amandla! (2003)


director: lee hirsch

In one scene from Lee Hirsch’s documentary Amandla!, trumpeter Hugh Masekela recalls jazz giant Dizzy Gillespie asking him if he can join his country’s revolution. Despite the criminal apartheid regime, it still looked like to Gillespie that South African blacks were having a lot of fun, singing and dancing in the face of bullets and tear gas.

It quickly becomes obvious that, despite the singing and dancing, the songs and dances of South Africa were as serious as death. The first scene of the film is in a pauper’s graveyard, where the remains of Vuyisile Mini, a popular musician dead since the beginning of the apartheid regime in 1948, are being exhumed.

Mini, who wrote a fantastically popular song criticizing President Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, was hung by the government for withholding information on resistance leaders. Mini is the ghost that hovers over the film, the father of South African “freedom songs”, which were the rallying cry of the long struggle against apartheid.

Hirsch switches from interviews to concert footage to archival material with restless ease, always coming back to key voices in the story, like Masekela, singer Miriam Makeba, and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, all of whom were forced to live in exile for decades. South African activists and musicians, many of whom spent time in jail for their activities, are seen onscreen excitedly arguing about the origin of key songs and chants, performing the powerful, often slyly humourous numbers for each other.

With apartheid gone, it’s tempting to forget about this monstrous violation of human rights, but Amandla! (the Xhosa word for “power”) brings the whole half-century struggle vividly back to life. The film ends on a triumphant note, with former prisoners in government and the rebels in charge, but ignores the burgeoning crime and political and economic turmoil of South Africa today, where the ruling party tacitly supports the brutal regime of Robert Mugabe in neighbouring Zimbabwe out of some misguided notion of African “solidarity”, the bitterly ironic spectacle of Nelson Mandela's once-righteous ANC supporting a murderous dictator. The greatest crime of apartheid, in the end, is that it held South Africa - and Africa itself - in suspended animation, resentfully addicted to its victim status, postponing real political stability for another half century.