Marikana Changed My Life: Rehad Desai Storyteller Activist
August is the first anniversary of the launch of The Journalist. It is also a time when we remember the tragedy of the Marikana massacre. As part of our launch coverage we conducted an interview with the Director of Miners Shot Down, Rehad Desai. This week amid protests and commemorations at home and abroad, we revisit a conversation that still resonates.
Journalists and filmmakers position themselves in the grand sweep of events writing, shooting, recording, churning out the clichéd ‘first draft’ of history. Rehad Desai takes up his position on the media frontline with a stand that is so far removed from the traditional requirements of balanced storytelling that it almost demands a new nomenclature.
And, the tagline of Rehad Desai’s film, an anatomy of the Marikana massacre, hints at his own state of mind; “South Africa will never be the same again.”
The first time I meet Rehad Desai he is in exile in Zimbabwe in the Eighties. We dance exuberantly at a party that celebrates a very successful anti apartheid conference in Harare. The police knock on the door because we are disturbing the middle class Sunday afternoon peace in tree-lined Meyrick Park. Soon the police joined the party, sucked into a whirlpool of exile angst masquerading as joy.
Everyone calls him ‘Hardy’. They talk about how different he is compared with his father the PAC lawyer Barney Desai. He is in his mid 20’s, much younger than everyone else and makes it clear that he is not available for struggle chitchat. The hostess Mercia, a Capetonian in exile says; “He’s a party animal. Nothing like his dad.”
These days nobody calls him Hardy anymore and the inevitable comparisons with his father have long since disappeared. With a string of films that prick the collective social conscience under his belt and having developed a major annual documentary conference cum festival, the nickname just won’t fit. But what remains is his determination to disturb middle class peace.
His film Miners Shot Down is forensic storytelling at its best. He unpicks the Marikana story like a scientist delving into a complex sub atomic world. Then he comes to a bold, almost unpalatable conclusion. This was premeditated murder. But it is not so much Rehad Desai’s skills as a virtuoso filmmaker that stay with me long after the lights have gone on in the cinema. I want to know more about his motives. He makes movies that throw the old fashioned notions of impartial storytelling so far out of the window that I wonder where he is headed. Where he is coming from as the idiom goes.
“I grew up in the movement. My father was in the PAC but most of his friends were in the ANC. I grew up around Alex Laguma, Yusuf Dadoo and such giants. People had a lot of time for me because I was Barney’s son. I was a critical supporter of the ANC. Never joining because I was a socialist. To think they could kill people in such a calculated and brutal manner. And seeing what’s being called the embedded journalism that followed the massacre I knew we had to do something. It wasn’t enough to just make a film.”
We are sitting outside Community House, the unions’ HQ in Cape Town. Inside the hall is filled with workers of all ages who are watching Miners Shot Down. Rehad sits on the edge of a flower bed, smoking and talking into the warm autumn evening about the passions that drive him to make films. While I have struggled awkwardly with tags like “advocacy journalism” at some point during my career, Rehad goes straight for the P word.
“I would be quite happy for want of a better word to be doing propaganda films for the municipalities in the next local elections. As you know film is expensive but it is a very powerful tool. We are going to need our own media.”
Rehad’s trajectory as a young man growing up, mostly in exile, is simple. After schooling in North London he studied history, politics and economics at various universities, with a Masters from Wits University in 1997.
“I was a full blooded activist until about 1997. Then I fell into film and that absorbed me. One of the first pieces I did was on the Communist party. I was getting very depressed about the future of the planet and climate change. I was ten years out. I came briefly back in… I was getting disturbed psychologically by the War on Terror following 2011.”
He brushes over this section of his life with half sentences and you sense the pain of a long lasting depression. I recall seeing Rehad during the time he describes as being being ‘out’. It is a time when Rockey Street in Johannesburg is the unofficial HQ of the left and freedom is an endless round of parties. Looking back it seems a whole nation was ‘out’ in one way or another. But after the decade of struggling with depression he founded Uhuru Productions that boasts many documentary titles including a searing look at his family own history called Born Into Struggle.
A Call to Action
Journalism and film schools teach us to separate ourselves from the story and hold storytelling aloft. To remain untainted by the murky waters of involvement. Like a canoeist negotiating rapids with his small craft on his head. But not only does Rehad Desai paddle furiously he also gets out occasionally to become deeply embroiled in the business of his fellow travellers. So when the Ford Foundation gives him a development grant to do a film about mining he starts out with the intention of focusing on the Bafokeng nation and the rich platinum reserves. Determined to delve into the “mineral energy complex”.
