Friday, 18 April 2014

1994 - The bloody miracle

On Wednesday evening my wife, Diana Lucas, and I were guests at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Houghton, Johannesburg, where the film 1994 - The Bloody Miracle was premiered. We were on the guest list because of Diana's biographical work on Nelson Mandela, including her tribute screened on MNET after his death. How fortunate we were, in the presence not just of the filmmakers but of some of the perpetrators, and victims, of horrendous violence and mayhem that threatened the Rainbow Nation with a still birth. 

It is odd so little has been written from the 'inside' about this traumatic period in South Africa's history. Peter Harris' book, ironically titled Birth, tells the story of the election from the point of view of a peace commissioner seconded to the Independent Electoral Commission. It reads like a thriller, with the drama and brinkmanship of the likes of Buthelezi and Viljoen (of whom more below) retold by way of a countdown to election day. 

The makers of 1994, produced by Sabido Productions, use the same technique to relate the escalating tension as election day draws near, the film conveying strongly that it very nearly did not happen. Hence The Bloody Miracle - the filmmakers reminding us that our first democratic elections were on a knife edge and could have been derailed with just days to go. 

Rightly so, they make much of the fact that 1994 features the players in this drama, not the observers, academics and historians whose interpretations we have come to rely on for the accepted narrative. We listen to Lindiwe Hani, SA Communist Party's Chris Hani's daughter, pick up the story in April 1993 when her father was assassinated by white extremists. There is moving footage (much of the material in the film has never been seen before) of Hani's funeral, with Lindiwe relating how her soul left her body as we see her as a 12 year-old girl releasing white doves into the air. We meet the bomber and the bombed from St James Church, Kenilworth, Cape Town, where 12 people lost their lives in July 1993. Implausibly, but true, they are now friends - the former APLA commander now a leader of the Pan Africanist Congress while the victim of his atrocity gets on with life 20 years after chasing his attackers out of the church firing his revolver, which we see him nursing lovingly as he recalls that fateful evening.

There are some surprising, and shocking, revelations. General Tienie Groenewald, a former general of Military Intelligence, relates how the Afrikaners, led by him and General Constand Viljoen, hatched a plan to kidnap Mandela, President de Klerk and their fellow leaders and fly them to a safe house in Angola courtesy of Jonas Savimbi - South Africa's ally in the fight against Cuba to take over that country. There, they would force the negotiators to accede to an Afrikaner free state, and probably a Zulu one as well for Mangosuthu Buthelezi was just as keen to avoid being ruled by long-term rival the ANC.

Mac Maharaj, President Jacob Zuma's spokesman and then a leading Communist Party member, in the Q&A session afterwards asked at what point the Afrikaners abandoned this idea. Groenewald, also in the audience, replied just days before the election, when the accord was agreed to. He was referring to the accord reached with the ANC and the National Party by which Afrikaner demands would be included in further post-election discussions aimed at pacifying the Volk.

Eugene de Kock, nicknamed Prime Evil by the media, gets to tell his story in chilling detail from his prison cell. Commanding officer of the C1 counter-insurgency unit of the SA Police, de Kock undertook bombings, killings, kidnappings and other acts of terror aimed at fanning the flames of war between the ANC and the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party. He dryly repeats what he told the court in his trial, that the apartheid government was complicit in these actions and the so-called Third Force was not a rogue element in the security forces but went right to the top. We then hear some dissembling by de Klerk and a legalistic brush-off by Judge Richard Goldstone, whose commission set up to investigate the Third Force was inconclusive. 

Mastermind behind the St James bombing, Letlapa Mphahlele, asks the entirely valid question why his actions are classified as acts of terror while similar acts perpetrated by the state are not so regarded? The answer was in part given by an ordinary member of the defence force, who said their job was to keep the peace between the warring parties. In all probability he did not know but his political masters conveniently gloss over the reality of death squads and planned atrocities which could not sensibly be regarded as preserving the peace or the security of the state. 1994 is not judgmental on this issue but the viewer is left in no doubt that de Kock is a sacrificial lamb whose superiors got off scot free.

