THE BIG READ: The whole truth?
South Africa boasts some extremely talented directors, actors and filmmakers. But I think, perhaps, we don't boast about them enough for, beyond Tsotsi, which won an Academy award, how many South African films can we name off hand?
I am enthusiastic about the imminent release of Otelo Burning, which has already won acclaim at international film festivals.
Its official website says, "The film tells the story of a group of township kids who discover the joy of surfing. It's set in 1989, against a backdrop of brewing conflict between two political groups in Lamontville."
I am impressed that the film is in Zulu, with English subtitles. I am also impressed by the profiles of the award-winning, and vastly experienced, crew.
But I must admit to some trepidation, for the period of history this film recounts is painful, complex and steeped in propaganda.
Incidentally, the protagonist is named Otelo Buthelezi.
This is the second feature film to deal with the black-on-black violence that raged in the Eighties and early Nineties in South Africa. The first, The Bang Bang Club, was released last year and told "the real-life story of four young combat photographers".
The film was disturbing, and many of its scenes harrowing, both visually and emotionally.
It opened with the following words written across the screen to give the context for the film.
"Between 1990 and 1994, the ruling apartheid government waged a secret war against Nelson Mandela's ANC party and its supporters. In this covert war the government found a powerful ally in Inkatha's movement and its thousands of Zulu warriors."
My heart sank. I knewThe Bang Bang Club would be a difficult film to watch, for the wounds of the black-on-black violence are still so fresh in my mind and there is still so much to be done towards reconciliation between the ANC and the IFP. But to see the conflict misrepresented so glaringly within the opening seconds of the film was deeply worrying.
The implication of the opening lines is that violence committed by Inkatha supporters was part of a covert war waged on behalf of the apartheid government and that, consequently, any of the violence perpetrated by ANC supporters was defensive under attack.
This is far from the truth. Not only does the film ignore the fact that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found "little evidence exists of a centrally directed, coherent or formally constituted 'Third Force'". It also fails to acknowledge the ANC's people's war, waged against all other components of the liberation movement, and which is documented in academic works such as Dr Anthea Jeffrey's seminal tome aptly titled People's War.
The film also fails to convey that much of that violence could have been avoided had Nelson Mandela honoured our commitment to pursue reconciliation upon his release. Though he was released in February 1990, it was not until 29 January 1991 that those around Mandela allowed him to meet me.
At our first meeting, he and I agreed to hold joint nationwide rallies to pacify our people who had been at war with one another for so long. The first rally was to be at Taylor's Halt. But neither this, nor any subsequent rally, ever took place. After Mandela agreed to go to Taylor's Halt, the ANC leadership in Natal, led by Harry Gwala, went to the ANC head office to forbid him from attending.
There were those within the ANC who fiercely resisted reconciliation . Even now, years later, some still do.
When I saw The Bang Bang Club last year I worried what it would do for reconciliation between people who still remember the violence and those who still miss loved ones taken from them. It's not that we shouldn't remember the past. The subject of black-on-black violence is not taboo. But it does demand truth.
If we are to remember this past, we must do so with integrity, honesty and laudable motive.
Most of those who paid to watch The Bang Bang Club last year no doubt had a special interest in politics or history. I hope they were interested enough to have challenged the portrayal with facts.
But when SABC3 chose to airThe Bang Bang Club last Saturday night I knew many watching would receive it as an accurate reflection of a terrible time in history.
How does one undo that kind of damage? I believe the SABC was wrong to air this film.
When The Bang Bang Club was released on circuit, it was rated 16 for language and violence. When SABC3 aired it on Saturday night that rating had been changed to 18 for language, violence, nudity, sex and prejudice. Moreover, the age rating and warning signals remained in place far longer than the required 60 seconds at the start, and 30 seconds after, each advertising break.
In terms of SABC editorial policies, that indicates the film contains "extremely controversial material". Clearly, the SABC was fully aware of the prejudice and controversy in The Bang Bang Club.
The SABC's editorial policies list among the core values: nation-building and a commitment not to convey prejudiced notions of South Africa's races or cultures. "Given South Africa's past, and the role of public broadcasting in healing divisions, it is imperative for the SABC to avoid language and images that reinforce stereotypes and offend communities or individuals."
Broadcasting lies about our past is unlikely to further nation-building or heal divisions, and is highly likely to offend communities and individuals.
Let me end where I started, by saying South Africa boasts some very talented directors, actors and filmmakers. I hope that, at some point, someone among them will look at our past, scratch the surface of the propaganda and ask, "What really happened"?
- Otelo Burning opens on May 11. This is an edited version of a newsletter that first appeared on www.ifp.org.za