HOPE DEFERRED: 20 Years of Democracy in South Africa in The Bloody Miracle by Meg Rickards and Bert Haitsma

The documentary was shown in Glasgow at the Africa in Motion festival which ran from from October 30th – November 9th 2014.  South Africa at 20: The Freedom Tour, the touring programme of South African cinema, continues in the UK until April 2015.

1994: The Bloody Miracle, a documentary directed by Meg Rickards and Bert Haitsma, 2014. 

By Lynnda Wardle

Recently, I had a conversation with a young black South African now living in Scotland. We discovered that we had grown up not far from each other in Jo’burg, but during very different political decades. He is a “born free,” the nickname used for someone born after the 1994 democratic elections, while I was a young student during the State of Emergency in the 1980’s. In the way that we South Africans often do, we began discussing the problems of the current government. The phrase that he repeated was “poor service delivery.” In the New South Africa, twenty years after the birth of democracy, there are continual power cuts, high unemployment, widespread corruption and police collusion. The poor are still poor and getting ever poorer while the wealthy are wealthier than they have ever been. The class divide is as rock solid and divisive as it was during the worst of the apartheid years. The infrastructure inherited from the apartheid state is creaky, and corrupt politicians and civil servants often refuse to raise their heads from the trough long enough to repair and build what is needed to make the lives of the poor bearable. But the young man did say one thing that was new to me, and awful because it was clearly a heartfelt sentiment. “We would better off,” he declared, “if we could go back to the old Apartheid days. You know, like under PW Botha. At least things were working then.”

There is a feeling that for many new South Africans, the Struggle is old hat and people are weary of the stories from that time. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up by the Government of National Unity in 1995 was tasked with investigating the crimes and human rights abuses that occurred in South Africa between 1960 and 1994. The Commission was to be instrumental in the nation’s path healing, but arguably has left people exhausted by the terrible stories of cruelty and suffering that began to emerge. At the heart of this work was the notion of amnesty and forgiveness and the emphasis was on gathering evidence and finding perpetrators, not on getting convictions for crimes committed. Perhaps a nation can only bear so much terrible truth telling before it has to cover the wounds and stop the continual outpouring of pain. The problems people want addressed now are broken promises, unfulfilled pledges and the lack of service delivery.

1994 The Bloody MiracleThe documentary film 1994: The Bloody Miracle, shown recently at the Africa in Motion Festival in Glasgow, situates itself at the crux of this argument. It gives a chronological account of the year preceding the 1994 elections. There is a new mythology that has begun to be put about in South Africa and abroad that the transition to a democratic South Africa twenty years ago was a peaceful one. In truth, the Rainbow Nation did not spring fully formed without a violent and bloody struggle. The mythology has it that the country moved inevitably towards the elections directed by the steady hand of Mandela and the old guard of the ANC, facilitated generously by FW de Klerk when the Nationalist Party realised that they could no longer hold on to power. This film is an attempt to counter this insidious rewriting of history, to show that in fact it was against terrible odds including Right wing plots, state collusion in a Third Force conspiracy, assassinations, murder and treason, that this miracle occurred.

In-depth interviews with people directly affected by and involved in the violence are interspersed with archival footage, and held together through the overarching narration by John Kani. One of the strengths of this film is the way in which the interviewer never intrudes in the telling of the story; the participants are allowed to speak unhindered and in their own words. There are moving interviews with Lindiwi Hani, Chris Hani’s daughter. Chris Hani, leader of the South African Communist Party and Chief of Staff of Umkonte we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, was assassinated on the 10th April 1993. The country erupted in riots, unrest and political uncertainty that marked the beginning of the end for the apartheid state. Of course at the time, it seemed that this was the beginning of a civil war, and the documentary tracks the fears and hopes of those who were at the frontline trying to give birth to democracy during this turbulent year.

