Category Archives: Dear Mandela Reviews

Dear Mandela: From Durban to Detroit, the Struggle for Land and House

Dear Mandela: From Durban to Detroit, the Struggle for Land and House
by Tolu Olorunda, October 20th, 2012

This is the life of the poor; this is the perpetual cry I hear.
— Khalil Gibran, Spirits Rebellious

“A house is not just a roof over somebody. It must have all the necessities that a human being needs. Because even this beautiful museum, if there is no water, no light, this is not a museum. It’s a slum,” Mnikelo Ndabankulu said this past Sunday afternoon inside the Charles H. Wright Museum, where Dear Mandela, a Sundance grant-funded film about the South African shack dwellers movement, was being screened. “For us, a house, a structure in the middle of nowhere is not a house. It’s a shelter. But it becomes a house when there are clinics, schools, shops—infrastructure—around” — the words of Zodwa Nsibande, a fellow member of the shack dwellers movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, visiting Detroit from South Africa.

They were being hosted for the weekend by Welfare Rights, a long-running grassroots organization in Detroit. The activists touched briefly, while their film screened inside the museum’s theater, on a recurring scene in their travels. Through their 8-city nationwide visit, Detroit being the 7th, they had noticed an invariably older crowd. This is, of course, not the norm worldwide, where the young tend to be active socio-politically. Imagine, Zodwa said, a young South African saying: “Because my fathers and mothers fought for liberation I don’t have to fight for it.” This would suggest struggle is a project with an end date, rather than an endless process of resistance to any and all forms of oppression.

In Durban, their oppression is multi-layered, but central to it Land.

Abahlali baseMjondolo was formed in 2005 as a response to rising attacks on informal settlements, using education of the law as the main weapon. We see in Dear Mandela an emphasized knowledge of the constitution to resist the illegal evictions and rebuild what is destroyed.

“We don’t have resources,” Mnikelo said. “We only have masses and political ideology. So we have to force the government to do what the constitution says.”

The notion seems almost foreign in this land where apathy clouds the day and people have “ceased to ask anymore” of government than that, in the words of Hannah Arendt, it “show due consideration for their vital interests and personal liberty.” And yet, justice takes a different orientation in a land with 3.5 million homeless people and 18.5 million vacant homes, a land with acres upon acres of rich soil waiting for builders with axes and hammers. From country to country, the contrast is sharp.

“In South Africa, we’re fighting for land,” Mnikelo said, envisioning a much-different scenario in Durban. “When we build these shacks, the government doesn’t always say, Yes. Government says, No; we say, Yes. … [Here in Detroit], if people want those empty buildings to be theirs, they would take them over.”

Unity is key for any meaningful victory, Zodwa said. There would have to be coalitions of homeless people to begin organizing and occupying. But organizing should have a strategic definition, contextual and conscious of its surrounding. “Everything that we do is determined by the time and space that we’re living in,” she said, speaking of Abahlali, which actively represents 25,000 dwellers from 64 settlements. “In our movement, we’ve got two kinds of people. People who are good with negotiating.” This group is put into the boardrooms to lobby municipality officials for housing needs and upgrades. “And there are people who don’t care about negotiating, who only want resistance—so you put them in the streets.”

We get a glimpse of these streets in the chaotic opening scenes of Dear Mandela as a crowd of protesters scream and flee from rubber bullets fired upon them by police officers. They are nonviolent, poor activists fighting for a human right: housing. But they are also fighting for their community; each settlement is held tight together by family values: sharing, participation, support, solidarity. “You don’t pass by when people are building a house” we hear early on in the film.

In one scene, government goons called Red Ants have descended upon a settlement. Cloaked in jail jumpsuit red, they are contracted to chop down shacks, usually while the resident students or workers are out for the day. “They don’t talk, they just do the chopping.” Flanked around them are soldiers with rifles drawn, ready to fire. And yet, as is mentioned, “people build anyway because they don’t have nowhere else to go.” They are simply disobeying an immoral law, an act of self-determination.

They are also asking some salient questions, such as: what is a slum? what is a house? What is a settlement? As Zodwa mentioned, there’s been a shift recently to move semantically beyond “House” to “Human Settlement” because “Human Settlement comprises of all elements that make a human being.”

