JOHANNESBURG — Twenty-two years ago, when Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected leader of a South Africa still emerging from the shadow of apartheid, hopes were high that the hero of the anti-apartheid struggle would lead the nation into an era of equality and prosperity.
Three years after his death, though, the country is wracked by turmoil, led by a deeply unpopular president who has stumbled his way through a string of embarrassing political scandals. The South African rand has tumbled to near-record lows. Inequality has only worsened in the years since Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) took power. Across the country, a wave of young activists is fighting bitterly against the status quo, even calling into question the legacy of one of the world’s most-beloved icons.
In the opening minutes of “The Giant is Falling,” the follow-up to his Emmy Award-winning “Miners Shot Down,” South African documentarian Rehad Desai asks a simple question: “Where did it all go wrong?”
“We’ve inherited an economic system which is in many ways rotten to the core,” says Desai, on the eve of pic’s world premiere at the Joburg Film Festival Saturday (Oct. 29). “We’ve inherited a lot of trouble.”
“Giant” maps the country’s political landscape from the birth of democracy in 1994 to the widespread student protests that have rippled across South Africa in the past year.
At its heart is a searing indictment of the broken promises and diminished expectations that have betrayed a post-apartheid generation whose “notion of freedom went far beyond the ballot box,” according to Desai.
The movie’s premiere takes place in the historic Alexander Theater, a stone’s throw from where students from the University of the Witwatersrand, calling for a wide range of institutional reforms, have faced off with riot police in confrontations that have turned violent in recent weeks.
It’s a symbolic venue whose importance isn’t lost on Desai, noting Johannesburg has long been “the heart of resistance…when it comes to South African politics.”
The son of a celebrated leader of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, Desai has protest in his blood. Born in Cape Town in 1963, he left South Africa at the age of one to join his father in exile in the U.K. In the ‘80s, Desai passed his formative years in Zimbabwe, where he became part of a vocal group of agitators who were openly critical of the rule of President Robert Mugabe.
When he finally returned to South Africa in 1990, the country was on the eve of transformation. Nelson Mandela had just been freed from Robben Island, where he’d been imprisoned for 27 years. Four years later, he would become South Africa’s first black president, capping a tumultuous and ultimately hopeful period that would later inspire Desai in film.
It would be a decade before he found his voice as a director, training his lens on both his family’s role in the fight against apartheid and the more prosaic duties of fatherhood in the 2004 Cannes selection “Born Into Struggle.”
In the years since, Desai has been a tireless provocateur, struggling to untangle the web of politics, power and corporate interest in contemporary South Africa, most recently with “Miners Shot Down,” an unflinching account of the 2012 massacre of 38 South African miners in the town of Marikana.
Co-directed by first-time helmer Jabulani Mzozo, “Giant” is a continuation of the themes that have preoccupied Desai as both an activist and a director. “You think this is a snapshot in time, but all the issues…are ongoing,” he says. “It continues to speak.”
One of the questions during production was whether the story – which delves deeply into the murky realm of political scandals and ANC infighting – would speak to global auds, with roughly 80% of the budget for “Giant” coming from foreign broadcasters.
But Desai sees the story of South Africa’s new struggle as “a backdrop for what’s happening everywhere else in the world,” where a decade of global instability and unease has “erode[d] our faith in the narrative that we’re all in this together.”
In South Africa, those fractures have given rise to a new generation of activists who have “managed to achieve more in the last two years than we have in the past two decades,” says Desai, sparking a wide-ranging conversation about how the ANC – and the country as a whole – can live up to the high ideals born out of the liberation struggle two decades ago.
It is a conversation Desai hopes to have captured in “Giant,” and to continue with his next doc, which will dig deeper into the student protest movement.
“Film has the ability…to promote a space where real dialogue can take place,” he says. “This is the conversation we need to start having….Who are we? Where do we want to go?”