Witness: Homing in on the problem


Homing in on the problem

by Estelle Sinkings

A SHACK is still a home — and one community’s courageous fight for the right to continue living in their makeshift dwellings is captured in the moving documentary Dear Mandela.

Winner of the best South African documentary award at the 2011 Durban International Film Festival and a nominee for best documentary at the recent African­ Academy Awards, the film was written, directed and produced by Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza, who are based in New York.

Dear Mandela follows the journey of the Abahlali baseMjondolo organisation, whose members live in the Kennedy Road settlement, as they set out to stop the government from evicting shack dwellers from their homes. They believe the KwaZulu-Natal Elimination and Prevention of Re-Emergence of Slums Act (KZN Slums Act) violates the rights enshrined in the country’s Constitution.

Their journey takes them all the way to South Africa’s Constitutional Court, but also results in their leaders being forced to leave their homes and go into hiding following attacks on their homes in 2009.

Speaking to members of the public who turned up to see a screening of the film, hosted by Amnesty International Durban, the leader of the Abahlali baseMjondolo organisation, S’bu Zikode, who is still in hiding today, said they had tried every avenue to speak to those in power about the best way forward to solve South Africa’s housing crisis.

“We even went to Atlanta in the United States, to Habitat for Humanity, in February 2011, to see what they have been doing. Shack dwellers are not lazy. We would be happy to build our own homes, but we have been told there is no land. We feel, however, that the land our homes are on now would be fine. The land should be used to build homes and not used as a commodity or a money-making scheme,” he added.

Zikode’s quiet dignity is a marked contrast to some of the comments made by politicians in the film. And, after watching it, veteran activist Mary de Haas said she found it ironic that the people who now sit in positions of power are using the same tactics that the National­ Party used during apartheid to clear informal settlements.

Asked why they decided to make the documentary, Kell, who attended Milnerton High School and Rhodes University, where she did a bachelor’s degree in journalism, majoring in television and political science, said: “We both have a very firm belief that organised social movements can successfully hold those in power to account, and bring about an end to oppression.

“In 2007, we read an article about the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement and immediately were interested in its philosophy of living politics — politics that everyone can understand and that talks about the need for people to have the basic necessities of life like enough water, enough food, shelter, electricity.

“We went to meet the Abahlali members in 2007, and after getting to know some of the young people, who were so passionate, so committed to justice, we knew we had to make the film.”

Before shooting a single frame, however, the couple tried to learn as much as possible about the larger political, social and economic forces at work. “We wanted to know why South Africa is the most unequal country in the world? Why leaders who once fought to end apartheid have turned their backs on their people, betrayed them and broken their promises? Why the government does not provide interim services for shack dwellers?” Kell said.

The questions are relevant given that South Africa’s housing backlog has not budged since 1994. Back then the country had around 300 informal settlements, but official figures estimates, according to the South African National Upgrading Support Programme (NUSP), 2010, reveal there are now over
2 600.

Once filming was under way, it brought with it new challenges and dangers, the worst being when an armed mob surrounded the community hall where Kell and Nizza were filming Abahlali members on September 26, 2009.

“They were carrying guns, machetes and sticks. They were looking for S’bu Zikode. We were locked inside a room and when the mob marched to a different part of the informal settlement, we were able to escape at about 3am,” Kell said. “The next few days were terrible — homes of Abahlali members were demolished, thousands of people had to flee the settlement, fearing for their lives. We were helping people escape — we had a car — and we would try to film a few shots here and there.”

In contrast, the mood when Abahlali members heard that the Constitutional Court judges had ruled in favour of their application that the Slums Act invited arbitrary evictions, and was therefore unconstitutional, was jubilant. The decision meant that a potentially repressive and constitutionally inconsistent piece of legislation was inoperable and could not be replicated in other provinces.

“Their victory came after years of struggle, court cases, debates and study. It was a good day for democracy. The victory was also right after the attacks on the movement, and that made the victory all the more bittersweet­.

“S’bu and other leaders had recently had their homes demolished, and 12 members of the Abahlali-affiliated security committee had been arrested and charged with murder. The trial dragged on for two years, but eventually they were all released.”

Looking ahead, Kell hopes Dear Mandela will inspire people to work together to end poverty. “The immense gap between rich and poor in this country is unjust and unsustainable, and we hope our audiences throughout this year will be moved to work towards solutions to this problem,” she added.

“Apartheid ended after a long struggle, but it ended thanks to the sustained work and immense courage of millions of people. Now, we face a challenge of economic and social injustice, and we hope the film will be part of the solution.”

She also hopes that it will make people living in comfortable houses understand a little more about what life is like for those living in shacks and that government officials will watch it and begin to understand the impact that their decisions and policies have on ordinary people.

Dear Mandela will be screened on Mzansi Magic (DStv channel 107) at 9.30?pm on Thursday and at 3?pm on Friday. For more information about screenings go to www.dearmandela.com