1. What inspired the film and how did you come across the subject matter?

Christopher Nizza (co-director) and I read an article in 2007 that was the trigger for the film. (‘The Struggle is a School’ by Richard Pithouse). The article was beautifully written, and described the birth of a new social movement led by people living in shacks in Durban. I was immediately struck by the philosophy of the shack dwellers. They weren’t only talking about what is wrong with South Africa, but they were also articulating a profound vision of what the world could be, how we could build a society based on respect, where everyone counts. It sounds utopian but they are very practical about it. They call it ‘living politics’. It’s about treating people with respect, providing the things – water, electricity, toilets – that everyone needs to live a decent life. It’s about the government consulting with people, rather than evicting them and leaving them homeless.

We visited the movement in 2007 and they were just starting to resist evictions, which were happening all over Durban (and the rest of the country). The evictions, in almost every case were illegal and violated the constitution. We witnessed a young girl whose shack had been destroyed by municipal workers just an hour before. We also began to note that young people were rising into leading roles within the movement. Many of them were too young to remember the glorious day when Nelson Mandela walked free in 1990. They were passionate and compelling – not a ‘lost generation’ at all. We couldn’t walk away – we knew we had to make the film.

2. Why did you call the film ‘Dear Mandela’?

On our first shoot, Mazwi, who was 16 and in high school at the time, told us that he wished Mandela could come and see how they were living (in shacks). If he could just see how they were living, surely he would do something about it. There was such an innocence to this statement. We did hear stories from many others in Mazwi’s generation about writing letters to Madiba, pleading for him to visit their homes so he could see that the ‘better life for all’ was not happening for them or most people they knew.

Mandela is fading from public view. What he fought for is far from being realized, and many people feel betrayed by broken promises. When we were filming, Mandela’s image cropped up often. Some people who lived in shacks had pasted tattered photos of him up on their wall. We also saw Mandela’s photo in classrooms and businesses, and we started filming these images. Mandela, in a way, was watching down on us, and on the people we were filming. Would he be happy? Proud? Disappointed? It was an interesting, and sometimes haunting way to explore the legacy of Mandela and those who were the architects of our fledgling democracy. We couldn’t interview Mandela, but his spirit was there. There is no actual letter to Mandela in the film, but it’s a reminder that they didn’t just fight for the right to vote, but for a much broader and more radical vision of a just society.

3. What has happened to Zama, Mazwi and Mnikelo since the film was finished?

Zama has found work and has thankfully been able to return to her university studies. However, Kennedy Road has had many shack fires since the film was finished, and Zama’s shack burned down last year. All the kids’ school uniforms were destroyed and the kids weren’t allowed to go to school without uniforms. We were able to help her replace the school uniforms, but it was a devastating blow for her and the hundreds of others who lost everything in the fires. We hope to use the film to call for urgent provision of electricity to the shacks so that people won’t have to use candles and paraffin stoves.

Mazwi is still at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, studying politics, and he continues to be very active in the movement. We have very high hopes for him!

Mnikelo is still living in a shack in Foreman Road, and is still at the forefront of the movement, currently focused on the Right to Know campaign, a coalition of social movements and NGOs working to support freedom of the press in South Africa. Mnikelo was recently awarded the top prize, the Golden Butterfly Award, for his courageous activism, at the Movies That Matter festival in The Hague.

4. How is the Abahlali movement doing? Were they able to recover from the attacks?

In the aftermath of the attacks on AbM members at Kennedy Road in 2009, the prosecution of 12 AbM members, alleged to have been involved in the violent attacks, began. The trial was dubbed the “Kennedy 12 trial”, and from the start it was clear that it was politically motivated, with the accused being denied bail for months and very little evidence being presented by the police. Numerous requests by AbM for an independent investigation into the attacks were ignored. At the trial, one of the witnesses admitted that the police had told the witnesses what to say, and that the police admitted that the attacks had been arranged by the ANC.

