Considering that the period covered was one of the most dynamic and crucial in the development of Black Southern Africa the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is remarkably pedestrian, slow, ponderous and ultimately unsatisfying. This isn’t surprising when you consider that the whole emphasis is placed on an individual with political events merely being a historical backdrop rather than looking at those events and analysing how any individual relates to the greater whole.
Being based on Mandela’s autobiography (of the same name) published in 1994 (a 750 pages doorstop that seems to have been his primary aim after release as he wrote this prior to his being elected South Africa’s first Black President in April 1994) this perhaps is not surprising but I would have thought that a film based in a period of massive upheaval and conflict should have recognised that social movements have a momentum of their own and that an individual’s role should be measured, for good or bad, in how it progresses that social movement.
The film is basically in three parts.
At the very beginning we are presented with an idealised childhood and youth in the South African bush. When he goes off to study at University Mandela’s wish is only to become a successful and wealthy lawyer. He’s a smart-arse lawyer and we are shown an episode in court where he wins a case by playing on the racism of a white woman. She is so disgusted at having to answer questions from a ‘kaffir’ and having to justify to him that a pair of knickers are hers that she walks out of the courtroom and the case collapses. So we are introduced to the Mandela who is a clever and astute lawyer.
But in this period he’s not especially interested in politics. This is the 1940s, before the formal establishment of Apartheid, and although the formal and legal institution of that system has yet to be written into law we are still dealing with a racist and segregated society. But Mandela, although having contact with the African National Congress (ANC), seems more concerned about using the pistol in his trousers than any true weapon against the State.
When, as a result of the openly racist National Party in the whites only election in 1948, strict segregation of the races is enforced and Mandela moves into a house in the Orlando township he is given a speech were it gives the impression that he is the only one who really understands what is going on in the country – here the film seems to play around with the timeline of events for dramatic effect. This establishes a theme that continues throughout the rest of the film, Mandela knows best, Mandela is the one who doesn’t break when the pressure is applied, Mandela is the clear and thoughtful leader who sees the future whilst others are lost in a wilderness. In this way any voices, either in agreement of otherwise are totally ignored.
We get the start of the hagiography that is the film with demonstrations of his ability as a public speaker, a demagogue who says what everyone else is afraid to say – and throughout the rest of the film very few significant statements are made by any of the other characters. In such street meetings the camera flashes to other ANC supporters who look concerned when Mandela makes a statement that might be construed as inflammatory and going too far and which might bring down the wrath and anger of the white racists. This despite the fact that the film, in an earlier scene, shows that many in the ANC were challenging the system BEFORE the active involvement of Mandela. He was not a leader from the off and, in fact, although not shown in the film, Mandela later became instrumental in side-lining the more radical elements within the movement.
Towards the end of this first third he develops as an egoist and self publicist having the newspaper cameras around when he burns his passbook. This follows the Sharpville massacre of May 1960 in which 69 people were butchered during a Pan-African Congress (PAC) organised protest against the obligatory carrying of identification papers. The PAC was much further to the left than the ANC and the two organisations vied for the mass support of the South African population. In those pictures he’s smiling as if it were yet another photo opportunity and demonstrates how he rode on the backs of others who had taken the initiative – not for the last time.
The only period in the whole of his life where Mandela might be vaguely considered to have followed a revolutionary road was during the first couple of years of the 1960s. Then he followed some military training in Algeria and this period saw the establishment of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, known in shorthand as MK), the military wing of the ANC. This organisation limited itself to sabotage activities in its beginning and rarely went much further for the rest of its existence and it was the activities of MK that led to the arrest and trial of Mandela and others from the ANC leadership.
Much has been made of Mandela’s closing speech at the Rivonia trial of 1964 where his last words were ‘it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die’. This was inspired by Fidel Castro’s speech after the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 7th 1953 and considered the start of the Cuban revolution. Castro’s last words were: ‘Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me’. (Don’t you ever get the impression they were speaking with history in mind rather than anything else?) It is true that they could have been sentenced to death at this trial but the Afrikaaners were to deny them their desire for martyrdom and instead sentenced them to life imprisonment. Fine, stirring and defiant these final words might have been but a better idea of Mandela’s political thinking, which he maintained till the end, can be understood if the whole of the speech is read, where, among other things he speaks of his admiration for the British establishment.
The second section of the film concerns his time in prison. Yet again all the other inmates become mere cyphers. For example, on arrival at Robben Island prison he is shown as the only one remaining defiant as when he shouts out ‘Amandla’ (meaning ‘power’) which would expect the reply ‘Awethu’ (‘to us’) Mandela’s call is met with total, demoralised, silence.
Being a prisoner was the most significant role that Mandela played in the South African liberation struggle and became the symbol for anti-Apartheid campaigns throughout the world. For 18 years he was isolated from the struggle like all the other prisoners on Robben Island and wasn’t aware of or in any way involved in the direction of the struggle as it intensified. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s one after another of the countries that had been dominated by European colonial powers gained their independence, often after bitter, bloody and determined armed struggles. It was in this way that Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola gained their freedom from direct foreign control (but not from international capitalist interference). Things were starting to get out of control in South Africa and fearing the country would move much further to the left after any possible victory in the liberation struggle Mandela was brought back into the political process to create division and promote moderation.
This very selection of someone who had been out of contact with the everyday struggle becoming the representative of the black population says a lot about the failure of the ANC to make any significant inroads during their so-called ‘armed struggle’.
This, third, section of the film plainly shows the attitude Mandela had to any sort of collective leadership and decision-making process. Probably the most significant discussion amongst his fellow prisoners and the clearest political stance (and the only one in the film) they took was totally ignored by Mandela. When they voted that he shouldn’t be meeting with the ‘The Boer’ leadership by himself his response was ‘I take note, comrades, but I will do what I think is right.’ He assumes the inalienable right to be the only capable of making the ‘correct’ decisions!
At the same time we are shown that he is becoming increasingly estranged from his second wife, Winnie Madikizela, who, living and fighting in the townships, had realised that the situation had changed radically from what it had been at the beginning of the 1960s when he had been tried and imprisoned.
In this third part of the film we see Mandela playing everything as a one man show. He calls for unity when it’s his ideas that are being challenged, using his international reputation to beat down his opponents. He accuses Winnie of not following the capitulation ANC leadership as she calls for the struggle to become a true armed struggle and not to continue to throw unarmed children in the battle against machine gun-toting thugs in armoured vehicles.
Despite this open individualism and depicting his political manoeuvring the film still arrives at the general consensus in the end, that of a patient, elder statesmen who considers that peace with the white oppressors is preferable to true liberation for the South African working class, both black and white.
It was for that reason he was so fêted at the end of last year after his death on 5th December. His legacy being a South Africa where the same political and economic forces are in control, albeit with some black faces feeding at the trough, and an increasingly desperate situation for the majority.