Dear Mandela plays on the screen touching moments of simple, everyday humanity forged by deep social bonds. It also tells the complex story of South African life. Close-up shots of shacks are offered against a lavish wine-filled gala at “Emperor’s Palace” thrown by the Department of Housing to congratulate itself in curbing the shack problem and restoring order to society. Like life, Dear Mandela is a journey of tragedy and triumph. A light moment is grained against the ever-present looming fears of random, brutal eviction; and yet, victory does come through struggle. The title evokes the central narrative of the so-called New South Africa, of a post-Mandela generation fighting for freedoms promised but never realized; as Mnikelo notes in one scene, “I do not like the fact that what he has been jailed for has never been achieved.”

The film was shot between 2007 and 2012, capturing the heart of the movement’s struggle before and after the devastating Slums Act of 2007. South African-born filmmaker Dara Kell was present and talked of “people telling their own story in their own way, and coming in with an attitude of respect, rather than trying to be a director and having a vision and making a film that fits into your vision.” Especially when covering a life-and-death struggle. “I mean, it is creating a process because you decide what to focus on,” she continued. “You are building a certain narrative.”

Kell and her co-filmmaker ultimately “wanted to create a cinematic experience, a beautiful film to watch.” And yet it’s a haunting experience, evoking strong emotions because we see the raw brutality of Power in its inability to concede anything—even basic human rights guaranteed to all—without fierce, prolonged, often blood-dashing demand.

The film begins with helicopter shots flying over Durban panning large swaths of land checkered by informal settlements. It’s a humbling moment, for if one were to skim over Detroit, it would be a different scene. It would be of a three story brick structure decorated with bright fall flowers and manicured lawns next to a series of ecological ruins, of weeds, roof-high, swallowing unoccupied, decomposing houses.

Following the screening, during a discussion with the activists, Marian Kramer, co-president of the National Welfare Rights Union, drew the parallels between the land and home struggles from Durban to Detroit. “This struggle going on in South Africa: we’re not there yet, as far as people building their houses, but we’re getting there,” she said. “When you don’t have your own bed to live in and you have to stay on somebody’s couch, you’re homeless. These houses are out here that people should be occupying, and people are looking at us like we’re the criminals [for trying to move families in].”

She spoke of the gentrifying of many of Detroit’s neighborhoods, historically Black—the shocking scope of a people abandoned, left to fend for themselves and do-or-die in the age of collateral damage; lives are disposable, entire neighborhoods are allowed to return to nature in real time, sprawled out against land that once held communities.

A stand has to be taken against injustice, she said. “If we don’t start implementing that housing is a human right, then we become a part of the same people taking the homes away from [those in South Africa]. We cannot let folks live in this country without the right to a house. It is not right for people to have two when others can’t get one.”

“Why are we sitting back and letting these banks, the mortgage companies—HUD, Fannie, Freddie Mae, and all of them—get away with it?”

“Cause we’re scared!” Maureen Taylor, state chair of Michigan Welfare Rights, answered. “No backbone!”

“That’s right,” Marian Kramer agreed. “Everybody’s scared. [But] when you get scared you split it into two: there’s scared that pushes you forward to do something and there’s scared that makes you go hide in your house. We want that fear that’s going to push you forward for the future.”

From city to city, country to country, the struggle continues.

The Unrepentant Marxist: Dear Mandela

Dear Mandela

by Louis Proyect, The Unrepentant Marxist

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of “Dear Mandela”, a documentary now showing at the IndieScreen Theater in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn through tomorrow evening. After a decade or more of Hollywood movies like “Invictus” or “In My Country” that can best be described as public relations for the ANC, a fierce documentary directed by Dara Kell, a South African now living in the U.S., and Christopher Nizza, finally catches up with reality–a system of economic apartheid has replaced one based on race.

Just as the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 helped galvanize a movement against racial apartheid, the slaughter of 36 miners in Marikana creates the political context for a new freedom struggle based on class. To understand how South Africa has entered a new terrain of struggle, there is no better introduction than “Dear Mandela”, a film that focuses on the struggle against slum clearance in the name of “development” that took place in the outskirts of Durban. We meet three young activists of Abahlali baseMjondolo (Residents of the Shacks) who are committed to the rights of the poor to live in informal settlements. Despite the promise of President Nelson Mandela that every South African would have the right to a decent home, the new ANC pushed through legislation that would give the government the right to demolish the shacks that the poor were forced to live in. Each day “Red Ants”–work crews in red coveralls–come to the slums and raze their shacks to the ground and each day community members rebuild them. They had learned that ANC promises to build new homes were empty.

