Arts and culture


Mandela's Gun: The story of the first weapon against apartheid

2 November 2016

The film Mandela's Gun tells the story of a young Nelson Mandela and the symbolism of his side-arm weapon. A semiautomatic Makarov pistol given to him by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, the gun came to represent his revolutionary awakening and the start of the armed struggle against apartheid.

On his clandestine return to South Africa in 1962, Mandela feared imminent capture by the apartheid government. So he wrapped his gun in foil and heavy-duty military material and buried it under a tin plate on Liliesleaf farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg.

The new film, directed by Bafta-winning British director John Irvin (The Dogs of War and Hamburger Hill), uses a mix of documentary footage, interviews with South African anti-apartheid activists, and dramatisations of Mandela's journey. Mandela's Gun was filmed in Algeria, Ethiopia, Botswana and South Africa.

Mandela is played by renowned local actor Tumisho Masha. After more than 20 major film and TV productions on Mandela, it is the first time a South African actor portrays the iconic leader.

Producer Moroba Nkawe told Variety that the long process of bringing the story to screen was similar to the remarkable, pan-African trip Mandela made as a young freedom fighter in exile. "As we uncovered more information through research, the story grew and…led us to film across the African continent, as we tried to bring to life this amazing, untold journey."

Intent on building an army against the apartheid government, the young Mandela had yet to even shoot a gun, let alone own one. So in exile, travelling across Africa on false passports, he got military training in Algeria and Ethiopia. It was here that he received the Selassie gift. He then moved south to Tanzania and later Botswana, building up tactical and political support from governments and individuals.

Returning to South Africa, Mandela gathered together anti-apartheid activists, ANC members and other supporters at Liliesleaf to plan the armed struggle.

"Not only were we rediscovering Mandela's journey and a part of our history that is seldom spoken about," said Nkawe, "but also learning what a huge debt South Africa owes to the African continent for the support they gave in our liberation struggle."

Interviews in the film include first-hand accounts of that time from Mandela's comrades, such as Dennis Goldberg and Ronnie Kasrils.

The all-South African cast includes Zethu Dlomo, Nick Boraine and Meren Reddy. Desmond Dube plays ANC stalwart Govan Mbeki.

The soundtrack by Abdullah Ibrahim includes classic South African music of the period, and new material written for the film.

Guns buried 20 paces from the kitchen

The story of the hidden weapon was only revealed after Mandela was released from prison in 1990, during his first visit to Liliesleaf in 30 years. The late veteran journalist Allister Sparks recalled being with Mandela at the time. He told the Mail & Guardian in 2011: "He was reminiscing about all the things that had gone on while he was there. He (asked) the house maid, 'Where's the kitchen? I buried some weapons here 20 paces from the kitchen.'

"We went to the kitchen and he stepped out his paces but by the time he got to 10 he hit the garden wall. So it was over in the neighbour's property. We never found it and Nick Wolpe (Liliesleaf Trust chief executive)has been digging ever since."

Negotiations for the sale of the neighbouring property have been underway for over five years. But the gun has still not been found.

The film will be on at Ster-Kinekor cinemas in November and December 2016.

SouthAfrica.info reporter

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