Thursday, 13 April 2017

Courage and love amid the brutality of apartheid

In 1976 in South Africa, riot police shot and killed black children and young people who were protesting against being taught many of their lessons in Afrikaans, viewed as the language of apartheid.

The government tried to claim the death toll was 23 students. It is usually now given as 176, but some estimates put it at up to 700.

One of those influenced by the massacre was Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu, who joined the ANC’s militant wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) shortly after.

After training, he and two comrades were sent back to South Africa with pamphlets and arms. But when the mission went wrong, all three tried to flee police.

Mondy Motloung shot two innocent civilians before he and Solomon were caught.

After it dawned on the authorities that torturing Mondy to the point of severe brain damage meant it couldn’t make him stand trial, they decided that Solomon would be the one to pay, under a doctrine of common purpose, though he had not shot anyone.

Mandla Dube, a US-trained cinematographer who has lectured at Wits University, has spent nine years bringing Kalushi to the big screen.

At a QnA after a BFI screening on 6 April – the date of the arrival of Jan Van Riebeeck in the Cape in 1652 and thus the date symbolically chosen for Solomon’s execution in 1979 the director made it clear that they had not set out to make a film about apartheid: it is, instead, the story of one young man’s rite of passage; of what he does when he’s been backed into a corner.

But while one of those present whined that there was no politics in the film, this is utterly ridiculous: if apartheid (and politics) is not the theme of the film, then it is the context, and in that respect, the film is most certainly a political film.

How else could it be?

It depicts the state-sanctioned murder of children; brutality, torture and humiliation meted out by police; a corrupt judiciary and political regime that deliberately sets up to use the system to take symbolic revenge, irrespective of the facts of a case.

The same whinger also tried to complain that the film had not mentioned Angolan training camps where Cubans helped to train the volunteers. At this point, he was getting really funny looks, because, y’know, that white geezer in military uniform, with the beret, the Spanish accent and the great big cigar …

One can only assume that it was all too subtle for someone who was desperate that the protests outside the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square should somehow have been shoehorned into the story – presumably so that he himself could claim some of the glory for the defeat of apartheid.

Six hours of agitprop might have made him happier – but this will be seen by and will move and make think far more people.

If it does not directly ask questions of the viewer, it is good enough to leave you with questions. The most obvious here, is if you were in Solomon’s shoes, what would you do?

And with a regime that was quite happy to shoot children, how can one condemn an armed response – though the film is careful to stress that MK’s manifesto was absolutely clear about not targeting civilians and avoiding casualties. 

This is a very good film. It doesn’t gloss over problems, but its core is Kalushi’s personal journey to becoming a hero of the struggle against apartheid. And the character’s evolution is delicately drawn and beautifully acted by Thabo Ramesti – the first South African actor to actually play an icon of that struggle on screen.

He’s given excellent support from the rest of the cast, including Thabo Malema as the unstable Mondy, Welile Nzuza as Tommy London and Pearl Thusi as Solomon’s girlfriend, Brenda Riviera.

No matter the darkness of the subject matter – this is a powerful reminder of the nature of apartheid – ultimately, it is also an uplifting piece of cinema.

If you get the chance to see it on the big screen, then do. But it should be available on disc in the future, together with a documentary that Dube is working on.

@KalushiMovie – #GoSeeKalushi

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