An act of manipulation

Tony Bensusan’s documentary on the formation of the United Democratic Front 25 years ago is a voyeuristic journey into disparate moments beautifully cobbled together to deliver 23 minutes of nostalgia.

The documentary, aptly named New Deal?, which was cut down from an original 90 minutes, is the epitome of simplicity. In the work, showing at the Encounters documentary festival, slices of life are masterfully cobbled together to deliver a powerful yet simple composition.

New Deal? does not necessarily follow a sequential or predictable structure and there is no definite sense of beginning or end. But the work rounds off with a guitar solo after a young and fiery Reverend Frank Chikane informed his audience that the UDF would mobilise “house to house” and “street to street”. The music seems to capture the rebellious essence of the Eighties.

Bensusan explained later, during a panel discussion, that the documentary does not carry credits. Most of the footage was filmed in secret and the cast members had to be protected from apartheid security policemen.

In New Deal? Bensusan avoided the predictable style of merging what he describes as “snippets” with an omnipotent narrator to help tell the story. Masterfully, he allowed his characters to tell their story in their own words through speeches made at various political rallies.

The main protagonists in this documentary are shown during that historic moment in Mitchells Plain’s Rocklands Civic Centre on August 20 1983 when 120 000 people gathered to form the biggest mass-mobilisation campaign the country has ever seen. The viewer is taken into the rally and is exposed to speakers such as Reverend Alan Boesak, Helen Joseph, Francis Baard and even a young girl who brings a message of support from her father, one Sheik Gabier, presumably incarcerated or exiled.

On the other side of the political spectrum the viewer is transported to similar rallies held by white antagonists clearly divided on the matter.

“The war will not end because the government does not want to end it. The war will only end after we have succumbed to black rule in South Africa. It will end when Mr Botha and these people go to the conference table in order to make peace with a terrorist,” passionately utters a right-wing leader to a cheering crowd.

This moment is beautifully juxtaposed — possibly in the most gripping moment of the film — with PW “Krokodil” Botha himself using a swart-gevaar tactic to urge his supporters to vote to allow coloureds and Indians political representation via the tricameral parliamentary system. This event, it is gathered from the film, would be a catalyst for the formation of the UDF.

“Do you want to be in the company of the African National Congress?” asks Botha. The viewer is then shown faces in the audience looking stunned. The “pregnant silences”, as Bensusan calls them, continue for about 15 seconds before Botha himself answers: “Decide for yourself — I am not accusing you.”

In the panel discussion following the viewing Bensusan described the moment as an act of “manipulation”, something he believes to be the weapon of any great filmmaker.

The panel included prominent members of the UDF old-guard: Popo Molefe, Raymond Suttner and struggle poet Mzwakhe Mbuli. The panel was asked about their recollections of the UDF. They shared fond memories, Molefe explaining in clear terms that they were merely a product of their time and became involved in politics because the situation demanded it. He said that he would not have become a politician if the circumstances he grew up in were different. Instead, he said, he would have opted to study further.

Suttner told the audience that the UDF was formed to go beyond “one person, one vote” and alluded to Chikane’s speech in the documentary about a door-to-door campaign to garner support.

“I think we haven’t found a way after 1994 of combining representative democracy and other forms of democracy,” said Suttner.

When asked by the Mail & Guardian whether they were proud of the South Africa they fought for, Molefe said the movement had restored a sense of normalcy to his life. Suttner said he was proud as a white South African to have been part of the struggle.

Mbuli lamented the new South Africa for its inability to deal with crime and called for the return of street committees that came into existence after the formation of the UDF.

New Deal? shows again at the Encounters Documentary Festival at Nu Metro at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town on July 11. The panel discussion at 6pm will include Jeremy Seekings and Allan Boesak

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