In 'Dear Mandela', South African Slum Dwellers Fight Back

Fourteen-year-old Mazwi and his classmates study South Africa's past and learn how young people's protests helped to change history. This next generation sees more struggle ahead.

Dear Mandela

Director: Dara Kell, Christopher Nizza
Cast: Zama Ndlovu, Mnikelo Ndabankulu, Mazwi Nzimande, S'bu Zikode
Rated: NR
Studio: Sleeping Giant
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-08-13 (The Doc Yard)

"The kids got back and found no home." Describing the crisis she and her family are facing, a young mother in Durban, South Africa has trouble finding the words… and what to do next. "Where are you planning to sleep tonight?" asks Mnikelo Ndabankulu, who regularly meets with people who've been evicted by police -- which means, people whose shacks have been knocked down by men with guns and axes. "I don't know," the mother frets. " Spread the blankets and sleep right here? I really have no idea what to do."

Sadly, as you come to see in Dear Mandela, her situation is not unusual. The South African government doesn't so much have an official policy as it has a practice, "evicting" residents from informal settlements by demolishing their homes. While the idea is, supposedly, to eradicate the slums, the effect is to displace people who have nowhere else to go. The practice, as Mnikelo points out, is unconstitutional; he's brought his copy of the Constitution with him, and reads from it to make this point.

Mnikelo is the elected spokesperson for Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Durban Shack Dwellers' Movement, founded in 2005 to help impoverished Durbanites maintain the homes they’ve assembled and protect the communities they've established. "If you’ve got a lot of friends like me," he says, "You don’t suffer because once you start doing a job, people help." He adds, "There's a saying in Zulu: you don’t passerby when someone is building a house." To that end, he and other members of Abahlali are working not only to defend against evictions, but also to find legal solutions.

He didn't imagine he'd be an activist, Mnikelo says at the start of the documentary, which screens at the Doc Yard on 13 August, followed by a Q&A with directors Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza. The camera keeps close on Mnikelo, in his own small home, as he prepares for his day, making his bed with the Manchester United blanket and donning his red, white, and blue "I [Heart] Obama" belt. When he made the decision to stay in Durban and work with Abahlali, he says, he "never thought we'd be fighting for something that we'd been promised."

That promise, of course, was made by the ANC, the political party that's been in power since Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994. The promise then, as archival footage of Mandela reminds you, was to provide standardized housing for the poor. Even if the project would take time -- a year, Mandela says, maybe five years -- it would be done. "Do not expect miracles," he says, "We are ordinary human beings." Fifteen years later, houses remain un-built. Worse, shack dwellers live with fears as acute and recurrent as existed during Apartheid, when the "white government came with bulldozers and destroyed everything. "

Beautifully composed, the film follows Mnikelo and other members of Abahlali as they struggle each day to survive (they put together some electrical wiring, hunched over in the dark, as Mnikelo notes, "The government calls this "illegal connection… we call it people's connection"). As well, during filming, they've gone to court to fight the controversial KwaZulu-Natal Elimination and Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Act of 2007. Government representatives, including Minister of Housing Lindiwe Sisulu, cite the Act's intention to eliminate slums in order to make way for improved housing. "We are committed to ensuring that everybody has a house," she says. Provincial Housing Minister Mike Mabuyakhulu looks ahead: "We have said we want to eradicate the informal settlements by 2014," he says.

Such official planning doesn’t take into account the experiences of people in informal settlements. Zama Ndlovu, an AIDS orphan now living with her young son, nephew, and three siblings, points out that her shack is on a piece of land owned by the municipality: "They don't allow people to build, but people build anyway." She leads you around her home, the floor crammed with kids, the camera ducking and panning to keep up with her. "It's very challenging to go to school, to be a mother, and also to be awake at the same time," she smiles. "I try to balance, because I have to do it all." She stands in the doorway, spray-pained with numbers. "Every year when the elections are approaching, the officials come to the village and promise that houses are on the way," she says. The numbers designate which shacks are set for demolition, but each year, those left standing are only renumbered, designated for the next round.

Like Mnikelo, Zama never imagined she'd be an activist, but her circumstances have shaped her, as they have shaped 14-year old Mazwi. In his classroom, he speaks clearly and forcefully concerning the slum dwellers' movement. His family has been on waiting list for government house since 1994, but their position on that list changes each year;m in their settlement, they have one water tap for 7,000 residents. . "They were separating black people from the white people" during Apartheid, observes Mazwi. "The Slums Act is similar to what happened in the Apartheid era… it's separating the poor people from the rich people."

His analysis is sharp, born of his experience. Mazwi and his classmates study the past, see how young people's protests helped to change history. This next generation sees more struggle ahead. "We don’t know where tomorrow are we going to be," he says. To change that future, they need to change laws as well as attitudes. Dear Mandela helps to make their process visible and viable.


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