Goodbye Bafana

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(314)

Director Bille August

I left South Africa in 1998 after having spent three and a half years working for the ANC, initially as part of the Constitutional Commission and then as a researcher in Parliament. Campaigning for the ANC, being able to vote in a democratic election for the first time and playing a small part in the making of the most democratic constitution in the world were some of the proudest moments in my life and helped shape my ideas and politics.

I was therefore please to see two leading film makers trying to capture some of the key questions from the struggle against apartheid on celluloid.

Goodbye Bafana follows hot on the heels of Catch A Fire, a film with Tim Robbins that looks at the making of a freedom fighter during the turbulent and brutal period of the 1970's and 1980's in South Africa. Filled with images of a violent, out of control state in the face of a rising revolutionary movement, it is an important reminder of the power of the working class as a force for change.

Goodbye Bafana takes a different tack, looking at the transition from apartheid to national liberation through the complex relationship between Nelson Mandela and his prison warder James Gregory.

I approached the film with some trepidation, fearful that it would be a sentimental, personal story lacking in substance. Instead what emerges is a powerful film that explores the relationship between Mandela and his gaoler, peeling away stereotypes to explore how people's ideas can change, under even the most extreme of circumstances. While it doesn't shy away from exposing the brutality of apartheid, it is an altogether slower paced film but incredibly powerful nonetheless.

James Gregory is a typical Afrikaner. Raised a racist, taught that whites are superior to black people, he sees promotion in the prison service as a way of advancing his career and securing his family's financial future He is chosen by the security service to become the warder in charge of Nelson Mandela and his comrades on Robin Island Prison because he can speak Xhosa.

He hates Mandela believing he is a dangerous terrorist, but with the death of Mandela's son (which Gregory feels guilt over) his perceptions are challenged. Suddenly Mandela is transformed from terrorist to father, just like him, and the sympathy he feels for him begins to erode the barriers between them.

The personal and political transition in Gregory, played out against the backdrop of a changing political system, is made even more powerful by the portrayal of the lives of working class white families. Gregory and his fellow officers are treated like trash by the system - their housing, wages and conditions are no better than the worst council estates in Britain, even though substantively better than those of black people.

Gregory doesn't become a freedom fighter, but he does begin to question the logic he was brought up to see as irrefutable. So when Nelson Mandela quotes the Freedom Charter, talking about equality between all people, Gregory seeks it out and reads it for himself, finding it harder and harder to refute. Not surprisingly, he becomes increasingly ridiculed by his own kind and becomes known as a "kaffir lover".

Through this personal journey, the film explores how racist ideas are learnt and can be unlearnt. Gregory was clearly not always a racist. He is haunted by the memories of his close friendship with a black child when he was growing up. We see his natural empathy emerge when he tries to stop policemen beating a black woman in the street, leaving her child lying in the gutter and when he tried to makes sense of the senseless system to his own daughter who witnesses the attack, failing miserably and ending up calling it "god's way".

All in all, Goodbye Bafana is an important film because it goes beyond the depiction of historical events and draws out some important lessons from the struggle against apartheid - about how a white racist in a position of power can recognise that he has more in common with a black prisoner who despite his treatment has the capacity to believe that all people should be treated with equality and dignity.

The film reminds us of how shallow the lies holding apartheid together were, especially when claims that there could never be peaceful coexistence between black and white people, an important message in the context of many of the ongoing global conflicts like that in Palestine.


Website special - this article was not included in the printed edition.