May 24, 2012

On April 27, Freedom Day was marked throughout the country via political party rallies, NGO commemorations and thousands of now customary non-political braais. It is a national holiday that has come to signify something different to each and every South African. Yet, this weekend’s festivities also marked a milestone for the South African informal settlement movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo. As they took to the streets once again for an UnFreedom Day march through central Durban, the award-winning documentary on the movement, Dear Mandela, was aired for the first time on South African television. Even though it was broadcast on Mzansi Magic channel on DSTV (thereby excluding the vast majority of South Africa’s poor), it quickly set off a fire storm of chatter on social networking site Twitter with #DearMandela trending for hours while many viewers decided to write their own UnFreedom Day tweets to Nelson Mandela.

The film charts the daily struggles and activism of three distinctive young members of Abahlali who take up the cause of development and dignity with their communities. They put aside their personal aspirations to escape from the shacks and they unwittingly put their lives at risk when the inevitable backlash bring them face to face with ruthless political repression.

What I found invaluable about the film Dear Mandela is that, beyond the misleadingly narrow service delivery discourse that dominates party and NGO politics, the members of Abahlali baseMjondolo recognise that they are fighting for much more than toilets and a roof over their heads. The shackdwellers are not only demanding services, they are also demanding the ownership of the development process itself.