Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Online Letter
Dear friends and fellow South Africans,
South Africa boasts some extremely talented directors, actors and film makers. 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 offhand?
I am enthusiastic about the imminent release of "Otelo Burning" which has already won critical acclaim at international film festivals. According to its official website, "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 isiZulu, with English subtitles. I am also impressed by 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 a group of four young combat photographers". The film was disturbing and many of its scenes are harrowing, both visually and emotionally.
I went to see "The Bang Bang Club" at the V&A Waterfront. It opened with the following words written across the screen, giving 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 knew that "The 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 have the conflict misrepresented so glaringly within the opening seconds of the film was deeply worrying.
The violence portrayed in the film was between ANC supporters and Inkatha supporters. The implication of the opening lines is that the violence committed by Inkatha supporters was part of a covert war waged on behalf of the apartheid Government, and that, consequently, any 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 that "little evidence exists of a centrally directed, coherent or formally constituted ‘Third Force’", it also fails to acknowledge the ANC’s People’s War which was waged against all other components of the liberation movement, and which is historically documented in academic works like Dr Anthea Jeffrey’s seminal tome aptly titled "People’s War".
The film also fails to convey the fact that much of the violence in that period could have been avoided if Mr Nelson Mandela had honoured our commitment to pursue reconciliation upon his release.
Although he was released in February 1990, it was not until 29 January 1991 that those around Mr Mandela allowed him to meet me. When Amakhosi in the Eastern Cape asked why he had not yet met with me, when it was known that we were friends, he replied that the leaders of the ANC/UDF had "almost throttled" him.
At our first meeting, Mr Mandela and I agreed to hold joint rallies throughout the country to pacify our people who had been at war with one another for so long. The first rally was scheduled for Taylor’s Halt. But neither this nor any subsequent rally ever took place. After Mr Mandela agreed to go to Taylor’s Halt, the ANC leadership in Natal, led by Mr Harry Gwala, arrived at Shell House (now Inkosi Luthuli House) to forbid him from attending.
The Cold War conflicts and the armed struggle had entrenched leadership positions within the ANC which relied on ongoing conflicts and persistent rebellion and insurrection. There were those within the ANC who resisted reconciliation vehemently. Even now, decades later, there are those who resist it.
When I saw "The Bang Bang Club" last year, I worried about what it would do for reconciliation between people who still remember the violence and those who still miss loved ones who were taken from them. It’s not that we shouldn’t remember the past for fear that it is too painful. The subject of black-on-black violence is not taboo. But it does demand truth. There is no space for artistic liberties or creative rewrites of real events. If we are going to remember this past, we must do so with integrity, honesty and laudable motive.
Most of the people who paid to watch "The Bang Bang Club" at the movies last year no doubt had a special interest in politics or history. Hopefully they were interested enough to have challenged the portrayal with facts.
But when SABC 3 chose to broadcast "The Bang Bang Club" this past Saturday night, I knew that many of those watching would receive it as gospel truth, as an accurate reflection of that terrible time in history. How does one undo that kind of damage?
I believe SABC was wrong to broadcast this film.
When "The Bang Bang Club" was released on circuit, it was rated 16 for Language and Violence by the Film and Publications Board. Yet when SABC 3 aired it on Saturday night, that rating had been increased 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. According to the SABC’s Editorial Polices, that indicates that the film contains "extremely controversial material".
So clearly the SABC was fully aware of the prejudice and controversy in "The Bang Bang Club".
According to the SABC’s Editorial Policies, among its core values are nation building and a commitment not to convey prejudiced notions of South Africa’s races or cultures. As SABC puts it, "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."
The SABC’s policy on violence is as follows, "To ensure that any broadcast of material containing scenes of violence, or violent behaviour, is justifiable in the context of the SABC’s functions and purpose."
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 that South Africa boasts some very talented directors, actors and film makers. 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?"
Yours in the service of the nation,
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP