“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Perhaps this famous quote by Nelson Mandela is what inspired a social movement for poor communities called Abahlali basemjondolo, based in KwaZulu-Natal, to fight the government, through its justice system, over the unfair evictions of shack dwellers.
They won, and every step of their battle for justice was documented in Dear Mandela, a film that has inspired even more South Africans in poor communities to take charge and stand up for their rights.
The Constitutional Court is where it all happened in October 2009. The case brought before the court by Abahlali was an effort to put an end to a controversial piece of legislation called the Slums Act, as it gave municipalities too much power over poor residents of informal settlements, so much so that they could evict inhabitants of private land and put them in transit camps without providing alternative accommodation.
Abahlali’s resilient nature, in the wake of a previous judgment by KwaZulu-Natal Judge President Vuka Tshabalala which upheld the legislation, became the group’s fighting power, and so began the journey to declare war for the right to dignity.
The Grand Chameleon is the most prestigious of the awards given out at the Brooklyn Film Festival, which runs every year in June. The festival, into its 14th edition in 2012, puts a focus on independent films from around the world in an effort to – as organisers put it – “advance public interest in films and the independent production of films”.
The 2012 festival saw over 100 premieres screened at the event’s two venues, the indieScreen and the Brooklyn Heights Cinema.
Dear Mandela was one of 17 in the documentaries category, and the only African entry on the list dominated by productions from the US and Europe.
“All the films in the competition are eligible for this award, regardless of their length, category, or format,” declares a disclaimer on the festival’s website.
The award is assigned by the board of directors of the festival and is chosen from the winners of ‘Best in Category’.
The film will share an overall prize of US$57 000 (R470 723) with the winners in the other categories.
Other accolades awarded to Dear Mandela include the Best Butterfly Award at the Movies that Matter Film Festival run by Amnesty International; best documentary nominee at the African Academy Awards 2012; and the Best African Documentary Award at the Durban International Film Festival.
Inspiration for the film
Cape Town-born Dara Kell, one of the directors of the film, says one of the inspirations behind the film was a desire to show what young South Africans still fight for, so many years into the country’s freedom. She wanted to show what life is like for young people in informal settlements.
Her co-director, Christopher Nizza, agrees: “When we started working with Abahlali we discovered that many of their leaders are of the generation commonly referred to as the ‘born frees’, and it was through the story of the characters in the film that we were able to tell the bigger story about evictions and housing problems that South Africans deal with.”
Nizza grew up in New York, and has won various awards for his work in television adverts, music videos and, of course, documentaries. Together the two formed documentary production company Sleeping Giant in 2007, and Dear Mandela is their first feature-length production.
Although Abahlali are widely known across South Africa, their day-to-day struggles and victories were not necessarily being told in the mainstream media and in this regard, says Kell, they were able to tell the world.
“Putting small videos of the daily encounters filmed while following the leaders of the movement on the internet had some positive impact,” recalls Nizza. “There were several protests at South African embassies in New York, London, Moscow and other cities around the world.”
“This created some pressure on the South African government, because everything wasn’t happening in the shadows anymore, and people around the world were paying attention.”
He adds that challenging negative stereotypes about shack dwellers in South Africa was another motivating factor for doing the film.
“The perception is that they are dangerous, uneducated and lazy, and these perceptions are damaging. We had an opportunity to show, in video form, that these notions aren’t true.”
Kell agrees: “The apartheid struggle wasn’t just fought for the right to vote, but also for the right to a dignified life.”
“South Africa has a brilliant constitution, one of the most progressive in the world, but the challenge is for the young people now to hold the country’s leaders to their promises.”
The name Dear Mandela, says Kell, was inspired by a story related by one of the lead characters in the film, who is also a leader within the Abahlali structure.
The elder statesman had just been voted into power by virtue of being the ANC president at the time the democratic government came into place in 1994, and one of the promises he made to the constituency that had voted for the party – made up largely of poor black people – was that the new government would build them houses.
It is a declaration, made along with others, promising a better life for the poor.
“One of the young people in the film said he wishes Mandela could come and see how they live, because they don’t think he would be very happy about it,” recalls Kell.
Abahlali’s fight for decent living conditions
At least 10% of South Africans lived in urban informal settlements in 2003, according to research by Southern African NGO Network. Living conditions in these areas remains one of the government’s biggest challenges, with access to basic services such as clean water and sanitation a worrying factor.
The Slums Act gave municipalities greater powers to monitor informal settlements and to evict inhabitants whenever the private owners of the land failed to do so. Evictees were also to be housed in transit camps while low-costing public housing was built.
The argument from Ablahlali’s perspective was that there was no consultation from the government’s side, and as a matter of principle, the authorities should not have ignored the conditions that force people to leave their homes and move to informal settlements. They also wanted the national government to force its provincial administrators to follow laws that prevent evictions without a court order.
South Africa’s informal settlements have been growing exponentially since the new dispensation, a trend that analysts attribute to urbanisation and the constant search for a better life by people who grew up in the former homelands. For instance, nearly one in six people in South Africa live in shacks, a quarter of them in the smallest province by area, Gauteng.
Policy changes address slum situation
In 2009 the National Department of Human Settlements released the plans of its informal settlement upgrading programme, the primary goal of which is to facilitate in situ upgrades for the country’s existing settlements, as opposed to moving all communities.
The programme is part of the government’s contribution to the UN Millennium Goals, which provide for the significant improvement in the lives of at least 100-million slum dwellers by 2020.
The department outlines the key elements of the programme as a)Tenure security that incorporates both rights and obligations by recognising and formalising the tenure rights of residents within informal settlements; b)Health and security, which promotes the development of healthy and secure living environments by facilitating the provision of affordable and sustainable basic municipal engineering infrastructure to the residents of informal settlements; and c) Empowerment, to address social and economic exclusion by focusing on community empowerment and the promotion of social and economic integration.
The programme filters down through all three spheres of government. On the ground level, the municipality has to make a decision as to whether a settlement should be earmarked for upgrade through the programme.
Upon receipt and approval of the application from the municipality, the provincial department will be responsible for distributing the funding as well as monitoring the rollout of the project, in partnership with the municipality. Conceptualising the rollout of the programme lies with the national department. The most crucial factor throughout the process of the upgrade, however, is that of community involvement, which the programme encourages at all times.
In cases where the in situ approach cannot be carried out, and informal settlement communities have to be moved, the programme states that pre-approval of the community involved should be sought.