A David and Goliath tale

2012-04-24 09:18

I’ll confess that I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to watch the documentary Dear Mandela if it hadn’t been nominated for an African Movie Academy Award.

I’ve sort of had my fill of Mandela-themed work and I took it to be another totally relevant exposé of injustice that leaves you feeling more depressed than the prime-time news.

After watching it I left my comfortable house in the suburbs and the world looked different – it still does.

It’s an unexpectedly gripping, eye-opening account of three Durban youths who join and help lead a movement – Abahlali baseMjondolo (the shack dwellers) – to stop the government from evicting them from their homes.

The film humanises the nameless protesters we see on the news hurling bricks at the police through a haze of teargas.

Rolling over the Indian Ocean and the swish Durban beachfront, the cameras take us over a hill to the Kennedy Street informal settlement, where they drop us off.

We meet Mnikelo, a hip shopkeeper; Mazwi, a schoolboy activist; and Zama, an Aids orphan and community organiser. The setting is a place where a red marking on a shack door determines one’s fate.

If there is a number spray-painted on it, it is most likely crossed out and another number sprayed above it.

Zama explains that this happens around the time of each election – the ANC will come and say that houses are on the way and reissue numbers for registration.

These are “Mandela houses” – the ones promised by the ANC in 1994. But an X means the government’s red ants will demolish it, without emotion.

Mnikelo visits communities facing eviction and urges them to join the movement, explaining that their constitutional rights are being violated.

Abahlali didn’t expect its cause to make international headlines, but it did when the KwaZulu-Natal government’s Slums Act was introduced. At a candle-lit meeting, Abahlali decide to take the government to the constitutional court, and it’s this legal battle that forges the central narrative.

The filmmakers have thrown themselves into their subject with an obsession that borders on the healthy.

What is most striking about Dear Mandela is its ability to capture life in Kennedy Road without prettifying it or horrifying it – without the tinged wide-angle or the shaky camera.

We move through schools, initiation ceremonies, shack fires, evictions, onto taxis, into courtrooms, to illegal electrical wirings, through Gulag-like transit camps of tin shacks and – jarringly – to swanky casinos where government housing bosses sip champagne and congratulate themselves.

While interviewing numerous officials and taking cognisance of the flood of urbanisation facing our cities, Dear Mandela doesn’t purport to bring you both sides of the story with scientific accuracy. Instead it purports to show that the “dangerous” masses are people with emotions and dilemmas, lives and dreams like you and me.

Perhaps most important of all, it shows what happens when youths take their destiny into their hands the way the ANC youths of old did.

It is a call to action as much as it is an indictment of a government that has lost its way.

But it’s the Mandelafication of the piece that sits uneasy with me.

The Mandela theme raises its head repeatedly, sometimes feeling like a branding construct.

We don’t need Mandela in the title to want to watch a new film – in fact, to most of us it’s a turn-off.

Dear Mandela is clearly destined for the international market, which probably doesn’t have the Mandela fatigue we do.

But what local market is it trying to reach?

Our cinemas don’t screen documentaries and the SABC certainly won’t be barging the queue to show this one.

This isn’t the painted face of the sports fan. It’s the face of South Africa that the government doesn’t want the world to see.

» Dear Mandela is to be screened on Mzansi Magic on DStv soon

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