“And then the platinum strike broke out.”
He says this with a tone that makes it sound like a call to action. A rallying cry. But while other filmmakers reach for their cameras Rehad employs a whole activists’ arsenal.
“I had to try and mobilise people to find out exactly what went on. To speak to as many miners as possible. I managed to convince a professor at the University of Johannesburg to get involved in this campaign. He sent a team of researchers up there. We started seeing very gruesome and unimaginable evidence of executions that happened at what is known as Scene 2.
“In 2013 I spent about two to three days a week up in a Rustenburg working with mineworkers trying to assist this union to find its feet. Being involved with those injured and arrested and with the workers’ committees that sprang up. It was a lot of mobilising and trying to work out how to use the resources we managed to raise and get people excited. A large section of the working class had broken away from the alliance. The most strategically important sectors of the economy. Those workers understood that very quickly.”
As we sit on the low brick wall under Salt River palm trees, the faint soundtrack of his film emanates from the hall close by. His face is lit up by the streetlights and also by the excitement of his role in these revolutionary, historic moments. But why not just tell the story, why go to such lengths to become involved?
“I have been described as do-it-yourself reformism. But I believe that workers are very rarely wrong. You need to listen to them and take their lead. I think the future of our society rests with them and their humility. The working poor are the most organised of South African society. We have to trust their impulses. When 150,000 go out on an unofficial strike you know that something is wrong and that they have lost faith. The ANC formalised a policy of Black Economic Empowerment first developed by the mining houses. It adopted that policy and now the policy has led to a bunch of tycoons who are capturing the ANC for their own purposes. The ANC is only going to renew itself and undergo the type of introspection that is required when it is in opposition. That is the only time it will be forced to look at why it has lost the faith of large and very important sections of our population.”
In the Sixties Rehad’s father Barney Desai loses faith in the ANC. He is a leading light in the Coloured People’s Congress (CPC) but after a bitter dispute with the ANC leadership – Barney accuses them of racism among other things – the CPC is disbanded. The charismatic Barney joins the PAC. Does Rehad have an axe to grind with the ANC?
“I have a massive axe to grind with the ANC I feel betrayed. If there’s one gripe I have it’s about this arrogance, this laager mentality and the authoritarianism. It has been slow and creeping but exposed itself really in 2012.”
So what happened two years ago to lay bare these feelings of betrayal that creep into his films? Mentally I am flicking through my textbooks trying to locate the ethics section. The 70’s journalism dogma that washed over me dictates that white people from foreign cultures occupy the moral high ground… a position to which we can aspire by espousing their values. I envy Rehad his lack of South African journalism school baggage. But his rationale for his full frontal attack style strides along a rocky road…
“The tone of the film is a tone of disappointment. A tone of being utterly disappointed in my heroes of yesteryear. I think that is the right tone because the ANC has a tremendous stature in many people’s eyes. A stature it deserves. It didn’t come by hook and by crook. It was earned by them being willing to coordinate mass struggles. That was what provided a beacon of hope for the future. A mobilised population intent on ensuring that its rights were met. But we were quickly demobilised, quickly stifled. We had a situation where organised workers were hermetically sealed off from communities. These people who are agitating the communities are labeled disruptionists, ultra leftists and so on. But trade unionists and community activists are unemployed and people are beginning to find one another. The big challenge we face now is being able to engage seriously with the youth movement.”
But when you engage by turning your camera into a weapon the counter attack is never far off. At COP 17, the landmark UN climate change conference in Durban in 2011, Rehad is making a movie and participating in a protest simultaneously. Young people whom he claims were hired to attack anti government protestors beat him up.
“They were told that there we were a group of anarchists who were intent on disrupting COP 17 and who wanted to show up the government. I know people from Durban who spoke with those youngsters and who knew how they were briefed. That’s the brief they got and they attacked us in the march. They thought we were Malema’s crowd or whatever. Inside during the consultations there were female comrades whose hair was being pulled. I was filming and I saw comrades getting roughed up. I told them to stop and I was attacked. I was attacked violently, viciously. But I didn’t want any of that to come into this film.”
More recently at a mineworkers’ rally in Marikana union officials hold him personally responsible for some of the tension between the supporters of the various unions. A support group he started is defined by their black t-shirts with red slogans that say; ‘Remember the slain of Marikana.’
