Review: Dear Mandela


Apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994, bringing a majority party, the African National Congress (ANC), into power. In those first years of South African majority rule, Nelson Mandela served as president, and has since been followed by other members of the ANC. There was a promise of a better life for people who had no voice in government, and ambitious guarantees that there would be easy access to education and that everyone would have a home.

The lofty ideals that Mandela presented have yet to be fully realized, meaning that many people in South Africa still live in shanty towns on the outskirts of major cities. They’re referred to as informal settlements throughout the film, which may be a bit of equivocation on the part of the government who wants to tear these places down as well as on the part of the residents who call these places home.

Dear Mandela is all about the political challenges the people in these informal settlements face, and the film is a potent reminder about the importance of action and activism.


Dear Mandela
Directors: Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza
Rating: NR
Release Date: January 29th (see bottom of review for details)

Dear Mandela is a beautifully lensed portrait of the new generation of South African activism. If the previous generation’s activists were primarily concerned with the end of apartheid, the new generation of activists are faced with eradicating the vestiges of the old system and making good on the promise of the new South Africa. For Abahlali baseMjondolo, the squatter’s rights organization at the center of the film, this means ending forced evictions of people who live in these informal settlements. Many of them are carried out arbitrarily and without court orders, both of which are unconstitutional. There’s a scene early in the film where Mnikelo, one of the three primary activists whom the filmmakers follow, reads the words directly from his copy of the South African Constitution while standing on the site of a torn down shack. Right after that, the rebuilding process begins. Neighbors come together to make a new shack where the old one stood.

The issue of housing comes into focus with the Slums Act, which forces evictions of people who live in substandard housing. When evicted, they are then sent to live in transit camps well away from city centers. They look like aluminum tool sheds, and while they’re meant to be temporary housing centers until the evicted are relocated, many of the people in these transit camps remain there for years, forgotten or ignored. There’s a clip of then-President Mandela in the mid-1990s making a tacit apology for the slow progress when it comes to building houses. He mentions the ANC are just normal people and can’t work miracles, but one wonders what they are doing to realistically address the problem.

If racial segregation was at the heart of apartheid, there’s an implicit sense of economic segregation with these forced evictions. As cities expand and the government looks to develop more land, they inevitably run into these settlements. If they want to develop, it means displacement, but if they displace the people there, they need to stick them somewhere else. Interestingly, during apartheid, transit camps were also used. I found this quote from University of KwaZulu-Natal researcher Kerry Chance here:

Transit camps, as they were known during apartheid, were used in the ’50s for the screening, segregation and repatriation of unwanted black urbanites; and in the ambiguous late apartheid years, progressive lawyers used transit camp legislation to prevent the removal of people to distant sites.

This may make what Mnikelo, Mazwi, and Zama (and Abahlali baseMjondolo as a whole) are trying to accomplish that much more compelling. Like the ANC, these are normal people — Mnikelo owns a shop, Mazwi is a student, Zama is an AIDS orphan and single mother — and while they can’t work miracles, they do undertake the Herculean task of affecting some kind of lasting social change. These struggles aren’t easy, both at a personal level and the larger political level. As the organization makes an appeal concerning the constitutionality of the Slums Act, the legitimacy and goals of Abahlali baseMjondolo are called into question by people who would ostensibly benefit from the appeal process. These changes won’t come quickly or easily; again, they’re normal people incapable of working miracles. We’re told that you can start building a new shack in the morning and be able to sleep in it at night. The legal process takes much longer, and ditto the political process, especially in a relatively young government like the new South Africa.

I go back to the generational aspect of South African activism since that’s key to a larger conflict in Dear Mandela. The ANC, Mandela’s party, has been in charge of government since 1994. It came in with such hope and promise, much of which failed to materialize. (This might be the consequence of expecting too much and aiming too high. To paraphrase something journalist Bill Moyers said about Barack Obama following the 2008 election, all leaders will inevitably disappoint.) To the members of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the idea of Mandela’s ANC is different than the ANC that rules the country today. For them, the party no longer cares about the people they fought for and no longer has any roots to their own history of grassroots activism. Maybe this group now bears the old torch. We hear comparisons between Abahlali baseMjondolo and the old ANC, and even between Abahlali President S’bu Zikode.

These comparisons don’t seem self-aggrandizing, at least given the point of view of the activists, which is where co-directors Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza have mostly situated the film. It’s a wise decision to keep the film with the people since the urgency and the need is there with them. We still get some insight from ANC members, though it’s clear that they aren’t as invested in the larger issue. (They don’t have to live there, after all. They don’t face the possibility of sudden eviction either.) It’s a haves and have-nots problem. The ANC has the political power but is using it illegitimately with the Slums Act. The people in the informal settlements are trying to wield what power they have. However limited this power may be, it’s theirs like the land they’re squatting on and the shack they’re living in.

Any new generation who inherits the political dreams of the previous generation will wind up wondering why those dreams haven’t been fulfilled. The present actions of the previous generation seem static. Maybe it’s the nature of the political process that old activists who wind up in government wind up stultifying in some way — the ANC shifts from power to the people (which is also power for the people) to power in politics (which is power for the people in the party). Dear Mandela has got me interested in reading more about politics in the new South Africa, and to see how this generational difference plays out in the coming decades. Since this is post-apartheid, I don’t know if we’d technically see another Mandela among the new youth activists, but a new figure will likely arise to help take up the causes that Mandela stood for.

Given the title of the movie, I wonder what sort of letter to Mandela this film is. The people in the informal settlements are angry at the ANC, but Mandela is still held in the highest regard given who he is, what he fought for, and what he still represents as the country continues forward. But this movie is not a love letter, or a fan letter, even. I’m led to think Dear Mandela is a letter for help, a list of grievances, and also a kind of reassurance that the long walk isn’t over yet, something like: “Dear Mandela, We’re going to continue where you left off. What you started was only the beginning.” From the struggle of normal men and women, things resembling miracles.

[Dear Mandela will air on January 29th on WLIW World in New York, WHYY in Philadelphia, WGBH in Boston, and KQED in San Francisco as part of AfroPop: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange. Check your local listings for times. Dear Mandela will also be available to stream for free as part of AfroPoP here; it will also stream for free on from January 29th to February 5th, and from March 1st to March 31st.]

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.