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Dear Kanye West: Why stop at slavery? Let's talk about how South Africans chose Apartheid.

An open letter to Kanye West from a South African

I live in South Africa, in the city of Johannesburg to be specific. And while I've never stepped foot in the United States, never attended a Kanye West concert or spotted him strolling down the street with his entourage, I have met him in other forms. I have met him in my white South African colleagues who believe that people like me choose to be poor. We choose to be domestic workers, gardeners and car guards. We choose to live in shacks made out of scrap materials that get washed away because of periodic floods.We choose to live like animals. We choose to live undignified lives filled with immeasurable strife.

You see, my white colleagues have the luxury of privilege. Privilege is a funny thing. Like a horse wearing blinkers, all privilege sees is a woman washing dishes because surely that is her only aspiration in life. Privilege sits pretty, comfortable and self-righteous when black students are being shot at by police for fighting for their right to affordable tertiary education. Privilege says 'I can do it better' but never actually gets to doing anything at all.

See Kanye, I have met you already. You are privilege, and so yes, you get to choose. But what you refuse to acknowledge is that the rest of us don't.

I don't shy away from controversy. I espouse the notion of free thought because Aristotle once said that it is the mark of an educated man to entertain a thought without accepting it. I've learnt that there are real repercussions to something as routine as thinking because more often than not, our thoughts encourage action. And because of that, I espouse humanity above all else.

Kanye's recent comments and thoughts are not unique. They are not original and neither are they free.

A few weeks ago, South Africa laid to rest Mam' Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. She was a radical stalwart who fought alongside many other comrades in the struggle against the murderous and segregationist Apartheid regime. If she could have chosen a life that did not involve being woken up at all hours of the day by the police, forcibly removed from her home, taken away from her children, tortured, raped and then betrayed by the very people for whom she fought to liberate, I am sure she would have chosen differently. Her late ex-husband, the iconic Nelson Mandela, went through much the same. He sat for close to three decades in a cell on an island, working endlessly in a lime quarry because he believed that the black man ought to be equal to the white man. If he'd had the opportunity, I'm sure he would not have chosen that fate for himself. What of Hector Pieterson, the 13-year-old boy who died in the Soweto uprisings of 1976 fighting for the right to learn in a language he could actually understand? Would he not have chosen differently had he had the choice?

Apartheid was a white supremacist system that I can assure you, was not a result of black people choosing indignity, displacement, dehumanisation and death. It still saddens me to this day, that there are many black South Africans that died not knowing that Apartheid, by law, would eventually be abolished. They worked tirelessly for a freedom they did not even live to realise. While Apartheid lasted for forty decades and slavery, four centuries, an alarming sentiment seems to be emerging in light of Kanye's comments: surely if black people 'allowed' slavery to continue for a whole 400 years, it was only because black people had chosen to be enslaved for that long. We illogically conclude that black people were just too nonchalant, too lazy to free themselves. We ask why black people had the audacity to permit slavery to go on for centuries instead of questioning why slavery happened in the first place. Why the fuck are we not asking ourselves why Europeans chose to pillage, rape and murder entire nations all in the name of "discovery and exploration?"

Kanye's recent comments and thoughts are not unique. They are not original and neither are they free. Perhaps that's the most painfully ironic part to all this. In his attempt to be a revolutionary free thinker, he has only managed to become a copy of the original manuscript written eons ago that sought to produce mindsets just like his.

Interview
Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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Tanzanian Filmmaker Amil Shivji is Making History with a Story of Love and Resistance

As the first Tanzanian film to be chosen for TIFF, Shiviji's film is sure to get the African country a seat at the table.