By Miranda di Carcaci
‘My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight. Aluta continua.’
These were the last words of MK fighter Solomon Mahlangu, who was hung by the apartheid government a little after his 23rd birthday. On Thursday evening I found myself, almost by accident, watching film about his life at the BFI. Disgruntled from a long, fruitless day of attempting to make sense of a Weight Watchers brief, and perilously close to the deadline with little to show for it but a picture of a woman laughing at a salad, I wanted to flake. Within minutes of the opening credits I felt incredibly fortunate I’d changed my mind.
We watch Solomon, a schoolboy fruit hawker, who lives with his mother and brother in a township in Pretoria and wants to be a teacher transform into a symbol of resistance. Even in the 2015 student university protests that tore through South Africa, adopted his song, ‘lyho Solomon’ as the haunting anthem of their revolution.
In the first few scenes we see his round eyes fill with tears as his mouth is violently crammed with fruit until he starts to suffocate and dead bodies leap into the air as they are repeatedly shot at a supposedly peaceful protest, but this is more than an apartheid film. Mandla Dube, co-writer and director prefers to call it a coming of age film: ‘It is a human story about a young man who finds himself recruited into a movement because of what happens to him.’ The story woven is sensitive and intimate, on Solly’s (as his friends call him) journey we see him surrounded by young men we recognize; bickering, complaining about a ripped shirt, scared in the face of not being able to fulfill their potential.
Indeed, many thousands of young men suffered similar fates to Solly. So why is it his name has survived, is spoken down, and now chanted at rallies across the country? One answer is his eloquence. We see his English improve from the beginning as he continues to read, while other soldiers do press-ups. The skill shows during the clinical court scenes that from the back bone of the film. Slipping between Ndebele and English to buy himself time in answering questions, using language as his weapon of revolution long after his fate is sealed. Watching his shaking, stuttering cousin come onto the stand, barely able to utter syllables for the translator shows how significant this really is.
Resistance against oppression is a theme that never loses its potency or relevance, but placing Kalushi against the backdrop of current events creates an interesting friction. On one side we see young men open fire on a crowded square before shooting two engineers as they sat eating lunch unassumingly. On the other, we are disappointed because we wanted them to succeed, as the good guys. What does it mean to support freedom fighters? When it comes to a common cause is there a different between intent and action? A group, or an individual? These questions can only be answered subjectively.
Unfortunately the film is no longer playing at the BFI but here is the trailer and I am going to try and get a copy if anyone is interested.