Monday, 30 December 2013

Long Walk to Freedom: the 'powerfully moving' story of Nelson and Winnie Mandela

An ambitious movie featuring towering figures, The Long Walk to Freedom attains success on many levels. Cinematically, it puts South Africa on the map in a way it has not been before. It conveys momentous and background happenings in our turbulent and painful history in interesting and powerful ways.
The movie has also generated a great deal of discussion. Even though not everyone agrees with the lines taken in the movie, it reflects a boldness of choice on the part of the director. How to sketch processes that cover a vast period of time; how to present a colossal historical figure; how to represent complex and often fraught social change processes? Director Justin Chadwick chose to make the Nelson-Winnie love story a central theme and the driving force of the movie. From certain vantage points, this strategy can be criticised, but it makes The Long Walk to Freedom (LWTF) accessible and enjoyable to a very wide audience.
In the make-or-break role of Mandela, Idris Elba’s performance helps the movie (in significant ways) to crack it. He succeeds admirably in conveying the moods, temperament and presence of Mandela in his middle and later years. In a documentary on the making of the movie, Chadwick says he asked the actors to jettison any worries about accents and copy-cat resemblance to the figure they were playing; instead, they were directed to focus on discovering and transmitting the essence of the characters they played. This helped the lead actors to dilute the sense of intimidation they felt at having to play the ‘huge’ figures of Nelson and Winnie Mandela.
The success of this approach shows in the strength of Elba’s performance. Given Mandela’s penchant for reinventing himself, Elba may well have felt like he was being called on to play several distinctive characters in the same movie. He excels as he interprets a Mandela that transforms from new rural arrival to the city, to suave lawyer, to bearded pimpernel, to reflective prisoner.
Similarly, Noami Harris takes hold of her Winnie role and gives a star performance. She walks the road with Winnie as the latter changes from “very young” wife to leader and ‘voice of resistance’ during times of intensified oppression and brutal repression  as Winnie travels from innocence to angry leader standing tall on the South African stage.
The movie carefully creates the atmosphere and idioms of the different time periods. It is clear that for producer Anant Singh and Chadwick, situation and context matter very much. But they are under pressure – because of the sweep of the movie, they sometimes have to establish the setting very quickly, through the use of a relatively few shots and dialogue. Despite what they achieve – and at several key points the visual articulation is superlative – there are a few gaps or missteps. The Sharpeville segment is awkward and cryptic. “Sharpeville” and the issue of pass laws, let alone the role of PAC, are barely introduced before the gunshots go off and the camera jumps to narrate the international reaction. Also, the movie skips over the early years and the rural world in which Madiba grew up. Chadwick does take the viewer back to Qunu/ Mvezo area at several points in the movie, but many viewers may still miss the significance of the role of rural Eastern Cape played in the making of Mandela.
The movie’s excellent portrayal of Winnie Mandela is one of its powerful features. It tells her story, effectively highlighting her largely undervalued contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle. The movie shows her brutalisation and radicalisation – and helps us understand her role and position in South Africa today.
On the positive side, the movie is no sugar coating and, despite producer Singh working in close consultation with key family members and the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, cannot be said to be politically correct.or providing a sanitised perspective. Viewers are shown the hard edge of resistance and struggle. As activists take up the cudgels for justice, children and family members pay a high price. Mistakes happen and comrades die due to human error when planting home-made bombs. The movie also showed the lax security arrangements that prevailed at Liliesleaf farm in Rivonia – the easy comings and goings of random people that contrasted with measures such as the careful disguises for Mandela and the ultra-secret locations for the revolutionary leader's media interviews.
