FREEDOM is intoxicating. When Freedom Day was established in 1994 as an annual holiday for post-apartheid South Africa, it was amidst the euphoria of the victory of the struggle. Optimism abounded; the country seemed to be headed towards a non-racial, prosperous future. In retrospect, such ideals were naive, given the scale and complexity of the problems.
What have we done with our freedom? There are some successes; lots of failures. It is still one of the most unequal countries in the world. Half of its population lives in poverty; 40% of its youth are unemployed and will probably never work; and a tiny, wealthy elite lives comfortably. Many people who can afford to leave are doing so, for fear of the future.
In this season of holidays and memorials, including the elections on May 8, the tendency to look at the past with nostalgia is epitomised by a new South African-made film called An Act of Defiance, made in 2017 and released here a day before Freedom Day. The film had its New York premier in 2018, and was a star item in the New York Jewish Film Festival. It is about the 1964 Rivonia trial in which Nelson Mandela and seven comrades were sentenced to life imprisonment.
It tells the story of Bram Fischer, the lawyer who put his life at risk to defend Mandela and his black and Jewish comrades in apartheid South Africa, which led to life imprisonment for Mandela for sabotage. Fischer, who was of Afrikaner stock, was especially hated by the apartheid leaders, who regarded him as a traitor to his people and treated him with increased brutality when he was imprisoned, such as denying him treatment for his cancer, and not letting him attend the funeral of his son. The Afrikaans cultural thread is expressed in domestic scenes, court scenes and scenes of the police pursuing Fischer and Mandela.
Another theme articulated in the film is the Jewish one: aside from the Jewish defendants, the state prosecutor, Percy Yutar, was also Jewish, and acted according to the legal rules, although these were apartheid rules. Joel Joffe, later Lord Joffe, the instructing solicitor for Mandela’s defence team, was Jewish. He played a key role in helping the future South African president and his compatriots avoid the death penalty. Mandela made reference to his Jewishness and called him “the general behind the scenes in our defence.” And all five of the white defendants at the Rivonia trial were Jewish. Another two Jews escaped from detention before the trial.
The film’s director, Jean van de Velde is at pains to represent the texture of South Africa in the early 1960s. But when you leave the movie house, you realise that today’s dire reality in South Africa is not that different. Mirrored in seemingly innocuous scenarios, some things remain as they were during apartheid, when whites were bosses and blacks were servants.
In a lush park in a fancy neighbourhood near Rosebank Mall, Johannesburg, there’s a black beggar whose sole activity is to pick up the dog poop left there by mainly white people who come on weekends to walk their pedigree dogs. He calls himself Shepherd.
Take a step back from this: In Paris, you can be fined for letting your dog mess on the pavement. In South Africa, the wealthy see it as a right to have a black man, spade and plastic bag in hand, waiting behind their crouching poodle. For Shepherd, last Saturday was just another day in the park, despite it being Freedom Day.
Does South Africa as a society still have the will to change, as it fiercely believed it could, on April 27, 1994? At that time too, there were the proverbial ‘shepherds’, but also the hope that apartheid’s devils could be defanged.
South Africans are confused and uneasy. Tribalism and racism are rising; national pride is falling. In this condition, some countries turn to an autocrat who promises to sort things out. But autocrats who start off as benevolent, generally turn into harsh rulers who won’t leave. A glance north to Mugabe and Zimbabwe is a warning.
South Africa faces a rough ride to get back on track.