stirring docu “Dear Mandela” traces recent events in an “informal settlement” near Durban, South Africa, where forcible evictions spawned a grassroots movement called Abahlali baseMjondolo (“people of the shacks,” in Zulu). Helmers Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza focus on Abahlali’s leader and three young members as they challenge the constitutionality of the new law that makes these evictions possible; the fledgling organization soon finds itself violently targeted by government forces of the African National Congress — the party of Nelson Mandela — which raises disturbing questions about those in power. Opening at Brooklyn’s Indiescreen, this evocatively shot, lucidly edited film deserves wider distribution.
“Dear Mandela” could pass as a particularly well-crafted example of the kind of docu about slum activism that regularly comes out of the Brazilian favelas, if not for the omnipresent photos of Mandela plastered on both sides of the conflict. Even if most of Abahlali’s young people never personally witnessed South Africa’s struggle and revolution against apartheid, many still see injustice and the ANC as mutually exclusive. At one point, Mazwi Nzimande, the youngest of the three activists headlined in the film, condemns several political parties to great applause, until he hits “Down with the ANC!” and is met with deafening silence.
Although they never glamorize or airbrush over the poverty of the shantytown, the filmmakers and lenser Matthew Peterson stress its vibrant color and sense of cohesion. Shopkeeper/activist Mnikelo Ndabankulu visits those whose ramshackle homes were recently destroyed, quoting the constitution (which forbids evictions without due process) and helping them build new shacks. Zamba Ndlovu, another of the film’s main political dynamos, runs a center that feeds the destitute and cares for AIDS orphans (she herself lost most of her family to the pandemic). The camera constantly roves the settlement’s byways, framing the film’s protagonists within a bustling, interactive community.
After Abahlali takes the government to court, thugs trash the settlement, wrecking homes and killing two inhabitants. Abahlali’s leader, S’by Zikode, goes into hiding to avoid death threats. The activists’ enthusiasm and belief in justice, tested by the attacks but reanimated in the film’s closing moments, resonate with peculiar force within the hard-won new democracy of South Africa.
The ANC’s historic, crucial role in the fight against apartheid makes it easier for its present representatives to demonize Abahlali, portraying the movement as opposing better housing. But the filmmakers are quick to juxtapose the government’s description of the clean, supposedly temporary housing allotted to displaced persons with images of isolated corrugated buildings miles from civilization, dubbed “tin towns” by their inhabitants, many of whom have been stuck there for years. The officials’ expressed ignorance or outright lies become transparently mendacious within the context of this documentation.
Despite their obvious advocacy, the filmmakers also convey sympathy for the government’s difficulties in carrying out Mandela’s promise to furnish housing for all citizens, especially given the nation’s rapid rate of urbanization. But the film clearly questions the policy of evicting citizens before providing adequate housing, implicitly favoring grassroots solidarity over government intervention.