fear, and others. We have also led filmmaking workshops for community leaders, to both encourage the use of media in their political work and transfer the skills required to produce media.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What can other Africans and international friends do to help out?

CHRISTOPHER NIZZA AND DARA KELL: From what we could see a major problem for Abahlali is lack of resources. We witnessed how they maximize literally every rusted nail and every tattered piece of wood. This goes on to money that is raised as all funds are decided by collective how to be spent. We saw this as some money came in following the tragic Christmas night shack fires at the Foreman Road. Very careful and respectful consideration goes into how all monies are spent. It is much different then donating money to an NGO where the people living in struggle are more often not the ones making decisions. People interesting in supporting can get some ideas here ( on the Abahlali website. The website is also extremely rich with days worth of wonderful reading for anyone interested in this extremely important and courageous work.

*Dara Kell is a South African documentary filmmaker. She divides her time between South Africa and New York, where she edits documentaries and leads grassroots video-making workshops.

**Christopher Nizza is a New York born, bred and based director and editor. He also has worked on a project in the U.S. called the University of the Poor which works to provide education and exchange in a variety of disciplines to organizations working in the struggle to end poverty forever.