Dear Mandela charts the daily struggles and activism of three people who take up the cause of development and dignity within their communities. On April 27, Freedom Day was marked throughout the country via political party rallies, NGO commemorations and thousands of now customary non-political braais. It is a national holiday that has come to signify something different to each and every South African.
Yet, this Freedom Day also marked a milestone for the South African informal settlement movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo. As they took to the streets once again for an UnFreedom Day march through central Durban, the award-winning documentary on the movement, Dear Mandela, was aired for the first time on South African television.
Even though it was broadcast on Mzansi Magic channel on DSTV (thereby excluding the vast majority of South Africa’s poor), it quickly set off a fire storm of chatter on social networking site Twitter with #DearMandela trending for hours while many viewers decided to write their own UnFreedom Day tweets to Nelson Mandela. The struggle of informal settlements in Durban struck a cord even among those of us privileged enough to watch it on satellite TV.
The film charts the daily struggles and activism of three distinctive young members of Abahlali who take up the cause of development and dignity with their communities. They put aside their personal aspirations to escape from the shacks and they unwittingly put their lives at risk when the inevitable backlash bring them face to face with ruthless political repression.
In 2009, Zama Ndlovu, a single mother of two and one of the main protagonists in Dear Mandela, went into hiding after a vigilante group of self-identified ANC supporters attacked Abahlali activists in the Kennedy Road informal settlement. Three years later, while Zama and her family have been able to return to Kennedy Road, she is still not safe. Besides fears of another attack by an ANC-linked mob, shack fires, another violent force plaguing shackdwellers, has now claimed her family’s home three times.
Zama remains unwavering in her commitment to the struggle. She reminds others who tend to look down upon people like her that: “Middle class people tend to look at the people from the shacks, like people who are not like human beings. Living in a shack doesn’t mean that you cannot think for yourself.”
Mazwi Nzimande, who was 18 years old at the time the documentary was filmed, has since suffered numerous death threats. Unknown groups have shown up many times at his mother’s home in Joe Slovo making explicit threats that he must leave the movement or suffer the consequences.
Yet Mazwi echoes Zama’s words and the belief of the Abahlali that they can and must lead their own struggles without a vanguard to think for them. He exclaims that “being poor in life, doesn’t mean that you are poor in mind”.
What I found invaluable about the film Dear Mandela is that, beyond the misleadingly narrow service delivery discourse that dominates party and NGO politics, the members of Abahlali baseMjondolo recognise that they are fighting for much more than toilets and a roof over their heads. The shackdwellers are not only demanding services, they are also demanding the ownership of the development process itself.
Zama and Mazwi, along with thousands of other members of the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement, want to be hard-working and active participants in everything that effects their lives. To them, democracy isn’t something that takes place every five years at the ballot box. Democracy is about the every day process by which people constitute their own power over their circumstances.
Elections often become farcical rituals that are used by political parties to placate us; to convince us that its better to be a shackled welfare recipient surviving day-to-day than to recognise that these handouts are, in fact, an expression of oppression which exists to ensure a co-opted hegemony over the ‘rebellious masses’.
So when people question the authenticity of a day such as Freedom Day, Dear Mandela reminds us that freedom cannot be quantified. Freedom is not only about service delivery and having access to a plot of land or an RDP house.
A house means nothing if it was just given to you. It means everything if it is something you have spent your life fighting for and if it is something you been instrumental in achieving because you have recognised your own human dignity and your own self-worth in the process of living that struggle.
Communities mobilised around important issues tend to empower themselves to address other issues which affect them through the process of working together. An important example is that drug use and most localised forms of crime tend to be suppressed when communities are united and engaged in self-organised struggles.
The need for grassroots activism as a prefiguration of freedom is clearly evident as opposition builds towards the Traditional Courts Bill which is now being tabled in order to formalise the despotic power that chiefs claim over the rural poor. Despite the end of apartheid, the previous laws that the National Party enacted to prop up authoritarian forms of government within the Bantustan system, continue to operate informally.
This has happened because post-1994 has heralded an age of “democracy” without democratisation. Freedom and therefore authentic democracy cannot be given but must be built through a process of struggle. The dearth of effective resistance towards top-down forms of governance in these areas including important movements such as the Rural Network and the Landless People’s Movement has meant that authoritarian means of governance in rural areas remain even if they are off the legal books. With the ANC’s attempt to legalise this regime, are we making a return to apartheid or could it be just as true that for rural South Africans apartheid was never left behind?
Looking ahead towards future struggles, it is critical that we endeavour to look at the question of freedom in a deeper sense and as a continuously changing bottom-up process. We should cease our continuous letter writing to Tata Madiba who we must realise has chosen to take up the mantle of government and put aside his previous disposition as a freedom fighter. Let us write more letters to one another demanding that we all sit down and think together about how to fight for more freedom.
If, as Biko said, “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”, then freedom cannot exist unless we reclaim our minds from those that oppress us and want to speak for us, without us. This is not about us gaining our own personal liberty to do whatever we want even at the expense of others. Instead, we must recognise that a person becomes a person through other people. None of us are free until all of us are free.
Jared Sacks is a Cape Town-based activist working with community-based social movements and the Take Back the Commons movement.