By Tola Ositelu
The trial of the century and that’s no lie.
French filmmakers Nicolas Champeaux and Gilles Porte’s documentary Le Procès Contre Nelson Mandela et les Autres (The State Against Nelson Mandela and Others) is an eye-witness account of one of the most notorious court hearings of the 20th Century. One that marked a turning point in one of the biggest anti-racism struggles and regime changes in modern history. It also began a decades-long campaign to release one of the world’s most revered statesmen and his brothers-in-arms. This is of course the story of Nelson Mandela’s infamous trial in Pretoria, South Africa for his role in militant anti-apartheid offensives. As part of his defence, Mandela gave an historic speech about his life-and-death struggle against institutionalised racism. His very own I have a dream… moment.
Thanks to the efforts of other ANC warriors such as Mandela’s late estranged wife Winnie, he became the face of a movement that involved myriad other lesser-known or unsung heroes willing to give their lives to the cause. The State… makes some effort to redress this historical imbalance, paying notable homage to Mandela’s late mentor Walter Sisulu. Five years after his death – and what would have been his 100th year – the stories of Madiba’s other comrades such as Ahmed ‘Kathy’ Kathrada, Denis Goldberg and Andrew Mlangeni (a few of whom have sadly passed on since filming) are now not so easily eclipsed. Although there is no footage of the Trial, thousands of hours of the nine-month procedure remain. To recreate the missing visuals, the filmmakers employ sinister charcoal-based animation, accompanied by excerpts of the original recordings. As well as interviews with Kathrada, Goldberg and the former Mrs Mandela, defence lawyers, erstwhile lovers and children of the once-accused provide more primary source evidence. In between their accounts are sanitised tourism promos of an all-European, exotic-looking South Africa; no doubt to appeal to wealthy Caucasians elsewhere. The backdrop to this seemingly innocuous footage is Nazi-sympathising, white supremacists in government determined to deny indigenous Africans of their basic human rights through their state-sanctioned henchmen. Mlangeni speaks matter of factly about managing to avoid death by asphyxiation through cunning whilst in custody.
Lest we forget, Champeaux and Porte’s film is a stark reminder of what the anti-apartheid campaigners were up against. During the trial the UN almost unanimously denounced Apartheid policy. There were heartening international displays of solidarity from trade unions and workers movements in Britain and Scandinavia. These factors no doubt increased the pressure on the South African judiciary to commute the men’s sentences from the anticipated gallows to life in prison.
50 plus years on from this momentous chapter in world history, the current political climate couldn’t be more discouraging at a glance. Supremacist and Right-wing demagogues hold the highest office across the globe. At the time of writing, a racist dictatorship-apologist has just won the Brazilian election.
The State… ends with the sobering, purposefully blurred image of Donald Trump’s inauguration. The surviving anti-Apartheid comrades look on mutely during what is meant to be a celebratory reunion meal.