Perhaps unintentionally, Justin Chadwick’s biopic, Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom incites debate regarding the life and politics of both Nelson and his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, reopening controversy surrounding the African National Congress’s (ANC) political manifestos.
Chadwick covers the key moments of apartheid, showing the oppression that black South Africans faced daily – at best subjected to the inferior address of ‘boy’ and, at worst, brutally killed, as in the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. Intensifying the perpetual resentment black South Africans felt towards the regime, the massacre signalled a turning point for the ANC, a previously non-violent movement. With the increasingly evident notion of a ‘land ruled by the gun’, the ANC faced critical questions: to submit or to fight? And to what extent would they use violence to fight the opposition? These deliberations formed the core of the opposing tactics employed by Nelson and Winnie in their quest for change.
The discussion of duty is instigated through the presentation of Mandela’s tribe, the Xhosa’s ideas surrounding the tenets manhood as ‘the child runs but duty waits for him’. Mandela’s duty lay with his nation and his people, demonstrated in his use of both lawful and armed measures of protest against the racist regime. However, his own mother’s words, ‘When you are in prison, who will do your duties as a man?,’ show a man who has relinquished his duties as a father and a husband in the name of the greater good of society.
As the film charts Mandela’s trial and subsequent sentence of life imprisonment on Robben Island, we see his transition from a young, passionate militant prepared to die for a free South Africa, to an aging prisoner far removed from the frontlines of South Africa’s racial battle. His physical presence no longer imposing the same political force, Mandela depended on his skill as an orator, highlighting the difference between his and Winnie’s approaches. Whilst Mandela embraced and forgave his oppressors, Winnie’s animosity is far more ingrained.
Whilst Winnie believed that he had ‘betrayed’ his people, Mandela understood that there was ‘no other way than peace’. Chadwick references Winnie’s endorsement of the practice of ‘necklacing’ and reminds us of her incriminating 1986 speech in Munsieville: ‘with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.’ However this horrific controversy is only briefly addressed, as rather than delving into the personalities of our protagonists, the film portrays them in an already illuminated light.
Ultimately, despite Chadwick’s conventional portrayal of the national struggle, there is a clear message that resonates throughout the film – forgiveness. The pathway to success is not war but democracy. Forgiveness has a direct correlation with hatred as, without mercy, progress towards an improved society is hindered. Without Mandela’s quietly resilient attitude, the stability of South Africa today could be greatly questioned. Undeterred by his strife, Mandela sacrificed his life for the nation in his ‘long walk to freedom’, paving the way of independence for all his fellow black South Africans.