“We were being called the black shirts. Word was out that the black shirts were chasing their (NUM and ANC) people away from the stadium. I didn’t know that the workers were going to use our t-shirts to identify themselves as the opposition. Then the march arrived. Blade Nzimande and Zwelinzima Vavi were there. I go up to Vavi. Now I’ve got the t-shirt on. I hug Vavi. First thing he’s got a f…g bulletproof vest on. I wear cotton trousers especially up there it’s hot as hell. I say listen it’s under control. There is not going to be any fighting. Blade is pointing his finger in my face: ‘Are you with us or against us. If you’re against us voertsek, voertsek!’. I just…”
There is a very long pause when I ask how he felt about being sworn at by ANC leadership. He puffs on his cigarette before supplying a response that is measured, given that he is stripped almost naked after being told to voertsek.
“I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe the violence. Vavi drives into the stadium in an armoured vehicle. Huge f…g boere beside him. He also has a bulletproof vest on. He gets out of this armoured vehicle with these two fat boere. Vested up side by side. Confronted with the manifestation of such levels of Stalinism. That they are the only force that can represent workers. The only genuine progressive force. There can only be one party. That was the harsh end of it. The stewards grabbed hold of me. My t-shirt was ripped off. My trousers were ripped off. I was there in my shorts and unprotected. It’s so ironic the police jumped in because they know me by now because we’ve been having a number of mobilisations around Marikana. I’ve now become a bit of a spokesperson for what’s going on. I am rescued by the police from my comrades.”
As I listen to Rehad recount the moments when he has come under attack, my mind goes back to a time in 1976 when a young reporter comes running into the class at the Argus journalism school. “My brother has just been detained, my brother has just been detained.” She is shouting at nobody in particular. Her blonde hair is flying, her face is flushed and her eyes shine with excitement. I cannot help but superimpose the account I am listening to onto that vivid mental image. It is as if the stories Rehad can now recount with voluminous smoke clouds and passion, are firmly reclaiming any struggle ground he might have lost by not being here in the 70’s and 80’s.
The Beginning of the End
He says that on that day in October, a couple of years ago at the ‘voertsek’ rally in the North West Province, he witnessed first hand the beginning of the end of “one monolithic movement”. It caught him by surprise.
“The workers marched into the stadium in numbers. I was walking behind them and I was seeing all these caps going up in the air. I thought this was a joyous thing at first. All these caps being thrown up. ANC, Cosatu party paraphernalia just being thrown everywhere and then the burning of the flags. They were demanding that people who came with NUM or ANC t-shirts take them off. That was a very, very tough moment for me to see…”
Why was it tough, I say when he trails off for a bit.
“I spent my life fighting for Cosatu. I worked for Cosatu. I was in Cosatu House for years. I’d never imagined seeing that. I had always hoped for a break from the ANC politically one day. But to see people burning the movement’s colours without any baggage… They just didn’t have any baggage because they were all young. So I felt a bit split. On the one hand, great. I felt liberated. But on the other hand f..k what am I watching here.”
And what were you watching?
“The beginning of the end of one monolithic movement. In hindsight that’s what’s happened. It energised me, it braced me. We’ve seen the beginnings of a generation of revolt. These workers, leaders at the forefront of the unofficial strikes, were all very young. They were never a part of NUM, never shed any blood for NUM or the ANC or Cosatu. It has changed my life. It’s the first time in South African history that the ANC have turned their guns on the people who voted them into office. I am not moving on until the day I see these people in court. I am not moving on until I see the ANC, the people in the ANC, whom I believe politically sanctioned these murders, out of office.”
Then we hear the scraping sounds of chairs being moved. Rehad rushes back into the hall. When the lights go up after the screening of his film at Community House it is clear that here and there people have been crying. A young woman standing close to a banner that calls for ‘Agrarian Reform for Food Sovereignty’, talks with a mixture of ‘solidarity’ rhetoric and raw emotion:
“Marikana didn’t happen because the ANC is in power. The fact is that nobody in parliament represents the interests of the workers. We are building a new movement. We are not excluding other processes. But what runs through all the processes is that we are gatvol.”
At the world premiere of the film in Cape Town there are many black t-shirts in the jam-packed convention centre hall. The speakers have to wait for the toyi-toyiing and slogans to die down. Rehad’s sister Zivia Desai-Kuiper introduces his film. She makes an appeal for funds for the Marikana Support Group.
“While it is not a campaign film, it is an excellent tool for the campaign for justice. Just like our struggle against apartheid this campaign requires international legs. Please stop at the campaign stall after the screening and please buy the t-shirts.”
Such a strong story so well told doesn’t really need filmmaker activists or does it? And what comes first disturbing the peace or storytelling? Is there a difference?
Rehad Desai’s film Miners Shot Down was the winner of the Vaclav Havel Jury Award at the World Human Rights Film Festival 2014.