The Long Walk to Freedom foregrounds the remarkable strengths as well as the ‘warts’ of the main characters. It is about heroes, but about flawed heroes. The movie shows how Mandela relied on the advice and insights of senior comrades, and how this mentorship helped minimise the possible negative impacts of his shortcomings. When Mandela said, as he often did, that other leaders should share the credit for success in the anti-apartheid struggle, many people think he is referring to the execution of courageous actions. But he is also referring, directly, to others' contribution to shaping him: to the fact that key comrades helped to balance his thinking and temper his impetuousness. In this regard, the character of Walter Sisulu in LWTF should not only be read literally; it is emblematic of all the key leaders, including Oliver Tambo, who honed Nelson Mandela.    
LWTF lifts the veil on Mandela’s promiscuity as he enjoyed the buzz of Johannesburg in the forties and fifties. It also conveys that, even though they had become incompatible, he could have handled his split from his first wife Evelyn with a great deal more sensitivity. Reading between the lines, it was only when he was in prison that he got a chance to think properly about the burdens he placed on his young wife, not just when he went to prison but when he disappeared from family life and went underground. In this regard, author Du Preez Bezrop argues that Mandela simply informed Winnie of major changes in his life; that the young Mandela “appeared to lack the skills needed to comfort his loved ones when they needed assurance”.
LWTF gives a sympathetic interpretation of Winnie Mandela. But it does not shy away from the shadow side associated with her. It shows how ‘necklacing’ evolved and was popularised, and proposes that Winnie Mandela had a central role in this evolution. In this regard, necklacing was an angry reaction; but little thought was given to the wider chain of human destructiveness (and self-destruction) that would be unleashed. The ‘flawed heroes’ angle endows the movie with a particular grittiness and provokes deep reflection about the qualities and requirements of leadership, especially in repressive and violent times.
It seems that most South Africans who have seen LWTF loved the experience. At the same time, in social media emanating from South Africa, a small but significant number of people complain about the accents of the lead actors; others fume about insufficient acknowledgement of the ANC’s collective leadership. Yet others highlight some factual inaccuracies as compared to historical records. Of course, it is important to remember that a film is a dramatisation (unlike a documentary); the information it contains has to be cross-referenced with other data that forms part of the archive.
Writing on Twitter, Author Zakes Mda says he was disappointed, most likely because his expectations of the movie were too high. Using the same medium, Eusebius McKaiser wonders how people can rave about LWTF, given that it contains so many narrative inaccuracies. For Mfundi Vundla, writing in a newspaper column, LWTF erred in trying to cover too large a time-period. It would have had more depth, he argues, if it focused on, say, a ten year period. Arguing that a “biopic on an iconic figure” is not the only way to go in capturing the past, he calls for local movie-makers like himself to be given a chance to give their version of the “liberation narrative”.
I believe LWTF should be celebrated. Though not perfect, it is a brilliant effort. Aside from its high production values, LWTF presents the human side of Nelson Mandela alongside the great achievements and extraordinary leadership.  In a move that has strong gender-equity implications, it further provides a compelling re-reading of Winnie Mandela, calling for greater appreciation of her sacrifice and courage.  
The LWTF is not without shortcomings. But, despite these, Long Walk To Freedom is impressive and powerfully moving - a film that everyone should try to see.

