"The true miracle of the 1994 elections, is that they happened at all. If this was a miracle, it was a truly bloody one." John Kani, narrating for 1994 The Bloody Miracle.
1994 The Bloody Miracle, a documentary three years in the making, is a poignant reminder of what South Africa's metamorphosis from Apartheid to "Rainbow Nation" cost, and a sobering reflection on just how close it all came to falling apart. It is also a post-hoc revelation of truths that many white South Africans refused to believe at the time, about the extent to which the white government and the military fueled violence and discord and chaos.
The film is co-directed by Cape Town filmmaker Meg Rickards and Botswana-based cinematographer Bert Haitsma, who set out to remind South Africans of the history they felt many were taking for granted. The timing is well-chosen; South Africa celebrates 20 years of democracy this year, which also means that the first generation of South Africans born outside of Apartheid are now taking their place in society.
This really is a film that all South Africans should see.
Even those of us who were in it for the most part forget the levels of anger and fear that existed, amongst all sectors of the population, in the lead-up to the first democratic elections. It's almost cliché to say that we narrowly escaped civil war, but this film exposes just how close the country came to imploding. It gave me me a new, or perhaps refreshed, respect for what the leadership accomplished in keeping the freedom train on the rails. I've always been impressed by the way the South African population as a whole embraced the new order after the elections, and of course by the individual leadership from figures like Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk, but this film was a valuable reminder of the sustained years of political grunt work that it took to bring the country together for an election.
The crux of the political, and eventually violent, conflict was the desire of both white Afrikaners and black Zulus for independence from whatever new South Africa emerged. Mandela, leader of the African National Congress and inevitable future president, and FW De Klerk of the National Party and president at the time, were unified in their opposition to the notion of any autonomous homelands, be it a sovereign Zulu kingdom, as sought by the Inkatha Freedom Party, or a Volkstaat, as sought by right wing Afrikaners. To do so would abandon the singular principle driving the process forward: that South Africa was a land for all people equally. For the fiercely independent Afrikaners and Zulus, however, this was a matter of non-negotiation and one over which they were both prepared to go to war.
This documentary is unique for its focus on the role of extremists in this otherwise well studied historical moment. Various elements, from all sides, sought to destabilize first the negotiations over an election date, and then the elections themselves. These were the people who were not satisfied with the negotiation terms and either chose of felt compelled resort to violence. Many of the interviewees have never discussed these events on camera, and the film-makers spent years building relationships with some individuals before such discussions were possible.
Among the interviewees is former South African Defence Force general Constand Viljoen, who remains one of the most respected Afrikaner leaders in the country, though he resisted the elections up until the very final weeks. His capitulation single-handedly settled the minds of most of the white South Africans who had been otherwise resigned to drastic measures. Likewise, Inkatha hit squad leader, Daluxolo Luthuli, who spearheaded the vast and violent campaign by the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) against Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), almost single-handedly ended the nascent civil war by defecting to the ANC just weeks before the elections.
Interviews of extremist leaders are complemented with those of more central political figures, like current President Jacob Zuma and former President FW De Klerk, but all are counterbalanced by the interviews of victims and families of victims, which give the ramifications of these violent months contemporary poignancy. The contrast between often jarringly honesty and matter of fact discussions of violence by the perpetrators (reminiscent of The Act Of Killing actually), and the reflections of people who lost loved ones to the violence is powerful.
The major political revelation of this film is the extent to which the white military intelligence, army and police were both colluding with the IFP against the ANC, and fomenting violence between IFP and ANC. The major personal revelation, however, is the extent to which so many South Africans are still living, twenty years on, with physical and psychic scars from those violent months.
The cinematography is worth a special mention for the way it imbues an otherwise intellectual and contradictory film rife with conflicting perspectives, with humanity and cohesion. Interspersed throughout the film are beautiful aerial shots that draw our attention back to the land. Beneath all the cultural complexity of these events, it is ultimately the land which was at stake, and these shots emphasizes this, as well as the different scales at which this story plays out. In particular, the film is bookended by two such shots. The first a scene of natural landscape, disorienting in its shapes and patterns without any obvious frame of reference; it's a fractal effect, blurring the line between micro and macro; blurring the line between individual and society. The final aerial shot is of a cemetary, lit by the afternoon sun and casting enormous tombstone shadows that reveal rows of metropolitan rectangles, as viewed from above, for the graves they are. Red soil has been dug up at several places; fresh graves, with the dirt strewn like pools of blood on the landscape. It's a potent final shot that succinctly sums up the essence of this potent documentary.
Today was Mandela's birthday. I cannot think of a better way to commemorate his life than be reflecting on the history surrounding his seminal accomplishment, free and fair elections. He sacrificed everything except his life for South Africa's future, but as this films reminds us, many South Africans sacrificed even that.
Lest we ever forget.