LFF #8 -- Behind the Rainbow

From the London Film Festival: a brilliant investigation of South Africa since apartheid

Behind the Rainbow
dir: Jihan El-Tahri

I'll admit it: I wasn't sure how interesting a two-hour documentary on recent South African politics would be, but this really is a great film. Jihan El-Tahri's investigation of what's happened to South Africa since the end of apartheid captures one of those rare moments in a country's history when the hidden workings of power are suddenly exposed.

The film centres around the story of how Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, once close comrades in the underground anti-apartheid movement, became fierce rivals, the latter eventually unseating the former as president of South Africa. What El-Tahri emphasises, however, is just how much continuity there was between the regimes before and after apartheid: while F W De Klerk and his fellow National Party politicians stood down in 1994, many key posts in the civil service, the army, the judiciary and business remained in the hands of apartheid-era administrators. Meanwhile, the former ANC freedom fighters, who were once driven by revolutionary ideals, ensconced themselves as a new, multiracial technocracy.

Through interviews with most of the leading players, El-Tahri, a French-Egyptian director, builds a gripping, if depressingly familiar, narrative. Under the presidency of Nelson Mandela, followed by that of Mbeki, austerity measures to deal with the after-effects of sanctions meant that a programme to redistribute wealth and provide public services for all was shelved. At the same time, billions of rand were spent on buying weapons, with the excuse that these purchases would benefit the economy. (Those "benefits" in new jobs and investment never materialised.)

On the one hand, all these compromises helped South Africa avoid the bankruptcy and civil strife that hit Zimbabwe after independence. On the other, the majority of South Africans remained as poor as ever. After Zuma was sacked from the government amid allegations of corruption in 2005, many poor South Africans came to see him as a champion of their interests, even though he had been as much part of the elite as Mbeki was.

When South Africa plunged into turmoil last year around Zuma's fractious campaign to win control of the ANC (and subsequently the presidency), it was hard to shake the feeling that much of the western media saw this as a return to type for Africa: an atavistic resurgence of the violence that has plagued other countries on the continent. What El-Tahri patiently demonstrates here is that it was nothing of the sort.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Karen Bradley as Culture Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The most politically charged of the culture minister's responsibilities is overseeing the BBC, and to anyone who works for - or simply loves - the national broadcaster, Karen Bradley has one big point in her favour. She is not John Whittingdale. Her predecessor as culture secretary was notorious for his belief that the BBC was a wasteful, over-mighty organisation which needed to be curbed. And he would have had ample opportunity to do this: the BBC's Charter is due for renewal next year, and the licence fee is only fixed until 2017. 

In her previous job at the Home Office, Karen Bradley gained a reputation as a calm, low-key minister. It now seems likely that the charter renewal will be accomplished with fewer frothing editorials about "BBC bias" and more attention to the challenges facing the organisation as viewing patterns fragment and increasing numbers of viewers move online.

Of the rest of the job, the tourism part just got easier: with the pound so weak, it will be easier to attract visitors to Britain from abroad. And as for press regulation, there is no word strong enough to describe how long the grass is into which it has been kicked.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.