Frank Meintjies

Friday, 29 November 2013

Mounting a working class agenda can help COSATU rebuild unity

COSATU is fractured, with member unions divided into two camps and leaders hurling angry words at each other. This is a far cry from the unity established at its birth. In this piece, published on the Sacsis website, I argue that COSATU should consider withdrawing from politics with a capital-P. Instead, it should focus on reconstructing the strength of the federation, restoring unity and mobilising on specific issues.

Read my views on this at:

Frank Meintjies


Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Civil society in SA should have a stronger voice in national affairs

Civil society organisations have a pivotal role to play in strengthening democracy and ensuring inclusive and more extensive socio-economic development.

However, the sector is weakened by fragmentation and lack of a united voice; it is also plagued by a range of problems that erode capacity and sustainability.

Civil society organisations need to work together to ensure they speak in a much stronger voice on key national issues.

And those with power and authority should be more amenable to hearing what they have to say. Read my views on this subject in my article published at:

Monday, 7 October 2013

Minimum wage can advance social inclusion

The call for a national minimum wage is relevant to South Africa precisely because millions of workers are vulnerable and lack basic employment rights.

Vulnerable workers are also mostly unorganised. In general, they are unable to protect themselves from abuse.

I argue that the a national statutory minimum wage has the potential to help stitch together the frayed edges of our newly formed democracy; it can stop slow the descent of larger numbers of workers into the category of ‘the working poor’. 

Read my views on this, published on the Sacsis website, at:


Frank Meintjies


Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Contestation over Nelson Mandela's legacy

In the coming years, South African political parties are likely to become embroiled in a bunfight over Nelson Mandela’s legacy. All will want to claim that they, more than most others, are taking forward his legacy.

However, those who want to lay claim to this legacy, I argue, will be caught out if they do so without intensifying their efforts to bring about positive social change.

The poor have an interest in this issue; they want to know whether those who claim to support Mandela’s values are working to end poverty or are merely using his name to bolster their power and appeal.

See my views, expressed in a piece a wrote in July 2013, at:


Saturday, 28 September 2013

SA: Address CODESA and TRC shortcomings to move society forward

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the negotiations at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) helped forge South Africa's transition to democracy. Champions of peace and many democrats, worldwide, celebrate these processes.

But these processes also left many loose ends. Role players who wish to address South Africa's current impasse  continuing contestation rooted in inequality and widespread economic exclusion – would do well to revisit the TRC and CODESA and address unfinished business.

Read my full article at:



Thursday, 26 September 2013

Inequality is South Africa's biggest problem

South Africa is the most unequal country in the world and these high levels of is inequality are fuelling instability.
Inequality undermines attempts at building social cohesion. Despite government attempts to maximise feelings of unity in the land, far too many feel alienated and excluded in South Africa.(I argue these points in an article published at the end of August 2013 at
Cities are focal points of inequality and the consequences that flow from it.  The wealthiest and the poorest people are lumped together in the city, making it a place of tension and pressure. In many senses, we are one; at the same time, high walls, burglar bars, gated areas and security companies draw a line of mistrust and fear between us.
The facts of inequality are stark. The last census reported that, in 2011, the average Black African annual household income was R60 613 compared to the average annual income of white households of R365 134.

There is clearly a link between inequality and heightened levels of protest action. Inequality and the social anger it generates  shapes the nature and form of political expression.
Inequality is bad for all of us. It is thus time that the public in South African became involved in supporting policies and initiatives aimed at extensive reduction of inequality.
To read more, go to:

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Most households in SA are struggling to survive

Where is poverty located? What are its shapes and forms? What strategies do households use to cope?

Poor neighbourhoods are often opaque to outsiders, even to those making policies that have a direct impact on such communities. Government planners need to probe beneath the surface – they should see the complexity, understand the livelihood systems and appreciate the coping strategies used in marginalised communities. Often, in a bid to reorganise use of space or formalise the informal, government projects cut across community vibrancy and advance the interests of local elites at the expense of the poorest.

A case study of Evaton in Gauteng tells us a great deal about poverty. Undertaken by research NGO, Studies in Poverty and Inequality (SPII), the study, which probed 142 households, confirmed the reality of high unemployment and its relationship to food insecurity – a problem that places an additional burden on both our healthcare and education systems.

In Evaton, 36% of households surveyed rely on social grants as their main source of income. Only 47% of households depend primarily on wages and 10% rely on income from business activities. Most households (72% of those surveyed) survive on less than R1000 per month and another 24.8% of households had an income of between R1000 and R3500. Only 4.1% of households had a monthly income exceeding R3500.

Food security was a major problem in Evaton. SPII found that 23% of households lack sufficient food. The bulk of Evatonians (72%) had “just adequate” access to food -- sufficient but lacking in nutritional value.

The key trend – that most households are “just getting along” – is also reflected in academic Sarah Mosoetsa’s study of conditions of poverty in two KwaZulu-Natal communities, Mpumalanga in Hammersdale and Enhlalakahle near Greytown. In her study described in the book, Eating from One Pot, Mosoetsa found that, of 29 households in her sample, 14 were declining, nine were coping (“able to meet their basic needs in the present”) and only five were improving (less vulnerable and with more assets and resources).

