The giant fell. Today’s viewers of the 2016 South African documentary The Giant is Falling will be aware of this. Jacob Zuma resigned as South Africa’s President in February 2018 after unrelenting pressure from various citizen and political movements. However, with the benefit of hindsight/foresight, the film plays like a cautionary tale warning that the giant only fell. It wasn’t slain.
This documentary revisits some of the touchstone political events in South Africa’s history after the onset of democracy in 1994. It’s the dysfunctional love story of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) and black South Africa after overcoming the odds to tear down the banner of Apartheid. The ANC plays like the abusive partner and black South Africa, the loyal long-suffering better-half that has nothing but blood, sweat, tears and the promise of hope.
But the people have their limits. For the film’s directors, Rehad Desai and Jabulani Mzozo, the ship of heartbreak sailed a while ago. It’s now about taking control and finding a panacea to the pathological loyalty to the ANC. Part of this involves a dissection of where it all went wrong for one of Africa’s most iconic liberation movements. Inequality remains a curse black South Africans are afflicted by, made even worse by the fact this status quo is being overseen by their own kin.
In the years preceding the release of ‘The Giant is Falling’, the ANC’s popularity was pretty much in the drains. It took an unprecedented beating in the 2016 local elections amid fast sinking popularity in the polls. The party’s status as a near-anathema is pretty much embodied by the spectacle of Jacob Zuma being booed at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013. The disdain for the ANC’s leader was embarrassingly clear for the world to see. The only thing perhaps stronger and more embarrassing was Zuma’s stubbornness.
Some Ghanaians feel John Mahama turned Ghana’s presidency into a throne of damp straw but Zuma is a caricature of decadence and corruption straight from the most scathing of Armando Iannucci satires. ‘The Giant is Falling’ reminds us of the carousel of scandals that defined Zuma’s nine-year presidency and some of his life in politics; like the rape trial and his infamous shower comments to the renovation of his Nkandla estate using taxpayer funds, amid other profile corruption cases surrounding him and his friends.
The hierarchy of the ANC and government machinery stood behind their leader in farcical fashion, save for Julius Malema, who essentially sacked from the ANC and later formed his own political party, the rabid Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which looked determined to learn from the mistakes of the ANC whilst giving the angry youth and marginalised a political option to side with. Julius Malema comes off surprisingly well in the documentary. Rehad Desai doesn’t ignore the role Malema played in propping up Zuma but there is a sense the youth firebrand may be on the right side of this section of history.
Then again, jumping on the anti-Zuma bandwagon was basically scoring in an open goal. It proved so successful that in 2016 the other main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), and the EFF managed to push the ANC out of power in major cities like Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Pretoria.
The masses are certainly on the right side history for Desai. Noted as coming from a family of anti-apartheid roots, Desai singles out the harrowing August 16, 2012, Marikana Massacre as a pivotal moment in South African political history, a moment that worst of the Apartheid regime would covet. Over 30 miners protesting poor working conditions were gunned down by police with assault rifles. A further 78 were wounded. Like a chunk of this documentary, the narrative is accompanied by incredibly gripping visuals and we see stunning footage of the massacre and its morose aftermath.
For a social architecture in 2012 that resembled the Apartheid regime this much, the only way forward was to burn burn burn.
South Africa’s protest culture, probably unrivaled on the continent, is its sole saving grace. That the youth have been at the forefront of some of its biggest protests provides more tangible hope that the giant can be slain, unlike in other sub-Saharan countries with similar status quo. The seismic #FeesMustFall student movement showed that millennials viewed the ANC liberation movement almost as mere myth and a false vision. Desai himself even traces some of the current ills to the first ANC government and argues that the seeds for tumultuous contemporary South Africa were sowed by Nelson Mandela himself.
Desai’s documentary is expertly sourced with key politicians and insiders giving insight and perspective to the economic and political layers of post-Apartheid South Africa. You look close enough and it’s clear the writing was on the wall from day one.
The idea of the falling giant speaks to a certain optimism whilst cautioning of the task at hand. The youth understand the stakes and their power should frighten the establishment and inspire the dormant ones like myself who need to start yelling burn burn burn.
The giant fell. It wasn’t slain; not when the corporate interests lurking in the shadows continue to operate, contributing to the widening economic gap and deprivation of blacks in a mineral-rich country.
It’s why the central question of this documentary still rings true: how did it go so wrong? But we leave Desai’s documentary feeling like things have started to go right as the youth fly the banner that earnestly embodies the country’s liberation struggle.
Written by: Delali Adogla-Bessa
Images: Via official website