Unlike other films of that time— for example Miracle Rising1994: The Bloody Miracle is not interested in celebrity views of the fight for democracy. This results in some surprising footage. In an interview with Tienie Groenewald, a former general of the military intelligence, it is revealed that there had been a right wing plot to kidnap Mandela and de Klerk and to imprison them in Angola with the cooperation of Jonas Savimbi in order to “convince” them to give in to the demands of the white Right for a Volkstaat, or Afrikaner homeland. It is a strange thing to watch someone confess openly to being part of a treasonous plan and know that post -Truth and Reconciliation Commission there will be no repercussions for these revelations. The primary focus of the Commission was on the victims, establishing for them the truth of what had happened to their loved ones. The aim was never to convict perpetrators and unlike the Nuremberg Trials, this was always meant to be an exercise in forgiveness and not retribution. For many this was an unfortunate compromise as they watched the killers go free, for others it seemed a fair price to pay for the fledging nation to achieve peace.

There are interviews with ANC cadres, the most memorable, a young boy soldier who was responsible for a small township squad of Umkonte we Sizwe fighters. He alludes to his alcoholism and how it has taken him twenty years to restore some stability to his life. There is the unsurprising but shocking collusion of the Afrikaner Right with Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the Inkatha Freedom Party. There is a chilling interview with the assassin Eugene de Kock, now behind bars —unjustly, it may be argued, since his crimes were no less awful than many of those walking free. We can forgive up to a point, it seems, but occasionally somebody must be seen to pay.

While this documentary is in no way a Rainbow Nation airbrush of the political events leading up the 1994 elections, nevertheless, there have been some who have felt that too much emphasis has once again been given to a white man’s view of history. A portion of the film is devoted to the St James’s Church massacre, where congregants in a Church in Kenilworth, Cape Town were attacked by cadres of the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA) in July 1993. Eleven church members were killed and fifty-eight were wounded. In 1998 the killers were granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Some time is also spent on footage from the killings of three right wing AWB (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) members who invaded Bophuthatswana, one of the puppet homelands set up by the apartheid government, following a request for assistance from Chief Lucas Mangope to restore law and order. The invasion went badly wrong, and the execution of the men by a member of the Bophuthatswana police was recorded live and played over and over in the local media. While this was indeed a pivotal event, it could be argued that to give it this much weight in the documentary is to once again emphasise a white version of history. While these were both shocking events, they were no more or less awful than the everyday necklacings, brutal assaults, murders and disappearings that were occurring at this time. The documentary does include a very moving section on the killings of 15 young ANC teenagers in KwaZulu Natal months before the elections, and the devastation that this wrought on their families and community. The birth of the New South Africa is a difficult story to tell in an even- handed way; there will always be accusations of partisanship and bias depending on who has made the movie and who is making the argument. This documentary makes a brave effort to allow the participants to define the narrative as much as possible.

unnamedWorth mentioning also is the beautiful camera work and the way in which the landscape weaves in and out of the story. The opening shot panning across the land which appears broken and difficult to identify in terms of location, introduces us to the idea of the dispossession of the land and its centrality in the history of South Africa, both then and now. Land and its attendant resources is what brought the empire builders to Africa and the legacy is still evident today, being lived out in attempts at restitution and redistribution. Land historically stolen is a thorny problem for the new government that has promised some kind of restitution. General Constand Viljoen, the far right military general, a powerful and influential figure in the last days before the democratic election, is seen in the final frames surveying the beautiful expanses of his farm. Controversial indeed that a man, whose political agenda and personal actions are dubious at best, continues in this ownership of this land as his God-given right.

It is a contentious ending but it could be argued that this is exactly the point. For the “born frees” and the fledgling democracy, what exactly has changed in the living conditions of the poor and the very wealthy? The Constitution stands as the most outstanding achievement of the Struggle and the democratic process, and the stories told by people interviewed in this film are living testaments to the damage that the violence of that struggle for democracy wrought on the lives of ordinary men and women and their families. But in terms of everyday life, the majority of South Africans still wait, hoping for the promises to be delivered.

In the final shot of the documentary, we see rows of gravestones, some still open with fresh soil. It is a sombre reminder that for many people the legacy of death and dying continues. In spite of the best efforts of the Truth Commission, confession and forgiveness are not quick fixes for the pain that many South Africans still carry in their hearts today. While it is true that things have moved on, that issues change and that “service delivery” may be at the heart of the daily complaint in South Africa, this documentary is a timely reminder that everything that is good about life in South Africa and most of its ills, are rooted in history. Lest we forget.

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