A letter from Buenos Aires

I am attending a documentary film festival titled three continents in a Latin American city renowned for its classical European architecture. Of late it has become better known for its economic meltdown and political volatility.

Twenty years of military rule ending in 1986 resulted in the disappearance of 30 000 leftists. Now with the biggest single external debt in the world, massive currency deflation and the rapid rise of a powerful residential based urban opposition movement, the nightmare of the past hangs heavy on the present.

Not surprisingly a major focus of the film festival is human rights. Inspired by the festival’s aim to bring films and filmmakers from Asia, Africa and the Americas – the South – to share our similar but specific experience, I assisted in sending some ten films from South Africa.

Arriving the evening before the opening ceremony with John Matshikiza, who had accepted an offer to join the festival jury. Both of us were quickly taken to introduce ourselves at a hastily convened seminar of sorts. The following evening I was taken aback to find the film that I had submitted of my own – Carlos Cardoso being shown at the opening ceremony.

The response to my opening remarks and the film was overwhelming. The criminalisation of the economy and political elite, the rejection of the IMF and the attempts to build citizen participation and social movements found its mirror image on another continent in a country thousands of kilomteres away. The world indeed is becoming a smaller place.

On a more personal level I soon discovered that the organisers – the movement of documentarists – compromising forty or so people had all experienced the brutal repression first hand or indirectly thru the loss of a family member. John was taken off to a weekly demonstration of the Mothers of Mayo de Plazo – those mothers who sustained an organisation for the last twenty years demanding justice for their disappeared sons and daughters. They embraced him as they would a long lost son.

There is a simmering tension in the air. The government is unable to provide the conditions where the IMF is willing to accept a roll over of the debt repayments that the country defaulted on some months ago. Cuts in certain types of social spending and a 13% reduction in public employees wages have been declared illegal. The payment of salaries by the state has become erratic. The health and education system is at a point of near collapse. Diseases wiped out 80 years ago associated with poverty have resurfaced.

The government is once again in a very tight corner. The failure to secure the continuation of international loans will very soon impact acutely on a population whose previously high living standards as compared to the rest of Latin America will come under further attack. Unemployment has soared to 50%, those with savings in US dollars are not only unable to withdraw them form the bank at their own will. But in addition these savings are now worth a quarter of their previous value.

The country´s middle class has been betrayed by the system they had thought served their interest. In the process many have taken to the streets and in the process been radicalised. The unemployed – “picketeros” – have mobilsed themselves into a powerful movement concentrated in the townships. Direct democracy and a healthy suspicion of parliamentary party politics has allowed the organisation to grow from strength to strength.

The weak link in peoples’ organisation is the trade union movement, which remains heavily bureaucratized. But cracks are beginning to appear there too. It seems that if the forward march of the grass roots movement continues – the state will be forced to respond with repression or alternatively face collapse.

The good news, South African filmmaker Ingrid Gavshon won the festival prize for best documentary with her moving story of the Sharpeville Six, Facing Death, Facing Life. The Bad news – it’s a rather large trophy and I will have to carry it all the way home.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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