Dedicated to people, not politics

2010-07-22 00:00

THE camera shows a man walking down a prison corridor on Robben Island. The man stops at a cell. “This is Nelson’s cell,” he says, then waves his hand to the left. “That was my cell right opposite him.”

The man is Strini Moodley, founding member of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), close friend of Steve Biko and a former deputy news editor of The Witness. In 1976, he was sentenced to five years on Robben Island for “conspiracy to overthrow the state”. He died in 2006. Moodley is the subject of a documentary, Sons of the Sand — The Strini Moodley Interview, premiering at the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF), which opens today.

Film-maker Savo Tufegdzic had already created film versions of Moodley’s lectures for the Umtapo Centre, a nongovernmental organisation dedicated to working for peace and reconciliation. Tufegdzic then looked at the possibility of making a series of films on people involved in the history of the Black Consciousness Movement. “We took Strini to Robben Island and did the interviews there and at the Spier estate.”

They approached SABC with the material but the national broadcaster wasn’t interested and so the footage was shelved. Tufegdzic and his partner in Creative Media, Steven White, went on to make the feature film Crime, which was shown at last year’s DIFF and which is still doing the international festival circuit.

“Crime is still on its journey but we are film-makers and we didn’t want to stop making films,” says Tufegdzic. “We had two unfinished documentaries. One on Yeoville, where I was born and brought up and still live, and we had all this footage of Strini. We looked at the footage and thought can we make a documentary out of this and why?

“We thought it could be part of a series on people who mattered, people who were instrumental in bringing about change in this country, but who are not well-known names. We are not doing enough of that in this country. If you mention Strini Moodley’s name to someone in Johannesburg it’s not likely that they will know who he was.”

Tufegdzic emphasises that his film is an interview. “It’s not a slick documentary with all the bells and whistles. We want people to get to know Strini, we aren’t looking at the politics but at getting to know the person.”

As well as the central interviews with Moodley, there are also interviews with Moodley’s brother, Kessie, his son, Dirvanen, as well as friends and colleagues, such as Mosiuoa Lekota and Deena Soliar of the Umtapo Centre.

The title Sons of the Sand is a reference to Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan-Africanist Congress, who, when imprisoned on Robben Island was not allowed to talk to his fellow prisoners. “He would lift up a handful of sand and let it run through his fingers,” says Tufegdzic. “It was his way of saying ‘you are all sons of the sand, you are all sons of Africa’.”

Moodley was born in 1946 and in the film his brother Kessie recalls that “at school he was one those rascals”. Moodley himself acknowledges he was a “rebellious kid” who grew “up with this notion of fighting an enemy”. Who the enemy was gradually became clear and by the age of 16, Moodley was involved in the freedom struggle.

Although he inevitably became involved in politics, at heart, according to Soliar, Moodley was a “cultural activis­t”.

At university he studied English and drama, and wrote and directed plays. His friendship with Biko began when he was invited by Biko, then a student at the University of Natal Medical School, to stage one of his plays.

Moodley went on to establish the Theatre Council of Natal and worked with Biko writing the SA Student Organisation (Saso) newsletters, eventually becoming Saso’s publications director. His activities inevitably attracted the attention of the authorities and he was banned for five years and confined to Durban. As Moodley says in the film, he didn’t pay any attention to the banning order and carried on as usual. When he took part in the Viva Frelimo rally celebrating Mozambique’s independence in September 1974 he was arrested, along with Saths Cooper, Mosiuoa Lekota and Aubrey Mokoape. In December 1976 they all received prison terms on Robben Island. Moodley was sentenced to five years.

On the island, members of the BCM adopted a policy of nonco-operation with the prison authorities. “These fellows refused to conform to even basic prison regulations,” says Nelson Mandela in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. Mandela was asked to “tell them to restrain themselves ... and to accept the discipline of prison life”. He refused as that would have made him a collaborator and an oppressor.

When Jimmy Kruger, Minister of Justice, went to visit it was expected that the prisoners would stand to attention at the doors of their cells. Moodley thought “who is this man to me, he’s nobody”, and lay on his bed reading a magazine. Kruger stopped at his cell, looked in, hurrumphed “Black Consciousness” and walked on. Moodley, curious, got up and walked to the door; he was non-plussed to see his fellow prisoners dutifully standing to attention in their cells.

In 1977, Lekota was visited by his lawyer, the late Dullah Omar, who, despite the presence of prison officials, managed to convey the news that Biko had been murdered while in detention. Moodley recalls hearing Lekota returning to his cell then “bursting into tears and screaming out that Steve is dead”. At this point in the interview Moodley himself breaks down. “It’s not easy to talk about Steve,” he says. “I never had a friend like Steve.”

After his release in December 1981, Moodley became a journalist on the Graphic, a Durban weekly, before moving to the then Natal Witness. Although they were politically poles apart, editor Richard Steyn hired him “because he brought a different political viewpoint”.

Moodley continued to write and direct plays. In 1986, he toured Britain with his play Prison Walls which drew on his experiences on Robben Island. Moodley also helped set up the Umtapo Centre of which he was a board member. His last years were spent in Durban where he was involved in the arts and theatre scene, as well as running the conference centre at the beach-front hotel called The Palace, which boasted a pub called Strini’s Bar.

Which all begs the question, given Moodley’s background, why didn’t he go into politics or, as an interviewee puts it in the film, “become a businessman like so many others have”.

“He wasn’t into party politics,” says Tufegdzic. “I think he went into journalism because he was not about politics but about people. Through journalism he could get people talking and thinking.”

Moodley’s obituary in The Witness described him as “an actor, playwright, activist and journalist”.

This week a colleague at The Witness put it more simply: “Strini had the soul of an artist.”

• Sons of the Sand — The Strini Moodley Interview is showing at the Durban International Film Festival on September 24, 27 and 30. Check the website www.cca.ukzn.ac.za for details.

• For more on the film festival, see page 13 and WeekendWitness.

THE Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) was a grass-roots anti-apartheid activist movement that emerged in South Africa in the mid-sixties out of the political vacuum that was created by the jailing and banning of the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress leadership after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. The BCM represented a social movement for political consciousness.

The BCM attacked what they saw as traditional white values, especially the “condescending” values of white people of liberal opinion. They refused to engage white liberal opinion on the pros and cons of black consciousness, and emphasised the rejection of white monopoly on truth as a central tenet of their movement. While this philosophy at first generated disagreement among black anti-apartheid activists within South Africa, it was soon adopted by most as a positive development. As a result, there emerged a greater cohesiveness and solidarity among black groups in general.

However, although it successfully implemented a system of comprehensive local committees to facilitate organised resistance, the BCM itself was decimated by security action taken against its leaders and social programmes. By June 19, 1976, 123 key members had been banned and confined to remote rural districts. In 1977, all BCM-related organisations were banned, many of its leaders arrested, and their social programmes dismantled under provisions of the newly implemented Internal Security Amendment Act. In September 1977, its banned national leader, Steve Biko, was murdered while in the custody of the South African Security Police. — ex-Wikipedia.

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