A new film shows a rarely examined side of Nelson Mandela’s life training as a fighter across Africa where he dodged at least one assassination attempt before a tip from a CIA spy led to his arrest in 1962.
British director John Irvin has brought a sneak preview of the film “Mandela’s Gun” to the Cannes film festival after four years of chasing down revelations about the anti-apartheid icon’s life as a young revolutionary.
One leak from the long-awaited film this week showed to what extent the West was keen to stop Mandela from launching an armed rebellion against South Africa’s apartheid regime at a time when the Cold War was in full swing.
Former diplomat and CIA operative Donald Rickard told Irvin he had tipped off apartheid authorities, leading to the arrest of Mandela who the Americans believed was “completely under the control of the Soviet Union”.
Irvin told AFP he had travelled all the way to America to track down Rickard — who has since died — and record the interview which was first reported by Britain’s The Sunday Times newspaper.
Irvin said the CIA had informants within the African National Congress (ANC) and “a lot of people knew that he (Mandela) was in town” after his return from months abroad receiving military training and drumming up support for the armed struggle.
“I think there are at least three, maybe four substantial revelations” in the movie, said Irvin.
In Ethiopia, where Mandela was trained in “weapons, mines (and) bombs”, the filmmakers tracked down a former bodyguard who had been approached by Western intelligence services to “eliminate him”, Irvin said.
“The mistake they made in auditioning him was that he was a deeply religious man and when it came to the moment of action his conscience cobbled him, he couldn’t do it, and reported to authorities,” he added.
“The diplomats and others who were in on the conspiracy were asked to leave the country. More than that we cannot find out.”
– First South African actor –
Irvin said the movie, which should be released by the end of 2016, is the first of about 18 films on Mandela’s life to cast a black South African actor, Tumisho Mashe, in the main role.
Over the years the icon, who died in 2013 aged 95, has been portrayed by British and American actors such as Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover and Idris Elba.
The movie came about, and got its title, from an old South African mystery: what happened to the Makarov pistol that Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie gave Mandela?
The gun was the first weapon of the armed struggle, a route the ANC decided to take in 1961 with the launch of its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe after peaceful resistance to apartheid failed.
“It has enormous significance historically,” said Irvin, who said the filmmakers never did find the gun, but stumbled on a much wider story which took them to Ethiopia, Algeria, Botswana, Tanzania and the US.
Algeria, which is helping produce the film, is where Mandela received “probably the most important aspects of his political education and the most important in terms of leadership,” the filmmaker said, citing Mandela’s widow Graca Machel.
“He was given a very vivid experience of combat” in Algeria which was in the middle of its war of independence from France.
The Mandela shown in the film “is a much angrier man than the man who came out of prison 27 years later. He is a dedicated revolutionary, impetuous, thoughtful, well-educated, well-read, but he’s angry.”
– ‘Unfinished’ revolution –
Mandela emerged from prison in 1990 and became the country’s first black president in 1994, and his attitude of reconciliation towards his former oppressors made him an international peace icon.
The movie comes at a time when South Africa, 21 years after the end of apartheid, is undergoing an enormous amount of soul-searching.
Dogged by corruption scandals, the ANC under Jacob Zuma has been accused of betraying Mandela’s legacy by former anti-apartheid stalwarts such as Desmond Tutu.
And many young South Africans, still struggling to access education and jobs, are questioning whether Mandela made too many concessions to white South Africans, still seen as controlling land and business.
“I hope this film will aid and abet the soul- searching,” said Irvin, saying that there was a danger of Mandela being “deified” to such an extent that his legacy no longer seems real.
“I think he represents a revolutionary spirit and I think that revolution is unfinished,” he said.
“I think the film will be a very, very potent reminder of what the promise was and I hope it will inspire the government to get a move on.”