The only solution was to challenge the constitutionality of the law that allowed the state to rob the poor of their only shelter. Minister of Housing Lindiwe Susulu is heard defending the law and expressing surprise at the movement of slum dwellers against it. As the daughter of Walter and Albertina Susulu, she is about as apt a symbol of the ANC’s degeneration as can be imagined. When I visited the ANC’s headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia in 1987, I met Albertina Susulu whose husband was serving his 24th year in prison at the time. Like most activists opposed to apartheid, I never would have dreamed that 20 years later their daughter would defend a law that could have been written by the De Klerk government.

The three main protagonists of “Dear Mandela” are Mazwi, a high school student, Zama, a mother and university student, and Mnikelo, a shopkeeper and activist who I had the good fortune to interview this morning while he was in New York for a nationwide tour coinciding with the film’s debut.

In the film, Mnikelo goes to recently evicted slum dwellers with a copy of the South African Constitution to tell them about their rights. When he and other members of the movement boycott national elections under the slogan “No Land, No House, No Vote”, he becomes a target of the ANC.

The relationship between the ANC and such activists provides the central dramatic tension throughout the film. In one of the more memorable scenes, Mazwi speaks to a rally of slum dwellers and leads them in chants directed against rightwing parties that they eagerly take up. But when he yells out “Down with the ANC”, he is met with stony silence. Later he explains that the old folks still have a fondness for Nelson Mandela that is expressed in his portraits seen on the walls of many shacks. Some, however, have grown tired of this nostalgia as demonstrated by their willingness to deface graffiti from decades past. They have crossed out the word “Free” in “Free Nelson Mandela” and replaced it with “Hang”.

You can understand the rising anger. In one of the more terrifying moments of the film, activists scatter for their lives as a group of armed men invade the community with the intention of killing people like Mazwi, Zama, and Mnikelo. Instead of apprehending the invaders, the cops end up arresting a group of men assigned to provide security for the shack dwellers—a deed that anticipates the Marikana disaster.

When I raised the question of Marikana with Mnikelo, he thought that it marked a turning point for the ANC. When cops can kill miners in this fashion, it shows disrespect for the nation’s laws. A responsible police force might have resorted to rubber bullets to disperse a violent mob, but shooting people in cold blood was an unlawful act. As always, Mnikelo demonstrated his mastery of constitutional law.

For those who have grown disillusioned with the ANC, the film is an inspiring reminder that “the struggle continues” in South Africa. At one point, S’Bu Zikode, the leader of Abahlali baseMjondolo is described as the new Nelson Mandela. It is hard to argue with this claim after seeing “Dear Mandela”. I would add that the three young activists remind me of the young ANC’ers I met in Lusaka back in 1987 before they were born. Their idealism, their intelligence and their willingness to put their bodies on the line are qualities that once defined the ANC. Fortunately for South Africa, a new generation has once again risen to the occasion.

If “Dear Mandela” was nothing but a clumsy Youtube video with zero production values, there would still be a compelling need to watch it as a document about South African reality today, so much so that it would probably go viral in a couple of days. The good news is that “Dear Mandela” is a top-notch production that will certainly earn my nomination for best documentary of 2012. With a superb score by Ted Reichman, who has worked with Marc Ribot and other leading edge musicians, the film’s dramatic moments receive just the right accompaniment. The cinematography stands out as well, a function no doubt of acclaimed Director of Photography Matthew Peterson’s involvement. To his great credit, Peterson worked for free. Funding came from the Sundance Institute, an outfit that I have faulted in the past for its tendency to foist the worst art-house clichés of young narrative filmmakers. But with this brilliant, powerful and timely documentary, I can say all is forgiven.

Although “Dear Mandela” runs only through tomorrow in Brooklyn, a national and global roll-out might bring it within nearby viewing distance. Check the schedule on the film’s website and make sure to put it on your calendar if it is coming to your neck of the woods.

