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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Listening to recordings from the Antarctic, I felt I could hear the earth groan

The Science Hour on the BBC World Service.

A weekend of listening to the radio news ­revealed nothing but sounds of the sucker-punched going through their pockets in a panic and repeating, “I thought you had the keys.” So, never was talk of “a perfectly flat area of just whiteness” more alluring. The oldest Antarctic ice yet recorded was recently found. “For millions of years,” the presenter Roland Pease assured listeners  (25 June, 9am), “snow has been falling, snow on snow, all the while trapping bubbles of air and other chemical traces of climate . . . insights into the ice ages and warm periods of the past.” How was this ice located? “The finding part is pretty easy – you just go there and start shovelling, and ice comes up,” the lead geologist, Jaakko Putkonen, said.

There it was, buried under a layer of dirt “in barren wastelands” high in the middle of Antarctica. An “incredibly mountainous and remote and . . . quite hideous region, really”, Pease said, though it was sounding pretty good to me. The world dissolved into a single, depthless tone. Then Pease mentioned the surprising fizzing of this ancient ice – trapped air bubbles whooshing as they melt. Which is perhaps the thing you least expect about ice regions and ice caps and glaciers: the cacophony. Thuds and moans. Air that folds and refolds like the waving of gigantic flags. Iced water sleeping-dragonishly slurping and turning.

On Friday Greenpeace posted a video of the pianist Ludovico Einaudi giving a haunting performance on a floating platform to mark an imminent meeting of the OSPAR Commission, as it decided on a proposal to safeguard 10 per cent of the Arctic Ocean. Einaudi looked occasionally stunned by the groaning around him. A passing glacier popped and boomed like the armies of Mordor, ice calving from its side, causing mini-tsunamis. When last year I spent some time at the remote Eqi Glacier in Greenland, close to the ice cap, local people certainly spoke of the ice as if it were living: “It’s quiet today,” delivered as though gazing at the fractious contents of a Moses basket.

“This huge cake of ice, basically flat”, Putkonen said, perhaps longing for a moment of deep-space silence, for peaceful detachment. He wasn’t the only one being forced to reappraise a landscape very differently.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies