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27 October 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 4:07am

LFF #8 — Behind the Rainbow

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

By Daniel Trilling

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.)

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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.

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