Saturday, February 20, 2010

Power Plays: Behind the Rainbow

Recently, South African President Jacob Zuma confirmed media reports he had fathered a “love child” with the daughter of a prominent supporter. It was another controversial chapter in Zuma’s dramatic career, having been elected to the presidency following his acquittal on a rape charge and the conviction of his close financial advisor for fraud and corruption. How South Africa’s ostensive democracy went from Nelson Mandela to Jacob Zuma is explained step-by-step in Jihan El-Tahri’s documentary Behind the Rainbow (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday on PBS’s Independent Lens.

There is no question Rainbow presents post-Apartheid South African history through the prism of leftist ideology, explicitly advocating socialist redistribution and a large-scale welfare state. However, if you watch the film solely for its insider accounts of the political shenanigans within the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), it is quite fascinating for us political junkies.

Right from the start, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma were perceived as potential rivals to succeed President Mandela. Drastically different in temperament, Mbeki and Zuma had a long association since 1975 when they shared a prison cell in Swaziland. At the time, they also largely held the same political positions. Indeed, many of Rainbow’s commentators concede they could not explain any substantive policy differences between the two men, even when Zuma emerged as then President Mbeki’s chief nemesis and standard bearer of the ANC’s radical wing.

Perhaps because El-Tahri is so steeped in the left (having previous directed a documentary celebrating Castro’s African adventurism), she was able to get so many ANC loyalists to talk frankly on-camera about the behind-the-scenes power plays that threatened to fracture the party’s unified public front. Still, Rainbow’s ideological blinders screen the ANC and their allies in the South African Communist Party from any direct criticism.

Such biases also lead to some odd moments for less radicalized audiences. For instance, Zuma’s use of the ANC fight song “Give me My Machine Gun” as his campaign theme is presented simply as a shrewd appeal to revolutionary nostalgia. It also seems oblivious to the irony that Mosiuoa Lekota, the leading dissident moderate to leave the party, is nicknamed “terror” (reportedly for his style of play on the football field.) However, late in the film, political scientist Achille Mbembe gives a blunt assessment of South Africa’s effective one party rule, stating: “a democratic victory for South Africa will happen the day the ANC faces the threat of losing the elections.”

Most of the time when the American media addresses South Africa, it is in shallow, predictably inspiring films like Invictus. Even with its ample biases, Rainbow acts as a corrective, underscoring the rough-and-tumble realities of politics are the same in Pretoria and Cape Town as they are in Chicago and New Jersey. It airs Tuesday (2/23) as the current season of Independent Lens continues on PBS. As they say, check local listings for exact broadcast times.