HALF a century after the historic trial at which Nelson Mandela escaped the gallows, one of his fellow prisoners will walk Cannes’ red carpet Monday for the premiere of a documentary about those who stood with him in the dock.
Andrew Mlangeni is one of the last two surviving defendants of the 1963-1964 Rivonia trial of Mandela and nine others who faced a death sentence on charges of plotting guerrilla warfare and carrying out acts of sabotage against South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Mandela’s impassioned three-hour address to the court, during which he declared that a democratic South Africa was an ideal “for which I am prepared to die” was the most significant of his career, conferring on him a demi-god status that overshadowed the sacrifices of his co-accused.
“The State Against Mandela and the Others”, a French-produced documentary based on the recently released audio recordings of the proceedings, attempts to redress the balance by giving centre stage to his fellow travellers.
Using animation, interviews and archival footage it shows how the defendants turned a trial aimed at dealing a knockout blow to the anti-apartheid movement into a searing indictment of white supremacist rule.
“We decided we had to conduct this not as a criminal trial but a political trial,” says Ahmed Kathrada, one of three former prisoners — one black (Mlangeni), one white (Denis Goldberg) and one of Asian origin (Kathrada) — interviewed for the feature.
Kathrada, who died last year, is one of the heroes of the documentary by former Radio France Internationale journalist Nicolas Champeaux and filmmaker Gilles Porte, which uses stark black-and-white animation to recreate the courtroom clashes.
Born into a family of Indian Muslim immigrants, he refused, like his comrades, to appeal his sabotage conviction to avoid the indignity of being seen to beg for clemency.
The film also shows how the preening prosecutor, depicted by Franco-Dutch artist Oerd van Cuijlenborg as a vulture figure in flapping black robes, underestimated the “semi-barbarous blacks” as they were described by the state.
Powerful testimony from Mlangeni, who watched his parents work for whites “for peanuts”, and Mandela’s mentor Walter Sisulu, who complained of constant harassment of his family by the police, moved the world — and the judge.
At the end of the eight-month trial, which was condemned by the UN Security Council, the judge decided to spare the men the noose.
Mandela, Kathrada, Mlangeni, Goldberg and four others were sentenced to life in prison, a verdict 85-year-old Goldberg greeted with immense relief.
“It’s life! And life is wonderful!,” he recalls shouting across the courtroom to his mother.
But Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie was already steeling herself for the long road ahead, with two young children in tow.
“That’s when my ‘Amandla’ (Power) started,” she says in one of her last interviews before her death last month, uttering the rallying cry of the anti-apartheid movement with a clenched-fist salute.
Poetry in animation
For Champeaux, a former South Africa correspondent who gained access to the 256 hours of digitised recordings, the trial had the makings of an epic tale that needed to be shared with an international audience.
“There’s the bad guy, the traitor, the love story, the suspense, the inscrutable judge, the families trembling in the gallery,” he told AFP.
But it is also a reminder, he said, “that when you are wedded to a cause, those close to you suffer.”
Explaining the decision to use 45 minutes of animation — about a third of the film — Porte said the drawings allowed a film bursting with historical information “to breathe a bit”.
“Animation also lends a bit of poetry,” the co-director of the award-winning 2004 French-Belgian comedy “When the Sea Rises” said.
Above all, the documentary shows that South Africa’s tortured path to democratic elections in 1994, four years after Mandela’s release from prison, was the work of a single-minded, multi-racial group, not a single superhero.
For Porte, it is a reminder “that all great things that happen in this world are achieved collectively.”