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February 17, 2004

Film examines effects of apartheid struggle

The Human Rights Program, in conjunction with the Humanities Division and the Film Studies Center, hosted its third event in an ongoing film series Sunday evening. The film, When the War Is Over, depicted the African struggle against apartheid, expressed through the day-to-day traumas of survivors from the Bonteheuwel Military Wing (BMW), a militant teenage self-defense unit from the mid-1980s and a guerrilla branch of the ANC.

Originally presented at the 2002 film festival for Human Rights Watch, the filmmaker Francois Verster presents a vivid, compelling, and effectively disturbing depiction of life in Bonteheuwel. Focusing on two ex-activists, Gori and Marlon, this documentary reveals the scars left among what has become the country's "lost generation." Gori was an army captain, Marlon a gang member. What both have in common is the problem of continuing their lives after apartheid. Following a childhood and adolescence of racial, political, and cultural struggle, how are they, like many others, to recover from a war which has left the country entrenched in civil strife?

The film opens with a fleeting montage of crowds protesting and rioting in the streets of South Africa for a long-awaited justice paid for by the lives of innocents. Scenes of Nelson Mandela encouraging a whole nation to transform an inhumane political machine epitomize the passion of the youth who must now face a new war of social conflicts.

The film shows the difference in the daily lives of these two men as they try to find sense, and a meaningful peace, in the ruthless polarization of social forces which dominate a class-based reality. As a member of the armed forces, Gori must now fight and monitor the very people with whom he formerly fought against apartheid. His friend Marlon, however—now a gangster—tries to make amends for the violence he has associated himself with, eventually leading to the deaths of many of his family members, including his baby sister, Natalie Adams.

By focusing on the dichotomy of the lives of these two individuals, the films exposes how, in the wake of apartheid, social upheaval has taken a different, and in many ways, detrimental turn. The youth who ardently struggled for freedom have since turned to gangs and collective violence in local neighborhoods, creating a new battle for domestic security against street crime and gang wars. "Killing an enemy is nothing here. I would just do it, go home and sleep peacefully," says Marlon.

After the death of Marlon's sister, Gori admits that during apartheid, "We lived in war, but we lived better than we are living now in our own country."

By the end of the film, efforts at peace talks between rival gangs have stopped and eleven of the featured gang members have been killed, leaving one lingering question at the forefront: what now? What about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? What happened to the struggle for human rights?

After the film, a question and answer session was led by leading scholar and activist, Prexy Nesbitt. Nesbitt was appointed by the president of Mozambique in 1987 to act as a special representative to the United States, Canada, and Europe. He was active in the United States, Europe, and Africa and worked to end colonialism in Mozambique, Southwest Africa, and the territory formerly known as Rhodesia. He was also instrumental in ending apartheid in South Africa. During this time, he worked directly with the African National Congress (ANC) and other liberation movements in the Southern African region and has written a history of America's involvement in the apartheid state: Apartheid in Our Living Rooms (1986).

In addressing the conflicts presented by the film, Nesbitt noted that during the rebellion against apartheid, "the armed forces never thought the fight would come to fruition. It was more so a kind of armed propaganda or armed politics."

The domestic violence South Africa is seeing today was not initially anticipated after an era marked with gross human rights violations. Nesbitt explained that the obstacles preventing a lasting peace outline a primacy of political struggle more than anything else. He added that it was the political pressure from the international community that finally achieved Mandela's release from prison as well as the nation's first post-apartheid elections (held ten years ago this April). Now the political pressure endured by the current presidency (with problems of foreign investment, land redistribution, and lack of capital) halts the progress of peacekeeping and reconciliation.

The youth who fought and died for a liberated new South Africa are frustrated. After years of bloodshed and oppression, they have yet to see the country at peace, now facing between factions of their own community and the highest growing rate of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the world.

Nesbitt concluded that South Africa must work toward a de-racialization of its citizens, and that the efforts of civics in the country (along with constituent non-governmental organizations) have continued to carry the force behind human rights advocacy and any of its progressive success.

Organizations such as Africa Action, the American Friends Service Committee, the "Africa Initiative," and the informational source AllAfrica.com provide means of getting involved with the struggle for human rights in South Africa. Later this month, the Human Rights Film Series will cover films concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the February genocide in Rwanda.