Kalushi: The struggle to show the struggle

Cape Town - “My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight.” – Solomon Mahlangu (1956-1977)

Chatting over the phone from a snowy Sweden, Mandla Dube often refers to Solomon Mahlangu simply as Solomon, like an acquaintance, a friend.

The Kalushi director, co-writer and co-producer is in Stockholm because his Mahlangu biopic is opening yet another African film festival with a gala event at the sizeable CinemAfrica venue, filled with ambassadors, department of arts and culture officials and VIPs.

“Of all the unsung heroes of the struggle, why him?” I ask.

There’s silence for a moment. He struggles with how to put this.

“I ... I ... Well, I went through quite a little bit of a turbulent time when I was finished with my [film] studies and was working in Los Angeles. I found myself going through an incarceration period and I met this warder there. His name was Solomon...”

In different ways, he tells me, the name has cropped up in his life for years, like a sign. Back in South Africa, he took a job lecturing in film at the University of the Witwatersrand.

“While I was there, I saw the apathy among students. I was like, but guys, do you know where we come from? What we’ve been through? As that was going on, I was introduced to Solomon’s family, in about 2006, I think. There it came again. This name, Solomon. I started connecting the dots.”

“The universe will do that,” I suggest.

“You just have to be awake to it,” he replies.

A 10-year journey

I ask Dube how the movie came to be opening festivals and picking up awards around the world, how it came to be at all. It’s still a rare thing, an anti-apartheid-era film by a black film maker.

“What I realised is that with Solomon it’s been a curatorship rather than just a simple act of film making. Kalushi [Mahlangu’s nickname] started as a play, which I co-wrote and co-produced with the State Theatre’s Aubrey Sekhabi.

“Some of us had started the Solomon Mahlangu Family Trust. It happened through a committee that was put together for the 30th anniversary of his death in 2009.

“We were able to advocate for his face to be on a stamp issued by the SA Post Office and to get his name put on the wall at Freedom Park. Then we were able to work with the City of Tshwane to get the family home to be declared a museum. We built a new house for them behind the family home. We did an exhibition on Mahlangu and the Rivonia Trialists. The project was called The Legends of Freedom.”

Before this intervention, Mahlangu was little remembered in a public heritage space.

“I think the reason that we haven’t seen a celebration of the unsung heroes, the foot soldiers, is because before then there really wasn’t the political will. If you don’t think about Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, then you are not thinking of the struggle. Mahlangu’s legacy was overshadowed by somebody like Steve Biko, who died in 1977.”

The theatre was packed and Kalushi, the play, taught Dube that there was an appetite for a story about a regular 19-year-old during apartheid, selling vegetables on the train, who is harassed by the police to the point that, after the brutality of June 16, he leaves his girlfriend and mum to join his friends in crossing the border to take up the armed struggle.

Dube wanted to turn the play into a TV series. “But I realised this story deserves a bigger canvas.”

Three years for the helicopters

There’s a scene in Kalushi that will give you goose bumps. Mahlangu and his fellow cadres are crossing the border into Mozambique on their long journey to an Umkhonto weSizwe training camp in Angola. Suddenly, over a ravine, 1970s SA Defence Force helicopters rise like a giant fist into the sky behind them. You then grasp the enormity of the apartheid machine.

“It took three years just to negotiate the helicopters,” says Dube. “For about 40 seconds on screen.”

Putting the financing in place with co-producer Walter Ayres took the same.

In many regards, they had the full support of the state film system, which has backed Kalushi from the get-go. The National Film and Video Foundation paid for the script, the department of trade and industry offered rebates and the National Lottery donated generously to a project whose time had come.

But even then, it’s been an uphill struggle to show the struggle. As film maker Zola Maseko often states, black film makers in South Africa are able to make a film of R4 million or R5 million, but expand your scope and vision upward of R10 million – as he did for The Whale Caller – and you’re left out in the cold.

Dube agrees. “You go to the funders and there are all these questions. Have you made five films in the past five years? What are your box office results? Who’s the international lead in it?”

“They wanted an American star in the lead?” I ask, knowing the answer.

“Of course. That was suggested more than once. I said, not only are we going to use local actors, we’re going to use indigenous languages. Solomon Mahlangu spoke Ndebele, he came from Mamelodi, with Sesotho and isiZulu all mixed in ... and that’s the only way we’ll be able to take cinema to the people. It’s a wonderful thing to go and watch a film and see these people speaking your language.

“I was determined to go out there and make a statement that black South African directors can make these films, that black South African actors can tell these stories and tell them well.”