The film, which runs for 95 minutes, contains many, many testimonials so it is impossible to relate them all here. Some of the imagery that stuck includes the narrative theme of land, beautifully and movingly filmed, highlighting its importance in South Africans' sense of identity. Constant Viljoen puts this into words, speaking on his farm. Land for him is freedom. The closing sequence shows him strolling through a mealie field, conveying the wistfulness of what might have been, either full-out civil war or an Afrikaner homeland.

What we got was something messier but more pragmatic, a unitary state with Afrikaners now playing a largely constructive role in the country's re-building. Interestingly this imagery raised the ire of a questioner in the Q&A who slammed the directors for closing the film this way. They responded defensively but quite reasonably that as whites they also have an identity and that land goes to the heart of what the struggle for freedom was about. The fact that it was portrayed through an Afrikaner's experience does not diminish the validity of blacks’ claims to land, was what I came away thinking.

The Afrikaners’ dream of a homeland came to an abrupt end with the cold-blooded execution of three of their kind after the abortive and tragi-comic incursion into Bophuthatswana to prop up apartheid puppet Lucas Mangope. Retold by Annalise Wolfaardt, daughter of one of the AWB attackers, and the policeman who shot them dead, this incident summed up 350 years of history – swift retribution for the injustice of racial oppression by whites in a country where blacks comprise 75% of the population. But we also saw the nihilism inherent in the victor, on the right side of history, secure in belonging to the majority in a country of minorities, casually asserting his power in front of the world’s media and horrified passers-by.

Annalise told the camera, what was the point of her father’s death? For those of us watching it on TV, twenty years ago, that was the moment the tide turned and the struggle for freedom was won. But it also brought home that power, once gained, can easily be abused. The 2014 election, now just three weeks away, should remind us that the price of peace is eternal vigilance. When we cast our vote on May 7th we should ask ourselves, is power being abused today, and if so how do we stop it?

1994 - The Bloody Miracle was produced by Paul Egan and directed by Meg Rickards and Bert Haitsma

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant film, fair and accurate, but a full treatment of this topic would take much much longer.
    Both the ANC and NP were centralized authoritarian parties seeking to be the sole representative of previously non-voting and voting South African communities, when of course both of these communities were far more diverse. Viljoen and Buthelezi were just the most difficult examples to ignore, but there were, and still are, many black parties and other left and right white constituencies as well. Whether a more inclusive CODESA would have led to a constitution with more dispersed power as with a more strongly federal system, or with parliamentary constituencies, is just speculation, but recent attacks on the public prosecutor, free press, and judiciary reveal the slender threads on which the constitution CODESA did produce hang.
    It is also important to note that all major parties used violence extensively when it suited their purposes as documented in books such as People's War by Anthea Jeffery and several others. History's victors will always try to tidy up these realities. Nelson Mandela was a most remarkable, historic and great leader, but his command to fire on the IFP march at Shell House makes it into very few of his biographies. The fact that this film tells the intidty aspects of the story.
    This documentary makes visible many of the remarkable individuals with which South Africa was blessed in this most challenging time - Mandela and Hani to be sure, but also de Klerk, Viljoen, Buthelezi and many many others. In times like these we find out what people are really made of and it is significant that all parties eventually took part in the election even though the last 20 years have seen many of the fears of traditional Zulus and Afrikaaner farmers were not without a basis.
    We will hope the election of this year will produce a new miracle with a move back toward the real purpose of democracy which is to protect the "natural rights" of all South Africans, and a move away from a false democracy if it simply the tyranny of the majority, represented in a single political party, with power concentrated in a small leadership clique. The events of 29 years ago were a bloody miracle to be sure; this year we will see how lasting will be the results.