Category Archives: Africa is a Country

Africa is a Country: Film Review. Dear Mandela

Film Review. Dear Mandela

by Basia Lewandowska Cummings

Midway through ‘Dear Mandela’, Mazwi Nzimande, one of its young protagonists, is rallying a crowd. He’s young, nervous. He looks down at his hands as he takes the microphone, wearing his organisation’s trademark red t-shirt.

“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’ — this startling new documentary from Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza — 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.

* Dear Mandela is directed by Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza. It won Best South African Documentary at the Durban International Film Festival, and Best Documentary at the Brooklyn Film Festival.

The Uprising of Hangberg

The Uprising of Hangberg

Sean Jacobs

“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 newspapers, 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 occurred and people generally didn’t want to identify with any kind of African heritage.

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