Formally speaking, the biggest ethical hurdle directors face when shooting films that take place in slums is that, though few filmmakers could be accused of glamorizing squalor, those rusty-red, corrugated tin-roofed shacks can be incredibly photogenic. Their haphazard, surface vibrancy can often distract directors from paying justice to the suffering that such environments contain. The conflict at the heart of Dear Mandela, an ambitious expansion of a short piece of documentary filmmaking from years ago, occasionally seems to reflect that very paradox, especially as the South African government swoops into the shantytowns just outside Durban to sweep them away and the audience is instantly invested in the microcosmic idea that destroying them—as opposed to fighting the macrocosmic conditions that result in their existence in the first place—is a crime against humanity. But those speculative differentiations get defused pretty early on by Mnikelo, one of the three young South Africans the film follows (along with Zama and Mazi), who explains the importance shacks have to his people. “If you have a lot of friends like me, you don’t suffer,” he says. “You don’t passerby when the people are building a house. So when you build a shack, your friends, your comrades will come.”
Their evictions, which happen long after Nelson Mandela’s election heralded the end of apartheid in South Africa, are a violation of their country’s constitution, the insult compounding a much more troubling injury: By wiping out the slums inhabited by people who’ve been waiting years for housing programs to kick in, bureaucratic leaders concerned with making good on a promise to eradicate poverty are instead working to dismantle the visual reminders, not the malady itself, literally attacking the marginalized population’s visibility. Early in the film, Mazwi muses, “I never thought that I’d be an activist, because I never expected that we’d be fighting for something that we’d been promised,” a statement juxtaposed against a shot of him looping his belt decorated with images of Barack Obama. (In another pointed scene, Mnikelo defaces his election ballot with the phrase: “No land, no house, no vote.”) The irony is clear, but the message is hardly glib: One can never be so well off that they should take for granted their own capacity to incite political change. And fighting for the sparest of bottom lines isn’t tantamount to letting unkept promises slide. We, and they, can do better.