Mosoetsa found that a massive 86% of households covered in her study had a monthly income of less than R800. Food security was also a serious problem. She argues, “(a)larmingly, 43 percent of the households reported spending nothing at all on food”.

In his 2010 study of Orange Farm in Gauteng, undertaken for his Masters degree, Larr Onyango found that 121 respondents out of 200 (60.5%) were “not employed at all”, while 18.5% were employed in casual or ‘piece’ jobs in Orange Farm and areas such as Lenasia and Ennerdale. For some of the unemployed, income-generating activities included illegal activities (e.g. liquor brewing, liquor sales and black market operations) and other informal activities such as hair salons, hawking and dealing in scrap metal.

According to Onyango’s study, those involved in illegal activities (8% of respondents) had an income of over R1000 per month. Those involved in other informal activities earned less than R500 per month. Some in Orange Farm are involved in urban farming, but Onyango was puzzled that the practice was not more widespread. He reports that households that grow their own food spend on average R350 per month on food purchases, while those not practising urban agriculture spend about R650.

These and other examples of poverty research, for example by the Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA), express concerns about the sharp rise in food prices and the fact that food inflation outstripped overall inflation. In all three studies, when household money ran out, people ate less food, bought cheaper food or got help from neighbours and friends. Sometimes, as DBSA reports, households simply go without food “as a direct outcome of food price increases”.

We can draw some important conclusions about the impact of poverty and the survival strategies of poor communities from these case studies.

Firstly, poor communities are under stress and the social capital – that web of kinship and support – is being eroded. It is more difficult to maintain social capital when most people withdraw from the bank of community goodwill but lack the ability to make deposits. There is also intra-household conflict in the form of gender conflict as well as tensions between young and old over how income is used.

Secondly, extremely poor communities face problems of crime, instability and mistrust. In extremely poor communities, a particular problem is the feelings of alienation and despair that grip the youth.

Thirdly, and on the positive side, communities are resilient. They pull through tough times without complete collapse. Strategies that build on community resourcefulness can make significant inroads against poverty.

Finally, social grants are a lifeline. Government grants are often all that stands between households and complete starvation. Related to this, the provision of free school education and health services is vital.

The case studies are also instructive about ‘livelihoods’, the mix of individual and household survival strategies. Mosoetsa is highly sceptical of the livelihoods approach punted by donors and development specialists. The approach asserts that development interventions should start with what people have and focus on the voice, opportunities, empowerment and participation of the poor. Mosoetsa says it assumes community members have assets when often they don’t. The approach is also used, she argues, to pick up the pieces when neo-liberal policies are implemented and government backtracks from subsidies and decent levels of social expenditure.

But we should also take account of other views of livelihoods. It is a term that helps us think beyond “jobs” or “source of income”. It covers activities undertaken for income or subsistence as well as non-income activities (such as childcare). It is complemented by non-activity income (grants and remittances).

Indeed, in dealing with poverty, community members deploy a range of livelihood strategies. Experts tell us that households that employ a broad portfolio of livelihood options fare much better than those who don’t; in the words of a specialist on the subject Frank Ellis: “(d)iverse livelihood systems are less vulnerable than undiversified ones”.

Government should avoid solutions meant to “uplift” poor communities but which inadvertently close down or impede certain livelihood opportunities.

The same goes for the private sector. It should critically examine whether planned ventures that bring some community benefit, will, in their wake, undermine existing livelihood practices. Many new private sector initiatives in mining, for example, create a defined number of jobs but, in the process, cause long term damage to land, rivers and other resources that are key to the community’s economic life.

Gender issues come to the fore in any discussion of poverty. Government planners should be conscious of the differentiated impact on men and women of development initiatives. It should be careful to avert damaging impacts especially on women and their livelihood strategies. In this context, there is a clear role for the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilitiwa: this department should be tasked with reviewing all government programmes – before they are finalised – for the impact on the livelihood strategies of women.

