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Prisoner Of Mandela: Why Care About South Africa

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Months later, I was with him on his triumphant 8 city tour of the United States where he packed stadiums and inspired millions. I filmed it all for the documentary, Mandela In America. Then, Madiba, as he's known (by his clan name) and his people invited me to South Africa to document his run for the Presidency in 1994. We called that film Countdown to Freedom: Ten Days That Changed South Africa. 

A year later, I was back in South Africa with filmmaker Barbara Kopple to document a moving reunion of ex-prisoners returning to the Robben Island prison that had been their home. How often does that happen in history? That resulted in the film, Prisoners of Hope that we co-directed.

Next up: another chance to travel with him as his presidential term was ending in the US and Canada. I was filming when a deferential Bill Clinton hosted his visit to the White House. That led to "Hero For All," a film that explored his global appeal. Finally four years ago, there was Viva Madiba, a documentary "bio-pic" directed by Catherine Myburgh for his 90th birthday.   I was a contributing director.

None of these films were big hits but I was always better at telling than selling. I persevered because I thought it mattered then and still matters today. Yet, documentaries need marketing budgets and media insiders to champion them. Alas, I mostly lacked both, perhaps because of my pro-liberation approach that always let South Africans tell their own stories, not to mention the insularity and parochial conservatism of much US TV.

I kept coming back to South Africa every year or two, and produced a tribute to the late AIDS orphan, Nkosi Johnson, who became a symbol of inspiration for many South Africans and the international AIDs community, as well another on a visit by The Dalai Lama.

I wrote countless reports, essays, blogs and commentaries. I had morphed as an American into a self-identified South African, often knowing more about what was going on in a country 10,000 miles away that I knew about my own,   sometimes even knowing more than many South Africans.

I am not uncritical about this country. And truth be told, there is a lot about the crass materialism and class attitudes here, among affluent Whites and the black middle class too, that I don't like. There are many who have used the change here for self-gain and others who betray its values. Corruption has corrupted the country's hopes, and soured the moral appeal the ANC projected as the "new South Africa" puts its apartheid past behind it.

Whew! Got that off my chest!

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And now, I am back in the "beloved country," sitting on a back lot of the vast Cape Town Film Studios in the summer of 2012, freezing my ass off while my fellow New Yorkers swelter in a summer heat wave.

I am on the set of a major movie telling some of the story as Mandela told it, making a film about how movies like the one being made here can often penetrate truths deeper than journalism.

While I am here part of this effort to reprise his life, news colleagues have staked out a death watch waiting to report his passing. In the news business, ageing icons like Mandela are considered FBF's : Freelancers Best Friends because news organizations put on temporary staf f. There was a media orgy accompanying Mandela's release, and now the media is mobilizing like vultures, for his expected parting, complete with pre-produced obituaries.

 Yes, the film is fiction, but based on "faction," on Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom. It's built around his recollections and experiences, hardly a journalistically objective approach, but one that can be brought to "life" by actors.   Even by taking some artistic license, they can make you "feel" his story---pains and triumph--and not just read about it from afar.

Even after all these years, knowing what I know, and as familiar as I am, with the history the film depicts, I find myself tearing up watching the dramatic recreations. It jogs my memories of all who sacrificed and suffered in the apartheid years that have left a legacy of deep poverty and ethnic separation.

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I realize how personal it all still is for me, how deeply I still connect with passion and pathos of those years of struggle when the outcome so many now take for granted was so uncertain, so far off.

So, I have become, a Long Walker too, across the decades, steeped in the mythologies and the limits of a process here that has succumbed to division, disillusioning so many who need a Mandela to make them believe again.

Politics is so symbolic and he's icon #1 even if his hopes of "a better life for all" ran up against trench warfare by the real economic powers here and in the world.   The world loves him more as a beloved "brand" of peace and reconciliation than as a fighter for economic and racial justice on the barricades of an ongoing revolution. 

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News Dissector Danny Schechter is blogger in chief at Mediachannel.Org He is the author of PLUNDER: Investigating Our Economic Calamity (Cosimo Books) available at See

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you may have helped to build a legend that never w... by Paul Repstock on Monday, Jul 16, 2012 at 9:12:24 AM
i'm 1 of millions of white (for what that matters ... by Paul Haasbroek on Monday, Jul 16, 2012 at 2:51:49 PM