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Hot Docs: Nelson Mandela: The Myth & Me

Nelson Mandela. Synonymous with reconciliation. Forgiveness. A grandfatherly figure, laughing and smiling (though perhaps not as much as Desmond Tutu).

Freeing South Africa. Creating the Rainbow Nation.

A comforting narrative. Not a controversial figure. Not someone who used violence to reach his goals, who was labelled a terrorist by the American, and many other, governments. Not someone who said that our freedom is bound up in the freedom of the Palestinians.

The second film I saw at the Hot Docs festival 2014 was titled Nelson Mandela: The Myth & Me, also known as A Letter to Nelson Mandela. This was not a love letter to Mandela. It was a critical look at the myth that rose up once he was released from jail and went on to become South Africa’s first Black president. As one of the interviewees put it, he wasn’t that genteel, benign grandfatherly figure. “He was cold.”

Because the reality is that Mandela was the epitome of the phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” He’s been called both during his lifetime, and he’s made the epic arc from being widely viewed as a terrorist to now being overwhelmingly considered a saint; in fact, few people would argue otherwise, at least in polite company.


Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, November 2011

This film, however, argues a more nuanced perspective of the man behind the myth. As write and director Khalo Matabane said during the Q&A after the screening, quoting the incredible Chimamanda Adichie, “It’s dangerous to have a single narrative. Mandela suffers from that, from the Western media as well as the media in South Africa.” For Matabane, this film was meant to provide multiple alternative narratives to the story of a man who is often only portrayed through a single lens.

And so he interviewed many diverse subjects – ranging from leftist activists to right-wing Conservative politicians (side note: when Henry Kissinger appeared on the screen, I wanted to boo and hiss. Same when Colin Powell described himself as essentially a peace activist who knew when to use hard power to get back to the bigger goal of peace. I did restrain myself). He interviewed people who believed that forgiveness was the ultimate goal – that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa went about things the right way, and that Madiba succeeded in transitioning from an armed idealist to a politician who could birth and cultivate a healthy, thriving democracy.

But there were other interview subjects who saw things differently. Who saw things similarly to the way I saw them when I visited South Africa two and a half years ago. They spoke of the myth of Mandela as a hero and a god (which was telling, as only gods can forgive, as one interviewee put it). And that he’d bought into that myth and even encouraged it. One woman, who’s caption simply read “Feminist” below her name (and apologies but I don’t remember the name and there’s no list of interview subjects online that I can find), spoke of how the reality on the ground was much different from the myth. The myth says that South Africans are free, that they are so much better off than they were under Apartheid, when they were dying in the streets. “But depending on who you are,” she said, “people still are dying in the streets.”

South Africa is a country of extreme contrasts. It’s the most advanced African country when it comes to LGBTQ rights, and yet Black lesbians know the fear of corrective rape all too well. It has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, yet it is also one of the most unequal societies in the world. This was starkly illustrated when I was flying into Cape Town from London at the end of 2011. Flying into the airport, when we got low enough that I could really see the houses, I saw grandiose homes, nearly every single one with a swimming pool. Then the homes became more structured, more box-like, and there were no more bursts of blue in their backyards. Finally, closest to the airport, was the township.


Khayelitsha township, the largest one in South Africa, with over 1 million inhabitants, Nov 2011


A typical home in Langa township, November 2011

It’s been twenty years – almost to the day (April 27, 1994) – since South Africa had its first democratic elections (here’s a good article about the changes, good and bad, and what hasn’t changed, since the end of Apartheid). Yet the country is still widely divided along racial lines. The poorest of the poor are overwhelmingly Black, with the richest of the rich still being overwhelmingly White. This is seen in terms of land. From when Apartheid ended until the end of 2011, when I visited the country, less than 7% of the land had been transferred. Rich White landowners own the big farms, and poorer, Black small scale farmers are landless and continue to suffer under a similar unequal system as they did under Apartheid. (Side note: there are organizations like Surplus People Project working for land reform. See my blog post from November 2011)


Willem, a small-scale farmer without access to water on the land he farms (but does not own) near Citrusdal, Western Cape, November 2011

As some young people interviewed in the film commented (and this was filmed when he was still alive), Mandela never goes to bed hungry. Mandela is fed because of them, they argue. Another interviewee says its easy to forgive when you’re the president. But what about the woman in the hut whose son went missing and who is inconsolable every time she realizes that the footsteps she hears outside her home are not that of her long lost son returning? We are being presumptuous, insulting even, if we think we can comfort her.

This brings up the issue of forced reconciliation, which is somewhat addressed in the film. As one interviewee analogizes, “If someone steals your watch and asks for forgiveness but is still wearing your watch, what good is that?” It creates a culture of impunity, not one of reconciliation, he argues.

What good is forgiveness if it is coerced? I am very uncomfortable with forgiveness narratives, especially around genocide or ethnic cleansing or system human rights abuses. The 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide was earlier this month, and there were countless media portrayals of perpetrators standing with their victims in solidarity and forgiveness. I remember when I was completing my Masters degree and seeing a short video of a Rwandan woman serving food to the man who had killed her entire family, in a move that the narrator clearly viewed to be inspirational. But for me, there’s a problem with that. Not least because, when I visited Rwanda in 2009, I heard time and time again, “We have no choice but to forgive.”

In the TRC in South Africa, there were times during the hearings when forgiveness was definitely coerced, or at least strongly encouraged. I heard one story, during my Political Reconciliation class at LSE (taught by Dr. Claire Moon who’s written extensively on South Africa) of a victim who came to tell her story even though her perpetrators refused to appear. Yet still she was asked, repeatedly, by the Commissioners, “But you forgive them, right?”

That’s why it was so interesting that Matabane included the story of Charity Kondile, who refuses to forgive the man who killed her son, Sizwe. “I was looking for an alternative narrative to the Black woman who cries at the TRC and forgives,” Matabane explained during the Q&A. “I was trying to be as honest as possible in a world where everything, even documentaries, is a performance.”

I couldn’t help but think back to the time last month I spent at the TRC in Edmonton. In this Canadian context, I didn’t encounter that kind of “cult of forgiveness” that has appeared in other reconciliation processes. While we may still argue whether justice is being done in this care, or any of the cases discussed in this blog post, the Canadian TRC process is much more victim/survivor focused. It is about survivors telling their stories, and having institutional perpetrators apologize to them. Very rarely did individual perpetrators appear before the Commission, although it did happen. Of course, concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation were discussed and promoted at the TRC. But I never felt a coercive element; survivors were allowed to be angry and to remain angry. To tell their story as they saw it. Reconciliation is a process. As Elder Lorna Standingready said to me one day in Edmonton, the residential school system operated for over 100 years. We can’t expect it all be fixed in the few years of the TRC’s mandate.

But back to Matabane’s movie. Watch the trailer below. And then make sure you see the full feature film as soon as you can.

Verdict: 4.5/5.0