Rewriting history

2010-06-22 00:00

SIXTEEN years into our democracy and the debate rages on about the correct interpretation of the events that led to a negotiated settlement between the African National Congress and the F. W. De Klerk government. There are feints within feints as the different sides and players tell diverse narratives and like Forrest Gump’s chocolates, you just never know which one you’re going to get.

Of course in the rewriting of any history there is always a concerted effort by the victors to present themselves not only as virtuous but as the ones who stood up to be counted at the critical juncture when all could have been lost. There is an almost pathological need to be portrayed as having had the prescient vision that saved the day even as it placed one in grave danger from comrade and foe alike who were more myopic.

It is this more than anything else that is most likely to please Thabo Mbeki about the new film Endgame. After the start of a systematic campaign by the current ANC leadership to wish away his role and to write him out of the history books, comes along a film based on Robert Harvey’s book, The Fall of Apartheid, that places Mbeki not only at the epicentre of the events it depicts but furthermore deals quite deftly with one of his greatest bugbears — living in the shadow of Nelson Mandela.

If this account is to be believed then Mandela was quite incidental to the events that led to his release. If anything he was a hapless prisoner being used as a pawn in a chess game between Lusaka and Pretoria as each side dared the other to blink first. According to this film, it was Mbeki, in consultation with O. R. Thambo, who played the decisive role. The old man was only too happy to garden in his gilded cage and watched from the sidelines waiting to go home.

But that is this version and, thankfully, as we know, there are others. But what of the film itself? It is jarring from the opening sequence. Michael Young is smuggled into a township in Cape Town to listen to accounts of the suffering of victims at the hands of the apartheid security forces. He is unceremoniously evicted by an angry crowd that gathers after hearing that a ngamla is among them because by implication, they just weren’t used to that sort of thing. The normally brilliant Moshidi Motshegwa delivers dialogue in faltering Xhosa as her character tries to calm the situation down. Then the butchering continues in earnest as all nuance and detail are lost or ignored. We are shown trains with the current Metrorail colours, public phones have digital dials, but worst of all, it is the accents of the two lead actors that leave much to be desired.

The Oscar-winning William Hurt plays Willie Esterhuyse, a Stellenbosch University academic who is tasked with setting the scene for talks with the ANC. He tries but is not convincing in a role someone like Marius Weyers would surely have excelled in playing. His co-star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, does a credible job as Mbeki but has clearly never listened to the man speak. The challenge of any historical film is to get the details right, especially when it is reasonably close to the chronology of the story it tells. It is a cardinal sin to be negligent when the characters still walk and talk among us. It seems the two principal actors hardly bothered with a dialect coach, much less watched footage of Mbeki or De Klerk or Mandela who surely gave enough speeches in their time in office. John Kani has a small role as Oliver Tambo but cannot rescue the project because this after all is Young’s account and he never met or dealt directly with the erstwhile ANC leader.

It is this fact more than any other that is likely to damn this narrative in the eyes of those who are currently writing the history books.

This is not a story told through the eyes of its South African protagonists but rather it is the account of the dogged determination of a capitalist whose over- arching goal was to secure a stable environment in which his employers could do business. As Esterhuyse bitingly reflects, Gold Fields had conspired for too long with the Nationalist regime to have suddenly developed moral compunctions about the nefariousness of apartheid. Theirs was a pragmatic step in sending Young to get things flowing in the right direction. But whatever the motive, the suggestion is implicit: it took an outsider to get the ball rolling as it continues to take outsiders to tell the story because even among ourselves, whose version do we believe?

But how might the story have been different had it been told from our perspective? For one thing, as is necessary with these tales, there might have been more dramatisation.

One of the most compelling moments of Mandela’s own narrative in Long Walk To Freedom is being stuck in Cape Town traffic under the guard of a warder while still a prisoner, a moment in which he contemplated, however briefly, making a run for it. Now a scene like that, had it been included, might have spoken volumes about Mandela’s own state of mind and the tightrope all the players walked in getting to February 11. On the other hand that might require one to have been there.



• Bongani Bingwa is a Carte Blanche presenter.

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