Winnie film shows our truth is no stranger to friction
The fallout from Pascal Lamche's documentary reminds us how we fall desperately short in writing our own history
On January 31 2017, almost 15 months ago, the website of Business Day reported that a director named Pascal Lamche had won the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival for her documentary on the life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
In South Africa, the news sank without a ripple. The EFF, today her most vocal supporters, ignored it: the film merited not a single tweet or media release from the party at the time.
To be fair to the Fighters and South Africans in general, we had a lot on our minds just then. The full horror of Life Esidimeni effectively killing more than 100 mentally ill patients was dawning on us. Donald Trump had been inaugurated just 11 days earlier and the planet was in meltdown.
Still, the fact that a film containing such shocking allegations made almost no impression whatsoever suggests one fairly obvious fact: that nobody in South Africa made an attempt to see it, or even to speak to somebody who had. And the reason that nobody bothered is that, for all the demonstrations of love and loyalty we've seen over the past week, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had been relegated to the far periphery of South Africa's political consciousness.
Since her death, and the subsequent broadcast of the film, all of that has changed. The documentary has become a catalyst for intense debate and argument, both factual and revisionist. The compass has swung wildly and continues to swing.For the first few days after the broadcast, the film was referred to with unquestioning credulity as a kind of gospel sent down to deliver judgment and vengeance on traitors to the cause. The veracity of its claims was accepted instantly, and fury rolled across the internet like thunder: Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, Twitter fumed, had sold out Winnie and the people she loved.
If the EFF had managed to resist its opportunistic nature, it might have ended there. But being a party without struggle credentials, and therefore eager to collect links with historic figures like a magpie picking up shiny objects, it scooped up the godsend and ran with it.
It repeated Madikizela-Mandela’s inferred accusation that negative stories written by journalists Thandeka Gqubule and Anton Harber had been aiding and abetting the apartheid disinformation machine, and thunderously revealed that it was thinking about outing up to 40 other alleged Stratcom agents in the media.Not surprisingly, the needle began to wobble.
By Friday, veteran journalists were gently reminding us that if you’re going to throw around allegations you need to present proof, or at least allow the accused to comment.
And when, on Monday, Sydney Mufamadi (implicated in the documentary as part of a sinister attempt to reopen an investigation into Madikizela-Mandela) gave his side of the story, and elicited an apology from the filmmaker, the needle had swung all the way to the other extreme.
The documentary, many now said, was a fiercely subjective, unapologetically skewed attempt to present another side of Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy, and should not be regarded as anything more than an op-ed column.
So far the documentary has proved none of the sinister allegations it makes. But it has proved other things: that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was adored, feared, loved, disliked, respected and ignored; and that humans have a habit of waiting until people are dead before they remember their strong feelings about them.I also think, however, that it proved something else we need to remember: that we are desperately short of facts in this country, and desperately in need of them.
The response to the film shows that we are still constructing our history, trying to piece it together from the most reliable fragments of truth we can sift out of the rubble.
But the fact that we can still comfortably make such huge claims and counter-claims – most notably around whether Nelson Mandela saved his people or sold them out – means that too many people on both sides of essential debates are resorting to belief in the absence of facts.
We South Africans talk endlessly about “telling our own stories”, but when it comes to facts, the edges too often blur into hearsay, and astonishing voids appear in the centre of things: even when the country tried, via the TRC, to arrive at a detailed accounting of apartheid crimes, many perpetrators lied or simply didn’t show up, hiding forever the names and dates that should now be public record.Is it any wonder, then, that in a country where we still don’t even know who delivered which orders or who owns what land, that a particular interpretation of one woman’s life should be so heavily and acrimoniously contested?
I don’t know how we inject more facts into public debates, short of allowing historians to curate Page 3 of every newspaper. The state puts fluoride in the water, but I don’t suppose there’s a way to drip-feed peer-reviewed history into us.
Which is a pity. Because a nation that isn’t in possession of all the facts about its history, and which allows its memory to become atrophied by the endless grind of the latest Twitter outrage, is ripe for the plucking by revisionist politicians.
And that’s gospel truth.