The song of the unsung

There is another scene in Kalushi that gave me goosebumps. In the camp in Angola, the cadres gather around and they are addressed by Oliver Tambo over a radio. It’s scenes like this, of normal life among soldiers in the camps, that we have hardly ever seen on our screens, big or small.

Over the line, Dube laughs. “I did Tambo’s voice in that scene.”

Today, in part because of #FeesMustFall, in part because of Dube’s efforts, Mahlangu is recognised as an iconic hero of the struggle. But as Kalushi serves to mythologise him, it also neatly demythologises him. “He’s a foot soldier, a common man, propelled into the struggle. Just like me,” says Dube. This is the real story of our armed resistance – the thousands of unsung heroes. In Kalushi, Mahlangu’s leadership qualities are foregrounded, but the famous operation where he is wrongfully arrested for murder is a shambolic, amateur mess. Rather it is Mahlangu’s spirit of resistance as an everyman that emerges from his anti-apartheid story

“It’s not an anti-apartheid film,” responds Dube. “Kalushi is a love story, on many levels. It’s a coming-of-age story about a young man pulled into the struggle because of police brutality. The same thing is happening with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.” Which is why the film is resonating with global audiences.

Hundreds of largely nameless cadres were executed before Mahlangu, and hundreds after, in the apartheid gallows.

Iyho uSolomon

In the generation gap of today’s politics, Mahlangu represents a bridge – between the older comrades who fought the struggle and the Fallists on campuses across the country still fighting it today.

Dube recounts a lovely thing that happened while he was working with Thabo Rametsi (who plays Mahlangu) and Pearl Thusi (his girlfriend).

“Thabo went to a #FeesMustFall protest, and there are thousands of students. He looks to his right and who’s standing next to him? Pearl, who just happens to be there too. The next thing the kids start singing Iyho uSolomon. They looked at each other and just started crying.”

The protest song is a common refrain at #FeesMustFall. At Wits, Senate House was renamed Solomon Mahlangu House.

But Mahlangu’s mother – who passed away in 2014 – told Dube that she wanted people to know the lyrics are wrong. Her son never killed those Boers. Mahlangu was arrested for their murders and sentenced to death. Tambo led a rally in London calling for a stay of execution. The apartheid state ignored the calls.

Long walk to the box office

On social media everyone has been asking why it’s taking so long for Kalushi to hit the cinema circuit.

The short answer is that, when it comes to distribution, there is still no even playing field for black-made films.

While a Hollywood blockbuster can easily be placed on 100 screens across the country – indefinitely, until ticket sales drop off – a political black film is told there will not be enough appetite, it’s too risky to invest in a large number of screens. At first, Dube tells me, he was offered a limited run, in 28 cinemas. “We said no, we want to have a success.” Then there was intervention by the department of arts and culture both nationally and in Gauteng, now they’ve been offered at least 40 cinemas, with the option of more if demand is high. “That’s why it’s taken so long to reach the screen for everyone to see,” he says.

“I just really hope that South Africans turn out in numbers to also decolonise this sector ... and I hope Kalushi also starts educating the bureaucrats in government and the politicians about the relevance of cinema in a post-apartheid South Africa. Cinema can start a dialogue.”

He speaks about the growing black suburban audience, but malls are not the only focus.

“People in the townships have to travel to the suburbs to go and experience cinema. So, what we are going to do is we’re going to be having a roadshow, taking cinema to the people, so people can go see this film that will help with this whole thing of identity that we are challenged with.”

The roadshow, it is hoped, will play out across the country in community halls and, most importantly, schools. “The other day we went to the Swedish Film Institute and they said they’d like to have Kalushi shown in schools in Sweden. Why can’t South Africa do that?”

The spirit of Mahlangu

“Obviously we did all the rituals, we went to his grave and to his ancestral home to ask his spirit to allow us to do this,” says Dube of making Kalushi.

When it came to filming Mahlangu’s execution, there was a problem.

“Are you aware that the state gallows – in 1994 or 1995 – were dismantled? Removed from the memory of South Africa. We appealed to the department of correctional services because we wanted to shoot where he died. They came up with a quick-fix solution; they put up temporary gallows.

“When we started filming at the site, we took a moment of silence, everyone went cold.

“Then, on the day we filmed the execution scene, the family again came and we did a ritual under a tree. His brother officiated at the ceremony and we talked to Solomon...

“Our story wrote itself. His spirit was there.”

Kalushi: The Solomon Mahlangu Story opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday, March 10

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