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Sean Ledwith on an ambitious film about the ANC leader's life - from his upbringing in the Transkei to his triumphant ascendancy to the South African Presidency in 1994

Mandela:Long Walk to Freedom is not the first film to try to dramatise the incredible life and times of the most revered political leader of modern times. Hollywood luminaries such as Danny Glover,Sidney Poitier and Morgan Freeman have all starred in previous  movies about certain phases or episodes in Mandela's career.

This version is unprecedented, however, as it aspires to cover the full sweep of the ANC leader's life from his upbringing among the Xhosa people of the Transkei in the inter-war period to his triumphant ascendancy to the South African Presidency in 1994.

This is a worthy goal on the part of the film-makers to try to bring to the screen elements of  a story many recent generations might be unfamiliar with. Unfortunately, the film falls short partly because over this over-ambition but it represents a noble failure at least.

Mandela's career was full of spectacular highs and lows and even 139 minutes is not enough to do it justice to all those moments of high drama. The earlier films in some ways, were more dramatically satisfying as they were able to draw out the full dramatic potential of a certain point in his life such as the negotiations with De Klerk or the use of the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

This version tries too hard to tick off all the milestones in his career but ends up leaving them all hastily skimmed over. A more significant drawback from a socialist viewpoint is the strange lack of politics in the film.


Considering it is putatively a biopic of one of the most successful politicians of all time, there is a conspicuous lack of political perspective in the film. Some observers might argue it is unrealistic to expect a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster to incorporate a serious political dimension, but the absence of it in this film tends to engender an over-reverential and saintly portrait of Mandela that provides no real explanation of his impact.

The movie operates on the premise of 'the great man theory of history' in which Mandela towers over all his colleagues in the South African resistance and delivers the death-blows to apartheid virtually single-handed. Mandela is not totally sanitised, however, as there is an interesting exploration of his neglect of his first wife and family.

The absence of politics becomes evident early on in the film when Mandela is recruited to the ANC by Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and others in 1944. There is no mention that this group - known as the ANC Youth League - actually represented a significant power shift within the organisation, away from the tried and failed strategy of the original ANC formed in 1912. Sisulu and the others wanted a more militant strategy of confrontation with the racist regime, in opposition to the piecemeal reformism of the party hierarchy at that time. There is also no mention in the film - unsurprisingly - of the role of the South African Communist Party, which was virtually indistinguishable  from the ANC from this point onward. The bus boycott in 1950 which - according to the film - first brought Mandela to public attention was actually the initiative of the SACP, and was originally opposed by Mandela.

He eventually welcomed the political influence of the Communist Party but that also meant accepting their two-stage analysis of the revolutionary process in South Africa - ational liberation must be achieved first, then mobilise on socialist activity. The flaws in this strategy are the starting point for understanding the shortcomings of the ANC governments that Mandela would ultimately bring to power.



The shockwaves initiated by the 1960 Sharpeville massacre are graphically dramatised but, again, the political context is overlooked. Mandela's ANC was at that point starting to be overtaken in terms of militancy and credibility by Robert Sobukwe's Pan Africanist Congress. It was the PAC that called for the public burning of the hated pass cards at Sharpeville police station and it was their supporters who bore the brunt of police savagery.

The best scenes in the film portray the events of a few years later when Mandela and his colleagues are incarcerated on Robben Island. Mandela's incredible resilience and will to win are powerfully conveyed by Idris Elba in the title role. The inhumanity of the apartheid regime is starkly illustrated by their refusal to let Mandela attend the funerals of his mother and eldest son, who both died while he was imprisoned.

Elba captures Mandela's undoubted charisma and unquenchable spirit throughout the film, but particularly in this pivotal section. Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela also delivers an impressive performance,conveying the impact of repeated incarceration and mistreatment on her personality.

In the mid-seventies the dynamic of the anti-apartheid resistance was transformed once more by a political movement within South Africa dissatisfied by the politics of the ANC. The Soweto revolt of 1976 was inspired by the Black Consciousness Movement, a student-led initiative that felt the ANC represented the failed strategy of a previous generation. The film acknowledges this ideological clash in a confrontation between Mandela and a BCM activist on Robben Island but inevitably the activist is ultimately seen to bow to his elder's greater wisdom and maturity.

The late seventies also witnessed the toppling of colonial regimes in neighbouring Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe by national liberation movements. The critical role these events played in closing the net around the apartheid state are not referred to in the film.

Trade unions

Most critically from a socialist viewpoint is the failure to take on board the seismic impact of the rise of the black South African trade unions in the 1980s. Trade union membership trebled in the first half of the decade and it was the militancy and politicisation of the black working class that finally forced De Klerk and his acolytes to the negotiating table.

Unfortunately, like the SACP, PAC and BCM, workers' organisations such as Cosatu are eclipsed in the movie by the exclusive focus on Mandela. He is rightfully shown as taking a key role in the endgame talks with the regime in 1989-90. However, the initiative for this process came from the trade union-inspired township revolt of the mid-eighties and also the shrewdness of elements of the ruling class who perceived abolishing apartheid with ANC approval was the best way to preserve South African capitalism.

This absence of ideological perspective is probably to be expected but the concluding effect of the film is to produce a sanitised and depoliticised Mandela that does not help us comprehend his massive impact. The apolitical Mandela in the film is the one neoliberal warmongerers like Blair, Bush and Obama are happy to eulogise. The real reason he remains such a titanic figure is because he personifies the notion of struggling against seemingly impossible odds. Mandela was undeniably a great man but we still await a great film about him.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Sociology at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters


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