A department such as this will never have the right to veto or unilaterally change programmes of powerful departments such as Mineral and Energy Affairs and Trade and Industry. But it can clearly state its concerns when it thinks initiatives will deepen poverty and inequality.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Honouring Can Themba and building on the legacy

Can Themba would have turned 90 years of age on 21 June 2013. This writer of great brilliance, who used language in new ways and possessed incisive ways of seeing and reflecting, has been a beacon to huge numbers of emerging South African writers in the 70s and 80s.

Can Themba was a member of the so-called Drum writers, a kind of bang-bang club of literature. The group included writers such as Arthur Maimane, Todd Matshikizi,, Henry Nxumalo, Lewis Nkosi and Nat Nakasa. They had a mastery of language; they probed urban reality in which black people lived with sharp pens; they lived edgy lives and (in many cases) did not recoil from personal risk in the pursuit of the story.

Themba was distinctive among them. He forged a 'Can Themba style' not only in his writing but also in his capacity, using his presence, to turn drinking holes of Sophiatown into places of ideas and debate. His first story was carried in the Classic in 1963. Despite his immense talent, by the time of his death, he did not have a book published. His writings were only collected much later, in 1972, in The Will to Die. He was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga. His short story, The Suit, which marks its 50th birthday this year, is a landmark in South African literature. The story, and its later manifestation as a play, has a powerful and enduring appeal – those interested in the tortuous journey of Mzansi literature turn to it again and again.

Can Themba studied teaching but quit the profession after Bantu Education was introduced. Education’s loss was journalism’s gain, as Mbulelo Mzamane puts it. Later, thanks to state repression including being banned from publishing and being quoted, he returned to teach at a Swaziland school. He was reportedly an excellent and inspirational teacher, and people like Mzamane, Bloke Modisane, Njabulo Ndebele and even Archbishop Tutu passed through his hands. He died in Swaziland in 1967 at the age of 44.
The literary and journalistic contributions of the Drum group of writers represent an important foundation for later writers. Many young writers of the 1980s could look back at the flair, boldness and talent of the Drum writers and other writers of the 1960s and be inspired.
But how do we connect the present generation of youth to the contributions, ideas and talent of writers such as Can Themba? Themba and his group initially faced a similar challenge: how to connect to the ideas and thinking of the generation before? Direct censorship and other state controls were taking its toll. Writers like Themba became immersed in English writers of the romantic period. Nadine Gordimer notes that this resulted in some unfortunate effects on the early work of Themba – writing that was in many places stodgy, turgid, stilted and overly formal. But he grew and - with the emergence of local literary magazines showcasing indigenous voices – the context changed. His later prose contains a liveliness and deftness “steeped in the nuances and rhythms of life in the township” (in the words of Keorapetse Kgositsile) – a language more appropriate and effective for describing the crazy times, far-reaching social changes and remarkable survivalist strategies of black life in Johannesburg of the fifties.

The issues of intergenerational communication and continuity are critical for South African youth at this time. It raises the questions, for them, about which sources to use, what stories to tap into, which wells of inspiration to drink from. It asks: how can we encourage young people to recover gems from the past? Today’s youth do not have to contend with the banning of books and the erasure of key voices from the mass media. But they do have to deal with the pockets of amnesia and with what Mzamane claims is an education system that fails to be “South African” in character. Youth also have to contend with our generation’s mode of telling stories. As parents, our recounting of the past is often boring, filled with repetition of selected certain bits, predictable and frequently served up with a moralising tone which suggests that “we were better than you”. Needless to say, there is also a great deal of myth-making (heroes without flaws) and airbrushing. I am sure that young people, listening to us, often feel like crying out (in the words of the song): "Can it be that it was all so simple then? Or has time rewritten every line?”