On 18 July 2011, the “Kennedy 12” were acquitted of all charges in the Durban Regional Court. Magistrate Sharon Marks dismissed all of the charges against the activists after she labelled the state’s witnesses “belligerent”, “unreliable” and “dishonest”. She found that while there was no doubt that violence had taken place at Kennedy Road, there was no evidence that the AbM activists had been responsible. She expressed concern that police identity parade witnesses had been coached to point out members of a dance group closely associated with AbM – rather than anyone who had been seen perpetrating any of the violence. According to Jackie Dugard, executive director of SERI – who represented the “Kennedy 12” and provided legal counsel in the criminal trial - “it has been clear for some time that the Kennedy Road accused were charged not because they had done anything wrong, but because they were associated with AbM. Today’s verdict is a complete vindication of AbM.”

S’bu Zikode still has not been able to return to Kennedy Road. Him and his family have endured a very hard time. This is a huge sacrifice – he is a courageous community leader and it is a tragedy that he has to jump from place to place, without a proper home. Hundreds of people have still not been able to return to Kennedy Road because they don’t feel safe. The police don’t seem to care. There still has not been any justice for the killings at Kennedy Road in September 2009. Abahlali continues to call for an Independent Commission of Inquiry to find out what really happened that night, but the government has not responded to the calls.

5. Has the film been shown in South Africa? What has the response been?

The film has been shown extensively in South Africa, at festivals, universities, in community halls and in the slums. Lots of people are using it - including the lawyers who you saw in the film. It's also been shown on television across Africa - the satellite broadcaster M-net has bought the rights for the next year and a half, and are showing it often. The response from ordinary people has been amazing. During the first broadcast, it was the #2 trending topic on Twitter. We've had great press coverage in the newspapers and on the biggest morning talk show. People say that the film has opened their eyes to what is happening right around the corner from them, they quote lines from the film, and say that Mazwi, Zama and Mnikelo are their heroes. The film seems to especially resonate with young people, which is what we had always hoped for.

6. Has the government responded to the film? Has Mandela seen it?

We haven't had any official response from the government. We'd delivered a DVD to the Mayor of Durban, and word on the street is that he's watched it. Amnesty International in South Africa is working with us to organize community screenings over the next few years, and we hope to identify sympathetic people from the Department of Housing who might be willing to host screenings. Mandela has firmly asked that no-one request interviews from him, and we respect that (which is why we didn't approach him to be in the film). We have invited the Nelson Mandela Foundation to screenings of the film but so far they haven't been able to attend - we'd love to work with them, so we're holding thumbs that they will be open to the message of the film.

7. What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

The biggest challenge was earning the trust of the community we wanted to film with. When we first met members of Abahlali baseMjondolo (Zulu for ‘people of the shacks’) at their headquarters in the Kennedy Road informal settlement in Durban, they grilled us for hours about who we were, what we wanted to do, why we wanted to do it. There were illiterate gogos, and lively teenagers. The meeting was conducted in Zulu, with English translations. Then they sent us away, and we went back to our hotel room. In our absence, they voted on whether or not to grant us access. A few hours later, we got an SMS that said we could come back – with our cameras! We were very relieved and excited to be entrusted with their story. I love that the process was so democratic – it wasn’t up to one leader, but it was a decision that was made collectively.

We proceeded with filming very slowly, and tried to understand what daily life in the settlements was like, and what the movement was trying to achieve. Halfway through production, at a meeting we were filming late at night, the settlement was attacked by a mysterious armed mob and we had to run for our lives. The next few days were terrifying – the leader of the movement, S’bu Zikode, was receiving death threats, and the shacks of all the movement’s leaders were demolished. Thousands of people were fleeing the settlement with only what they could carry. We had the only car around, and we helped people escape. We felt a responsibility to bear witness to what was happening. Going through a near-death experience with them really cemented our relationship, and it’s gone beyond a typical filmmaker / subject relationship. I know we’ll be involved in each others’ lives for a long time to come.

Another huge challenge was raising the funding for the film. We had zero budget, but luckily we had editing and camera skills so we could do a lot of the work ourselves. Plus our super-talented friends Matthew Peterson, a professional Director of Photography, and Tina Brown, a Producer agreed to work for free. ‘Will work for Nando’s’ was our motto! Ultimately, the film just had to get made. Many, many people including Neil Brandt, our fantastic co-producer, helped us along the way and although it took a lot longer than planned, it eventually got done.