The documentary A New Country by Sifiso Khanyile opens with a quote from poet laureate, Keorapetse 'Bra Willie' Kgositsile. "The present is a dangerous place to live. Beware of dreams." This reflection haunts every scene and interview in this hour-long production.
This visual document features Masello Motana, Bev Ditsie, Ncebakazi Manzi, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi and other prolific activists and cultural workers of our time. Through these varied characters, Khanyile looks at South Africa's transition amid unmatched jubilation at the site of 'democracy' that many attribute to the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990.
Add to that, there was a Rugby World Cup victory in 1995, which functioned as a major distraction that the former president & co exploited to full effect. The African Cup of Nations victory in 1996 saw South Africa continue to claim small victories and tell many lies – to rearrange Amilcar Cabral's famous quote.
In many ways, the documentary is a tonic that functions like a greasy breakfast the morning after a night of heavy drinking. When in the throes of a bad babalas, the oily contents of a big meal help bring about clarity and a gradual return to reality as the shaky picture begins to become clearer and steadier.
Khanyile had clarity on the story he wanted to tell and chose his cast of contributors and commentators very carefully. His choice and usage of archive materials were equally curated and designed to tell a particular story. While the assumption may be that we have seen this story a thousand times, it is important to hear it from a generation that is living through the decisions made in Kempton Park, back in 1993/4.
Significant in content and form, was the omission of ‘struggle heroes’ from this documentary which added another layer and almost suggests that hey, “it is what is”, as it avoids the well tested, “Mandela sold us out”, narrative that often leads to generational tiffs.
The implication is that their generation were impatient and yielded to the whims of our oppressors – but heck, they did what they could. So what is to be done? We are confronted with a new dawn of fresh hell – how do we confront our current existence that keeps white people at the top and black people at the bottom?
A New Country also points to the seldom documented recommendations from the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. For instance, the film states that "in 2003 President Thabo Mbeki announced that once-off payments of R30,000 would be made to victims of Apartheid. The TRC recommended that a pay-out of R21,000 per year for each individual for six years. The pay-out of R571.5 million is far below the R3-billion pay-out recommended by the TRC. President Thabo Mbeki rejected a TRC recommendation to levy a wealth tax on South African big business to help pay reparations".
Now amid a global pandemic, much of the nightmare that is South Africa continues unabated and is further exacerbated by new dawn politicians who rummaged through funds meant for people severely affected by the hard lockdown. This becomes our existential dilemma – the oppressed becoming the oppressor.
We remain a country on the brink and the so-called miracle of '94 seems very critical and unstable. At the end of the film, Bra Willie reminds us that, the temptation to be forlorn and discordant is highly attractive, but we cannot afford to. "Though the present remains a dangerous place to live, cynicism would be a reckless luxury." Aluta Continua!
- A New Country is available to stream on Showmax