New York Times: After Apartheid, More Struggles to Wage

After Apartheid, More Struggles to Wage
‘Dear Mandela,’ Directed by Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza

by Nicolas Rapold, The New York Times

Opens on Friday in Brooklyn.
Directed by Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza

In English and Zulu, with English subtitles

1 hour 33 minutes; not rated

Following the efforts of a South African housing rights group, the documentary “Dear Mandela” illustrates how fresh injustices have succeeded the inequality once enforced by apartheid. The directors Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza largely adhere to the standard arc of relating activist accomplishment, but the momentous historical backdrop and some stinging moments help lift the film.

The group, Abahlali baseMjondolo, advocates for Durban shack dwellers who are threatened by a proposed law that would permit rapid evictions. Replacement housing doesn’t emerge, except for crude “transit camps” far from the city center. Government and police representatives stonewall and whitewash; protests build solidarity and burst with song, but they also elicit counter-protests and intimidation.

South Africa’s comedown from post-apartheid unity has been going on for a while, but “Dear Mandela” usefully outlines the forces of exclusion and generational shifts that have arisen. The tensions over urban development echo experiences in cities the world over. Yet the enabling role played by the African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela, represents a special disappointment, especially for one of our guides, a youth leader named Mazwi.

Still a teenager, Mazwi symbolizes the continuing growing pains of securing a homeland for everyone.

Variety: Dear Mandela

Dear Mandela

by Ronnie Schieb

Stirring docu “Dear Mandela” traces recent events in an “informal settlement” near Durban, South Africa, where forcible evictions spawned a grassroots movement called Abahlali baseMjondolo (“people of the shacks,” in Zulu). Helmers Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza focus on Abahlali’s leader and three young members as they challenge the constitutionality of the new law that makes these evictions possible; the fledgling organization soon finds itself violently targeted by government forces of the African National Congress — the party of Nelson Mandela — which raises disturbing questions about those in power. Opening at Brooklyn’s Indiescreen, this evocatively shot, lucidly edited film deserves wider distribution.

“Dear Mandela” could pass as a particularly well-crafted example of the kind of docu about slum activism that regularly comes out of the Brazilian favelas, if not for the omnipresent photos of Mandela plastered on both sides of the conflict. Even if most of Abahlali’s young people never personally witnessed South Africa’s struggle and revolution against apartheid, many still see injustice and the ANC as mutually exclusive. At one point, Mazwi Nzimande, the youngest of the three activists headlined in the film, condemns several political parties to great applause, until he hits “Down with the ANC!” and is met with deafening silence.

Although they never glamorize or airbrush over the poverty of the shantytown, the filmmakers and lenser Matthew Peterson stress its vibrant color and sense of cohesion. Shopkeeper/activist Mnikelo Ndabankulu visits those whose ramshackle homes were recently destroyed, quoting the constitution (which forbids evictions without due process) and helping them build new shacks. Zamba Ndlovu, another of the film’s main political dynamos, runs a center that feeds the destitute and cares for AIDS orphans (she herself lost most of her family to the pandemic). The camera constantly roves the settlement’s byways, framing the film’s protagonists within a bustling, interactive community.

After Abahlali takes the government to court, thugs trash the settlement, wrecking homes and killing two inhabitants. Abahlali’s leader, S’by Zikode, goes into hiding to avoid death threats. The activists’ enthusiasm and belief in justice, tested by the attacks but reanimated in the film’s closing moments, resonate with peculiar force within the hard-won new democracy of South Africa.

The ANC’s historic, crucial role in the fight against apartheid makes it easier for its present representatives to demonize Abahlali, portraying the movement as opposing better housing. But the filmmakers are quick to juxtapose the government’s description of the clean, supposedly temporary housing allotted to displaced persons with images of isolated corrugated buildings miles from civilization, dubbed “tin towns” by their inhabitants, many of whom have been stuck there for years. The officials’ expressed ignorance or outright lies become transparently mendacious within the context of this documentation.

Despite their obvious advocacy, the filmmakers also convey sympathy for the government’s difficulties in carrying out Mandela’s promise to furnish housing for all citizens, especially given the nation’s rapid rate of urbanization. But the film clearly questions the policy of evicting citizens before providing adequate housing, implicitly favoring grassroots solidarity over government intervention.

In ‘Dear Mandela’, South African Slum Dwellers Fight Back

In ‘Dear Mandela’, South African Slum Dwellers Fight Back

We Don’t Know Where Tomorrow Are We Going to Be

“The kids got back and found no home.” Describing the crisis she and her family are facing, a young mother in Durban, South Africa has trouble finding the words… and what to do next. “Where are you planning to sleep tonight?” asks Mnikelo Ndabankulu, who regularly meets with people who’ve been evicted by police—which means, people whose shacks have been knocked down by men with guns and axes. “I don’t know,” the mother frets. ” Spread the blankets and sleep right here? I really have no idea what to do.”

