A time to talk

2010-06-12 13:13

I met OR Tambo in London in the 1970s. You felt like you were being

­introduced to a king ... in the presence of greatness ... like meeting

Mandela. We were young, angry and bitter.

I was amazed there was none of that in

him,” says John Kani, who plays the role of Oliver Tambo in Peter Travis’

political drama, ­Endgame.

The film tells a South African story that many of us don’t know

very well. Travis says that’s one of the reasons he had reservations.

Jonny Lee Miller plays Michael Young, the English businessman who

facilitated secret talks about possible talks to end apartheid.

At the start of the film, Young is shopping for negotiators from

both sides. He gets Thabo Mbeki (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to represent the ANC side and

Professor Willie Esterhuyse (William Hurt) to represent the Afrikaners.

Meanwhile, the head of the government’s ­security department, Neil

Barnard (Mark Strong), is having secret meetings with Nelson Mandela (Clarke

Peters) in prison. In an ­attempt to divide and conquer, Barnard offers Mandela

tempting concessions to sell out.

What he doesn’t know is that Mandela is ­communicating with his

fellow freedom ­fighters in increasingly ingenious ways.

Endgame is set in the mid-1980s, a time when South Africa was


Sanctions were in place, the guerrilla attacks were hotting up, Nelson

Mandela was the world’s most famous political prisoner and the infamous PW Botha

was ruling the country.

Travis’ film accurately captures the suspicion and danger that

ruled this period of history.

One of the film’s producers, David Aukin, came across the details

of these secret talks and decided that they’d make a good story.

The material for the film is drawn from Aukin’s chance meeting with

Young, and ­also Robert Harvey’s book The Fall of Apartheid, which was based on

a collection of transcripts from these secret meetings.

Aukin explains in his notes on the film: “What was incongruous was

that in an English country pub, members of the ANC would sit down and talk to

members of the Afrikaner community in the hope of finding a way to begin a

resolution. Over the next four to five years, there were something like 12

meetings between these people.

In the end, they became very friendly.”

For scriptwriter Paula Milne and Travis, the challenge was to make

a film that was more than just about a bunch of blokes sitting around a table


Travis succeeds.

The film functions as a political thriller, much like Roman

Polanski’s recent Ghost Writer.

Though there are a couple of car chases, the

tension relies on Travis capturing the oppressive feeling that gripped South

Africa in the 1980s and the manner in which those who had been taught to see

each other as the enemy ­approached one another.

“We tried to take the audience back to 1985 to see the real tension

and fears of the people.

There can be much tension in the way people look at

each other across a table,” says Travis.

Although the film is very definitely located in a particular time

and place in the past, Travis says it’s a universal story.

“It shows these men realising ‘I am a man just like you’. It’s not

a historical relic.

“Even-handedness is important when you are looking at the past. The

light and dark on both sides. It’s about honest and brave men ­revealing their

weaknesses to each other.

“The talks were one grain of sand that helped a camel fall down,”

says Travis.

Kani says that while he didn’t know what was going on at the time,

there were rumours.

“When I was reading Long Walk to Freedom (as the voice for the

audio book), I found out some of the details.

The idea was that if things didn’t

go well, Mandela would take the blame, saying he was old and senile,” says


When the end came, Kani says that everyone seemed so surprised at

how easy it was, but of course some of the groundwork to end the ­regime had

been done at these talks about talks.

“This was espionage. If it hadn’t worked the struggle would have

continued. This was about great leadership, about men with vision.”

Kani made news headlines earlier this year when he objected to the

casting of Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The obvious question is

why he didn’t criticise ­Endgame for casting international actors over local


Kani says his beef is simple. When he went to England to play the

role of Caliban, his first move was to consult with the actors’ union there.

That is the case the world over.

As an actor who works internationally, Kani says he understands

that film investors expect to hire big names that can pull in the money.

“We accept the use of international actors in movies for

investment. But it won’t make us shut up. We get sensitive. We would never block

any artists from coming to work in South ­Africa. What we want is


“I want a South African to write the stories. If the stories are to

be made in South Africa, we should be trying to use as many South Africans as

possible. The leading talents in South Africa become extras in their own


“I am very patriotic and I am passionate about our history. For

years it was distorted. We are rewriting that history for our children.”

Ejiofor’s portrayal of Mbeki is spot on and Kani admits to

wondering whether the actor could pull it off. But after meeting the British

actor of Nigerian descent he was convinced.

“He has the power of a great actor – to possess the soul, spirit

and character of a person.”

With a twinkle in his eye, Kani says: “He’s an African. I’m

comfortable with that.”

Kani adds: “What the movie will do is inform people of the talks

that took place. It will show our people that all our people – black and white –

were fed up with apartheid.”

»?Kani has just finished filming a version of

Coriolanus directed by Ralph Fiennes, while Travis was recently back in

SA looking for locations for his new film, a ­remake of Judge Dred.

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