Maybe, just maybe, we can enrol (the story of) Can Themba and other Drum writers to trigger wider youth interest in the past and inspire them for the future. The story of the Drum writers has it all. There is the heroism and sense of adventure. The swashbuckling style, the boldness, their powerful use of language, the subversion of the oppressor’s language, a commitment to truth, the willingness to “break the mould”, the insights into township life with its mix of vibrancy and precariousness, hope and despair. There is also the shadow side: the corrosive effects of alcohol abuse, the contributions cut short by what Lewis Nkosi called the “wasteful” early deaths, and (taking up what Mzamane said about Themba) the “disappointingly” low output given the prodigious talent. In all of this, there is much to learn and build on as we reflect on who we are and think our way into the future.

(The Department of Arts and Culture honoured Can Themba through a Memorial Lecture on 21 June 2013. Joe Thloloe, Nadine Gordimer and Mbulelo Mzamane were guest speakers at the event, which took place at the State Theatre in Pretoria).


Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Part of Mandela's legacy – framing a dynamic and progressive South African identity

Nelson Mandela created a challenge, an invitation, for people to adopt a South African identity that transcends or co-exists with other cultural identities. Most South Africans had not had this before – not in any inclusive sense. Some aspired to it but had no concrete manifestation or execution of this in their lives. It required a figure or voice, an exponent, to create the inspiration for this. In this sense Mandela the changemaker and bridge-builder positioned himself in words, dress and discourse to carry forward this role.

The discourse had wide appeal; it revolved around the language of the United Nations and notions of a common humanity. It links to Edward Said's reference to an "interplay of different voices, in what is an harmonious whole". It also has congruence with Eastern notions of the universal society and with P.R. Sarkar who spoke of a "human culture  ... a connecting link between one person and another, between so-called nation and nation". Madiba's language of an inclusive South Africanness also intersected with the ANC’s core notion of a shared sense of belonging, within a framework of equality, a view which was seen as radical in the fifties but that is now widely accepted as mainstream and reasonable. On the other hand, it also meant under-emphasizing class as an issue and downplaying the prominence of the working class within the ANC's constituency. Many in the 'left' may not have been too pleased with this, but Mandela’s approach to belonging left the space open for others to assert, as part of the whole, the needs and perspectives emerging from the working class.

Significantly, Nelson Mandela did not use notions such as the “rainbow nation”. That was a Tutu-ism. Mandela shied away from interpreting the desired new culture as a single thing, something that was complete, fully defined and certain. The new culture he was inviting people into was a work in progress, a platform, a dialogue between different aspects. There was a willingness to engage around a shared common identity. It is not clear to me whether he sent the invitation signals to all groups equally, especially given the many pressures and multiple roles he played in that intense peak period of the 90s. My sense is that he concentrated on sending this message to the Afrikaner community. A much lower level of effort was devoted to the Indian and Coloured communities, to marginalised ethnic or language groups within the African community or to certain outlier groups such as immigrants.

Despite this, and especially if we take into account his immense influence, Nelson Mandela did the most to create an overarching identity that is at the same time an  inclusive and open space.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Poem: the influence of Whitney Houston

The late Whitney Houston, who died on 11 February 2012, has gone down in the record books as the most-awarded female artist of all time. This poem refers to her incredible talent and highlights her role in popular culture. It further alludes to the impact of popular culture in under-resourced communities, inner cities and popular neighbourhoods. Voice is taken from my book Connexions, released in 2012.


voice sinewy, voice bird-skin tough
voice that journeys
& turns
& pirouettes
on boardwalks

in the lane, between the flats
in the location
or in the flattest Cape
present, in the thirteen-year-old
that sings herself beyond her limits
beyond uneven fences
beyond the wasteland

whitney, roaming the land
one foot in a hotel bath
another on a stage
a smile, breaking through the make-up
another day
best-friend real

voice elongates
as it wanders
the cosmos fields
down lanes
over streams
between the homesteads
voice that burns the fields, orange flames

in the gorges
between high buildings
at the all-night shop
at the troyeville garage
by the alex hairdresser

& the internet shop with its old computers
beyond the bars
beyond the soullessness

in nights of elegance
voice canters on, covers ground

whirls & wheels
dips back
to caress
the grubby streets

Frank Meintjies