The death of Nelson Mandela last December opened the floodgates of memorials and remembrances of the iconic figure known as Madiba, a man who overcame so much to become a great healer in post-Apartheid South Africa, not the least of which were his 27 years in prison. It’s often said that you can’t speak ill of the dead, but how about the truth? Can you speak truth about the dead, even if it’s a cruel truth or a truth that suggests that the great work of the man in question was left unfinished well before his passing? That question is one of many personal quandaries at the heart of South African filmmaker Khalo Matabane’s Nelson Mandela: The Myth & Me, which combines historical re-consideration, context from international and local observers, and his own remembrances of Mandela, the man and the myth.
The remembrances are framed as letters from Matabane to Mandela as the film tracks Mandela’s imprisonment, release, election to the presidency and South Africa as it is today. The young Matabane recalls Mandela as a name spoken in hushed tones, a figure built to such mythic proportions that when Mandela emerged from prison, he was surprised that the real Mandela was not the “superhero” he came to think of, but a man with a gentle face and who spoke with restraint.
For the broader historical discussion, Marabane puts together a very impressive line-up of commentators, including the Dali Lama, former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and numerous South African political leaders and journalists. But there other types of remembrance, too. Take the everyday South Africans for example, who lived with the brutality of Apartheid and are still deeply affected by it, like one woman who can only ever draw her sister they way she looked in the morgue, and another woman who casually ran into the man who tortured her and her husband years later on the street.
For them, the mystique of Mandela brushes harshly against their everyday realities. As Mandela began to be embraced more by western celebrities, he was less likely to create the kind of change that South Africans wanted. There’s a palpable anger in regards to this idea that Mandela changed the country. Yes, you can walk down the street and not get shot for no reason, but a lot of black South Africans are locked into poverty with no way to get out. What kind of freedom is that?
It’s a truly unusual experience to get questioning like this in such a brief time after the death of a universally beloved figure like Mandela. In fact, it’s almost jarring. Marabane had to have been working on the film during his subject’s slow deterioration last fall, and to be able to hold the mirror so steadily and ask the tough questions in the face of national (and international) mourning is an impressive feat of journalistic detachment. However, that’s not to say that he’s trying subvert Mandela’s legacy, or that he says that Mandela did no good at all.
One of Marabane’s side stories is the difficulty of reconciliation, as he asks how did Mandela stifle the urge for vengeance and find forgiveness, and how did many other South Africans do the same? Journalist Albie Sachs discusses an encounter he had with the man who put a bomb under his car, and the jubilation he received when Sachs granted him forgiveness. Elsewhere, Marabane tries to talk to Charity Kondile, whose son was killed by the Vlakplaas militia led by Dirk Coetzee. Kondile initially refuses to discuss her feelings about Coetzee, but holds true to her feelings that it’s hard to forgive people who imprisoned, tortured and murdered her own son. How can she forgive, when he will never come home?
The documentary asks how easy is it to forgive. Perhaps, as one observer says, it was easy for Mandela the “god” to forgive because gods have that privilege. On the other hand, how rare is it for the people symbolic of the struggle to transform themselves into symbols of peace and democracy. As wrong as it is to say that South Africa is better because it isn’t a war zone, it would also be wrong to say that Mandela shouldn’t be held responsible for South Africa not becoming a war zone.
The back and forth in Nelson Mandela: The Myth & Me is tremendous, and I honestly wouldn’t have thought a film with this kind of discourse about the legendary figure would have been possible just four months after he died. Khalo Matabane does an amazing job balancing the tough questions and the historical reverence to become something that’s all too rare in filmmaking these days: an objective biopic that perfectly balances the perceptions and realities of its subject.
FIlmmaker Khalo Matabane manages an amazing feat by making a documentary that's both in praise of Nelson Mandela, and tests some of the preconceived notions about him.