South Africa: Documentary Films and a Play

by Your Culture Critic

Bring Dear Mandela to Your City!

Dear Mandela

This up-close, vivid documentary features young members of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Shack Dwellers Movement, in their struggle against the practices of the South African government. National and local “slum clearance” policies have allowed officials to continuously destroy the shanty town shacks which poor people are forced to construct wherever they can, and at the same time, the government fails to provide millions of needy people with housing––not to mention equality and economic opportunity. The title of the film refers to a letter that the Abahlali baseMjondolo youth wish to write to the “Jesus” of South African liberation in order to tell him what his party, the ruling African National Congress (ANC), is doing. The number of poor people and the housing deficit have increased since the ANC took power in the first post-apartheid election 18 years ago.

You can see the film for a few days right now in New York City and several other cities while it tours—see the schedule on its website, and contact the film makers about bringing it to your city (see below). The film makers and some members of Abahlali baseMjondolo are touring with it.

You can read about this remarkable organization of shack dwellers in our story two years ago, when the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo spoke in N.Y.C. along with the film makers, Dara Kell and Christropher Nizza; also see our articles since then, written by Abahlali.

It was great to see the finished film, especially right after the Marikana Mining massacre of Aug. 16, which undoubtedly has Americans scratching their heads if they had not realized how reactionary the ANC government is. Kell and Nizza got involved with Abahlali in 2005, made a five-minute film, and then kept going back to show Abahlali what they had done and to film some more, finishing the film last year. The process of making this film was consistent with Abahlali’s principles of retaining full control over its own organization.

Dear Mandela follows Abahlali members around their shanty towns and at their protests, revealing their fortitude and bravery in the face of both economic hardship and deadly force. Hugely honest in speaking to the camera about their lives, their organization, and their hopes for the future, the young people show what “occupation” really entails.

There is much drama as the camera shows the immediate aftermath of attacks on their shacks, physical and verbal abuse by ANC thugs, and Abahlali’s legal fight up to the highest court in South Africa. Eviction without due process of law is forbidden by the new South African constitution, yet “slum clearance” laws allowed it. Abahlali won the case, but that has not stopped daily evictions nor produced the new housing that is also promised them by the constitution and by every ANC politician since 1994.

This film shows Abahlali baseMjondolo’s story up close and personal. The saddest moment of it to me was when a young woman goes to visit her children, whom she has left with her sister after an attack on her urban occupation, and her youngest child, appearing traumatized, barely responds to her.

Your help is needed to get this film shown. For more information about Dear Mandela, visit For information about the national screening tour, contact Dara Kell at  For more information about the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement, visit

Searching for Sugar Man

If this limited-release documentary film is playing near you, run to see it. It is about a little-known U.S. musician named Sixto Rodriguez and the power of popular music in an international youth culture—and it blew my mind. That is because, even though the film is about the period of my youth and my culture, and about South Africa under apartheid which was hugely important to my becoming a radical, I knew absolutely nothing about Rodriguez  and the matters which the film depicts.

I don’t want to say much about the story because I hope this film receives general distribution so you all can see it; it unfolds in the form of solving a mystery which I don’t want to give away. Some of the story is a little suspect and hokey; for example, it takes a very long time for the searchers to figure out that Dearborn is a suburb of Detroit (and then they mistakenly call it a section of Detroit).

Nonetheless, this film must be seen by everyone who ever listened to 1960s and 70s popular American music, everyone who lived in Detroit any time during the last 40 years, everyone ever interested in white South African society, and everyone who should know about life under a repressive regime, especially pre-internet.

Finally, there is a mystery within a mystery, which we find the answer to near the end, through observation. The film does not make it explicit, but apparently, his face is the reason that Rodriguez, who looked gorgeous in photographs, used to perform with his back to the audience.  Add another prejudice to the strikes against a Latino performer in the 1970s.

The Train Driver

This play by Athol Fugard, the internationally renowned white South African playwright whose works over the past 50 years did much to aid black South Africans’ struggle by illuminating apartheid’s terrible human toll, just had a run in New York. Fugard himself directed.

The play is a bleak tale set in a squatters’ camp graveyard, which is strikingly depicted by a bleak set. The stage was the whole width of the theater and was covered with gray sandy dirt, with mounds all over it and pieces of junk. I understood its theme, like many of Fugard’s plays, to be the inextricably linked destinies of white and black South Africans, both groups bound by circumstances to live without hope for a better future.

There are just two characters seen in the play. One is an old black gravedigger who lives in a shack surrounded by the graves he digs for the unclaimed bodies of nameless black people. The area is so poor that he puts a piece of metallic junk atop the mounds of earth, because if he made wooden crosses—even if he made them out of twigs––the desperately poor people nearby would steal them for firewood. The other character is a white train driver who arrives seeking to expurgate a memory that is driving him mad: he is looking for the grave of the Black woman whom he unintentionally killed, along with her baby, a month earlier, when she stepped onto the tracks in front of him. In the instant before she went under the train, their eyes locked, sealing his fate along with hers.

Watching the play, I assumed it was one of Fugard’s apartheid-era works because the circumstances of Black poverty and white alienation were like those in his plays from that period. But after its tragic ending—the men become friends yet unintentionally serve to destroy each other—I looked at the literature in the theater lobby, and saw that the play is from 2010!  I realized that even though it might be set in an earlier period (we aren’t told), it very much reflects conditions in the current South Africa.

I doubt that Fugard meant to imply that the human condition is permanently bleak—if he thought that, he would not have struggled against apartheid all those years, even when his plays were banned and he was forced to live outside his country. Rather, I think he meant the play to reveal how little has changed in the lives of the poor since the fall of apartheid. As a Marxist-Humanist, how could I not grasp the universal significance of the gravedigger’s loss of his shovel, his only means of production? Dear Fugard, thank you for telling it like it is.


This hagiographic documentary, shown on TV recently, is about Paul Simon, the iconic 1960s musician who is still going strong. Graceland shows Simon making music history when he went to South Africa in the 1980s and recorded with black South African musicians. The songs he created with them became his famous “Graceland” album, and other albums and tours featuring the South African musicians followed.

The film, however, keeps returning to Simon’s failure to abide by the ANC’s call for artists to boycott South Africa. By working and performing there, he violated the world-wide boycott of all businesses in or invested in South Africa, a boycott that was important to ending apartheid.  (American youth, Black and white, created a “divestiture” movement that was successful in getting many universities to sell their holdings in companies that did business with South Africa.)

Yes, Simon’s famous albums and tours helped South African music become known around the world, but was it right for him to make himself an exception to the boycott because he was so famous that he could do some good for South African music and musicians? The movie spends so much time presenting justifications for his actions, that the issue steals the focus away from the music!

*        *      *

One hopes that the U.S. showings of these films and play manifest a continuing interchange of ideas between rebellious people in the Americas and Africa. The relationship is centuries-old.  One thinks of the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya, who characterized African-Americans revolutionary mass activity as “the touchstone of American history” (see American Civilization on Trial), and who wrote about the three-way road of revolutionary ideas that accompanied the slave trade from Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas. That interchange of ideas continued, reaching its climax in the 1950s and 60s and beyond, when African-Americans and white and Latino youth in the U.S. were rebelling at the same time as the African revolutions against colonialism and the South African struggle.

Perhaps we can say that this international relationship constitutes a “touchstone” of world history.  In that case, who knows what might develop out of Americans’ people-to-people support for the Shack Dwellers Movement and other mass struggles in Africa for freedom and a better life?  Dear Readers, I hope you will spread the word about Dear Mandela, and get involved.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.