Sadly, as you come to see in Dear Mandela, her situation is not unusual. The South African government doesn’t so much have an official policy as it has a practice, “evicting” residents from informal settlements by demolishing their homes. While the idea is, supposedly, to eradicate the slums, the effect is to displace people who have nowhere else to go. The practice, as Mnikelo points out, is unconstitutional; he’s brought his copy of the Constitution with him, and reads from it to make this point.

Mnikelo is the elected spokesperson for Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Durban Shack Dwellers’ Movement, founded in 2005 to help impoverished Durbanites maintain the homes they’ve assembled and protect the communities they’ve established. “If you’ve got a lot of friends like me,” he says, “You don’t suffer because once you start doing a job, people help.” He adds, “There’s a saying in Zulu: you don’t passerby when someone is building a house.” To that end, he and other members of Abahlali are working not only to defend against evictions, but also to find legal solutions.

He didn’t imagine he’d be an activist, Mnikelo says at the start of the documentary, which screens at the Doc Yard on 13 August, followed by a Q&A with directors Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza. The camera keeps close on Mnikelo, in his own small home, as he prepares for his day, making his bed with the Manchester United blanket and donning his red, white, and blue “I [Heart] Obama” belt. When he made the decision to stay in Durban and work with Abahlali, he says, he “never thought we’d be fighting for something that we’d been promised.”

That promise, of course, was made by the ANC, the political party that’s been in power since Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994. The promise then, as archival footage of Mandela reminds you, was to provide standardized housing for the poor. Even if the project would take time—a year, Mandela says, maybe five years—it would be done. “Do not expect miracles,” he says, “We are ordinary human beings.” Fifteen years later, houses remain un-built. Worse, shack dwellers live with fears as acute and recurrent as existed during Apartheid, when the “white government came with bulldozers and destroyed everything. ”

Beautifully composed, the film follows Mnikelo and other members of Abahlali as they struggle each day to survive (they put together some electrical wiring, hunched over in the dark, as Mnikelo notes, “The government calls this “illegal connection… we call it people’s connection”). As well, during filming, they’ve gone to court to fight the controversial KwaZulu-Natal Elimination and Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Act of 2007. Government representatives, including Minister of Housing Lindiwe Sisulu, cite the Act’s intention to eliminate slums in order to make way for improved housing. “We are committed to ensuring that everybody has a house,” she says. Provincial Housing Minister Mike Mabuyakhulu looks ahead: “We have said we want to eradicate the informal settlements by 2014,” he says.

Such official planning doesn’t take into account the experiences of people in informal settlements. Zama Ndlovu, an AIDS orphan now living with her young son, nephew, and three siblings, points out that her shack is on a piece of land owned by the municipality: “They don’t allow people to build, but people build anyway.” She leads you around her home, the floor crammed with kids, the camera ducking and panning to keep up with her. “It’s very challenging to go to school, to be a mother, and also to be awake at the same time,” she smiles. “I try to balance, because I have to do it all.” She stands in the doorway, spray-pained with numbers. “Every year when the elections are approaching, the officials come to the village and promise that houses are on the way,” she says. The numbers designate which shacks are set for demolition, but each year, those left standing are only renumbered, designated for the next round.

Like Mnikelo, Zama never imagined she’d be an activist, but her circumstances have shaped her, as they have shaped 14-year old Mazwi. In his classroom, he speaks clearly and forcefully concerning the slum dwellers’ movement. His family has been on waiting list for government house since 1994, but their position on that list changes each year;m in their settlement, they have one water tap for 7,000 residents. . “They were separating black people from the white people” during Apartheid, observes Mazwi. “The Slums Act is similar to what happened in the Apartheid era… it’s separating the poor people from the rich people.”

His analysis is sharp, born of his experience. Mazwi and his classmates study the past, see how young people’s protests helped to change history. This next generation sees more struggle ahead. “We don’t know where tomorrow are we going to be,” he says. To change that future, they need to change laws as well as attitudes. Dear Mandela helps to make their process visible and viable.

Note:AbM does not use the term ‘slum’ to describe shack settlements.