Johannesburg - My earliest memory of Solomon Mahlangu is not of the man, but of a song. When I was in Grade 7, my small township of Mooi River in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands was burning. Residents who were not satisfied with the bucket system, and a lack of electricity and water, wanted to oust the mayor and began to protest.
One warm summer evening, from the edge of our section, we could hear a noise – hundreds of men and women were making their way in formation through the streets singing The Song of Solomon.
As feet stamped and voices engulfed the air, my grandmother told me to join the protests. She had been a gun-runner during the struggle and said I should know what it was like. Astounded at being allowed outside after dark, I soon found myself on the front line singing about a person I didn’t know, but who felt familiar. In this way, Mahlangu ceased to be a man and became a myth.
Director Mandla Dube’s biopic Kalushi, about the life and death of Mahlangu, is an effective attempt at helping us understand the space between the man and the myth.
The story is familiar – a black boy under the crushing fist of apartheid is radicalised and forced to leave home to join the struggle. Part of what makes the film work is that it has a clunky, improvisational quality that makes you aware that you’re watching a reconstruction – an attempt at broadening history. However, this does not halt the momentum of the narrative.
Some of the stylistic choices that Dube makes are strange and at odds with what we’ve come to expect from a film about this period. There’s a scene where – after being spotted with two of his comrades en route to carry out a mission – the trio is forced to open fire. In real time, the moment would not last more than a few seconds, but Dube literally stops time in a sequence that would not be out of place in Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way.
Visually, he shows off his knowledge of the medium – playing around with choppy cuts and manipulating us through music. Kalushi’s lack of earnestness is an act of resistance.
Part of the problem with films about the past is their fetishsation of men in dark rooms talking politics to death. In Kalushi, this endless hand-wringing evaporates. Dube knows that his audience is smart – we don’t need to be told why Mahlangu matters, we just need to be shown what he did.
But there is something deeper going on here.
One of the greatest “successes” of apartheid was its ability to break up black families. As women and children had to flee their land and relinquish their birthright, young men were condemned to a life in jail or worse. There’s a scene where Mahlangu must tell his mother Martha that he’s decided to join the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK). His face is soft as putty, but his eyes are filled with steely resolve. You can feel the tectonic plates shifting. Later, when Mahlangu and his friends make their way to the MK training camps, evading death and confronted with an uncertain future, I’m reminded of Warsan Shire’s poem Home, which is about immigrants and exile: “No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
Our historical memory of life in exile is fuzzy. It’s a big gap in the psyche of our nation, and it’s during this period of Mahlangu’s life that Kalushi makes some of its most important statements. As Mahlangu gets his training, his girlfriend Brenda and his mother are left behind with only each other for support. They find each other in the throes of their grief and gradually try to make their way out.
The myth of Kalushi makes way for something more humane. We are able see beyond Solomon, the man in the song, because of what he meant to those he left behind. As Mahlangu gets his training with his comrades and they are strengthened in their resolve, Dube allows us to see why South African men are so comfortable bonding through violence.
It’s not just our history, it’s what we’ve inherited.