Mahlangu’s Moving Martyrdom

Adekeye Adebajo
Business Day, 15 May 2015
I recently watched the remarkable biopic Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu. Nearly a decade in the making, and directed by Mandla Dube – who had produced an earlier documentary and television series on Mahlangu – it is uncompromisingly South African in its casting, directing, and cinematography. The acting is superb, the film is beautifully shot, the dialogue is rich and interspersed with isiZulu, isiXhosa, and seSotho idioms, and the story of a remarkably courageous young man who gives up his life for the cause is well told in the tradition of the African griot. Dube interestingly sees Kalushi not as an anti-apartheid movie, but as a love story and coming-of-age tale.

Mahlangu is a 19-year old student and street hawker selling vegetables. He comes of age during the 1976 Soweto uprising which led to the death of at least 176 student protesters. Solomon is a jazz aficionado and avid reader who is gradually pushed to join the African National Congress’s (ANC) armed struggle in exile by an incident in which a white policeman beats him up and urinates on him. His political awakening, beliefs, and identity evolve gradually. He spent six months in a Mozambican refugee camp before receiving military training with Umkhonto we Sizwe at an ANC camp in Angola.

Solomon is superbly played with stoic reserve and quiet confidence by the impressive Thabo Rametsi who noted: “This is a real character: he grows, he is colourful and he is beautiful. … It is good for a South African to play a South African lead and tell our stories. … I hope this film sends a message that we can play our own roles and that we don’t need an Idris Elba, a Michael B Jordan or a Morgan Freeman.” Rametsi directly engages the long-running controversy of the presence of foreign stars (with Denzel Washington also playing Steve Biko, and Jennifer Hudson playing Winnie Mandela) which can bring box office success and attract greater funding and international audiences.

Two strong women are at the centre of Solomon’s life: his domestic worker single mother, Martha (ably played by Gcina Mhlope), and Mahlangu’s girlfriend, Brenda Viera (the indomitable Pearl Thusi). Brenda is a strong, gritty young activist who becomes visibly subdued as the reality of Mahlangu’s impending death hits home. Thabo Malema renders a superb performance as the trigger-happy Mondy Motloung, providing much of the best humour to relieve this tragic tale.

Solomon Mahlangu, Motloung, and George Mahlangu were involved in a botched operation on the way to join protests ahead of 16 June commemorations in Soweto in 1977, resulting in the death of two white civilians. Mahlangu and Motloung – who had actually killed the two civilians – were arrested, and Mahlangu was sentenced to death in March 1978 under the draconian apartheid-era legal principle of ‘common purpose’. Solomon was hanged a month later and secretly buried in Atteridgeville by a jittery racist regime that feared angry crowds at his political funeral. In a remarkable act of restitution, Mahlangu was reinterred in the Mamelodi Cemetery in April 1993 with a plaque memorialising his famous last words: “My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom.”

Sadly, I saw the film in an empty theatre of just seven people in Johannesburg’s Newtown Junction. Many South Africans have not come out to support this impressive piece of historiography, similar to the way that the 2005 film Tsotsi was only seen by large audiences after it had won an Oscar. Kalushi recently won best film at the Luxor African Film Festival, and is gaining widespread acclaim. It cost R28.7 million to make, and opened in 32 South African screens, which dropped to only 10 screens within six weeks, grossing just R2.9 million. Dube, however, has decided to take the film across the country to show in rural areas and townships, and other educational departments should follow KwaZulu-Natal’s lead of showing the movie in classrooms.

Today, Mahlangu is commemorated by a statue and a square bearing his name in Mamelodi; the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Tanzania; and a postage stamp. South Africa’s contemporary student movement – which has turned ‘Iyho uSolomon’, a song honouring Mahlangu, into an anthem of its struggle – forced the renaming of the Senate House at Wits University after Solomon. Kalushi is a remarkable commemoration of the martyrdom of a previously forgotten foot-soldier of the struggle which every South African should see.