South Africans on Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Milton Nkosi speaks to members of the public at a cinema in Johannesburg

South Africans are flocking to the cinemas to watch a film about their former President, Nelson Mandela. The movie Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, starring British actor Idris Elba, is based on the former political prisoner's autobiography of the same title and seems to be hitting the right notes.

I went to watch the epic 146-minute film in one of Johannesburg's busiest economic hubs, Rosebank, and I found very few critics of the film among the general public.

Almost everyone I spoke to expressed their pleasant surprise at how well the film came across. A big thumbs-up for the lead actor, given that he is not South African, let alone not being Xhosa, Mr Mandela's tribe. Some sang Elba's praises because they felt that he got the accent right - not exactly like Mr Mandela, but close enough.

Part of the legacy of the apartheid system is that two decades since the introduction of democracy, the minds of South Africans are still very much defined along racial lines. So inevitably I must tell you what the white people thought and what the black majority said.

Mandela's key dates

  • 1918: Born in the Eastern Cape
  • 1944: Joins African National Congress
  • 1962: Arrested, convicted of sabotage, sentenced to five years in prison
  • 1964: Charged again, sentenced to life
  • 1990: Freed from prison
  • 1993: Wins Nobel Peace Prize
  • 1994: Elected president
  • 1999: Steps down as leader
  • 2004: Retires from public life
  • 2010: Appears at football World Cup

In 1994, no-one thought we would still be talking about the colour of our skins in 2013 - especially considering the fact that we are just reviewing a film. However, that's the reality of today's South Africa.

Take Karabo Nkabinde, a teenage girl who can be best described as a born-free - the label attached to those who were born after the country was liberated from racial oppression and Nelson Mandela was elected president in the country's first multi-racial election.

Clad in a fashionable small black hat and thick-framed spectacles, she told me that she had loved the film because it reminded her of the sacrifices Mr Mandela had endured.

"He's actually been through a lot for us South Africans… for the youth and it is our job to make him proud," she said.

Her friend Kgomotso Maloka, wearing a glamorous maroon lip gloss, said that she was pleased that, as a young black person, she could watch a film about Mr Mandela in a climate of peace where both black and white lived together in harmony.

"My favourite part was the ending, when he got freed and so did everybody else. Freed from fear and from the past! The movie is very touching and it could get you crying!" she said.

I then met a young white couple just as they walked out from Cinema One at Rosebank's Ster Kinekor movie house holding hands. The man told me that he thought it was a very moving film which reminded him both of the liberation struggle and that there was still a long way to go to redress the imbalance of the past. They were shy to reveal their names.

After watching the film myself, I thought it was hard to squeeze such a rich life - including a 27-year prison sentence - into two hours without leaving out some key historical moments. And given that challenge, the film, in my view, captured the spirit of the man and his people in their desire to free themselves from the shackles of a brutal racist system.

While clearly the film was about Mandela the man, it also left me with a sense of the struggle of an entire people. When I asked a middle-aged white lady what she thought about the portrayal of the cigarette-smoking white men who ran the country under apartheid, she told me: "They were adequately portrayed, just as they were."

Box-office records

I personally thought the death of Chris Hani ought to have been marked, even if it meant doing it with one single frame. I mention Chris Hani because his assassination on that fateful Saturday morning on 10 April 1993 delivered what is today celebrated as the nation's biggest public holiday - Freedom Day on 27 April.

At the time of his death, Hani was the second most popular leader in the African National Congress after Nelson Mandela. He was shot by a Polish immigrant, Janusz Walus, in a killing ordered by right-wing politician Clive Derby-Lewis.

Nelson Mandela in a file photo from 2010 A film about an icon, but is it an iconic film?

They are both serving life sentences for killing Hani, with the sole purpose of starting a racial conflagration - something Mr Mandela prevented, and which was the primary reason he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

There were reports that, in some cinemas near Soweto, people took a day off work to watch the film. One cinema manager was quoted as saying that attendance was "unusually high".

The film has broken box-office records for a non-holiday movie in South Africa, opening at number one.

However, even though it is about a much-loved figure like Mr Mandela, there has been some sharp criticism of Anant Singh's production.

Writing in The Times, a national daily newspaper, Tymon Smith said: "If you want to really get to grips with the man though, you can do better by reading the books. One day someone will make a film that says something new and interesting about Mandela, but this is not that film and it seems a wasted opportunity rather than the fulfilment of a dream.

"It is also unfortunate that, because of all the power, money and influence behind it, all future films will have to struggle in its undeservedly long shadow."

So, clearly not everybody is singing from the same hymn sheet. However, even Smith agrees in part that the actors are a class act: "The film certainly looks as good as any other epic and you can see the money on the screen."

I should mention here the local cast of stars is also something that could not go unnoticed. Take the Walter Sisulu character, the man who recruited Nelson Mandela into the ANC, played by the talented Tony Kgoroge.

He was just brilliant alongside Elba and another British actor, Naomie Harris, who plays Winnie Mandela. And there are many other local talents like him in this biopic.

Considering that Mr Mandela is recuperating from a long illness at home just a few blocks away from the cinema, I was struck by the reality of it all. We have become accustomed to watching big Hollywood blockbusters on our local screens and listening to stories about others, so how refreshing it is to see characters of the very people I had drinks with just a week ago.

This story is not just about Mr Mandela but is a story of the people through the life of one man.

That's what I take away from it. And with the current levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment which are in essence the legacy of apartheid, the story of the people continues where the film ends.

More on This Story

Mandela health crisis

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Africa stories

RSS

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.