We are very pleased that this documentary has been made, and the importance of the subject in the context of South African history.
It came about when I told Jane Lipman at a meeting in Toronto in April of 2009 what I thought the real story of South Africa was at the time the World Cup. We should find five characters who would represent a spectrum of experience and change from Apartheid to the World Cup. Over the next few months we selected the characters.
On the internet I read the story of Willie Smalberger, an ex-cop who had moved to Mandela’s village after a near-death experience. Jane called him up and booked him. My old school friend Patrick Tucker had told me his incredible story late one night at a reunion in South Africa in 2008. Jane called him, and he agreed. I wanted somebody who was on the National team. I was watching the Confederation Cup Football tournament in South Africa, and saw the panther-like South African goalie, with the strangely reverberative name of Itumeleng Khune, keep out Torres and the Brazilians. On internet investigation I saw his place of origin next to his name: Ventersdorp. The home of Eugene Terreblanche and his racist AWB neo-Nazis. Jane contacted Khune’s father through a soccer writer friend. David Ntombela came into the picture after I had arrived in South Africa. A go-between of Joseph Oesi had a line to him and reported back that the Inkatha warlord of great ill-repute was willing to be interviewed too. Finally, I remembered the gruesome “necklacings” and recalled, after ten minutes of Googling, that the first necklacing to hit the international news was that of Maki Skhosana. So Jane contacted the Skhosana family and walked into a complicated story with the generous involvement of Puleng, who had carried her sister’s memory close to her heart for all of these years.
Now as I write today the documentary is done, and has turned out well. It attempts to answer the essential question I had put to Jane in Toronto: how has this country, a mere twenty years after being the world’s most thorough form of state racism and oppression, turned itself around to become a World Cup host? What were the values implicit in that? Can South Africa, in 2010, really be a full generation and a half removed from Apartheid?
What has the road been like for individuals we, in the outside world, can relate to universally? People who suffer in foreign wars and catastrophes are the same as those of us living in a peaceful and ordered world. However terrifying you can imagine their experience to be, it is that. However you imagine the withdrawal of freedom to feel like, it is all of that. The light closes in. Breathing, even, is constricted. It is a universal experience. And it occurred to me that the journey they have traveled has a restorative, life-affirming trajectory. And being that the World Cup in its essence is a celebration of positive World values, then their journey is worth telling. Not only is it worth telling but there’s a sort of a mandate to tell it, I would think.
I have never been in a position of programming a network documentary series; one of my few regrets, and a minor one at that. But this is an experience I have more than once a year: Ah, here: twenty-six Somali-Canadian boys murdered in Alberta in the last year and a bit. Somebody, I say to myself, must be doing a documentary on that. Surely. Never happens. Instead we get weeping camels in Mongolia or the latest mass ambition, from coast to coast, interrupted by the selling of cars and erectile dysfunction products, numbing the mind.
Five Roads To Freedom has been a typical independent doc production: desperately trying to sell it in advance, then trying to raise the money you are spending while making the film, husbanding resources at the time when you know every dollar you spend, or can’t spend, will end up on the screen. It’s an insane system. And after it’s finished the people who held back give you the money.
First Jane filmed Maki Skhosana’s sister. Her interview was very dignified, moving. We went into all the interviews with inadequate or anecdotal research only, as there was no budget for a full time professional researcher, so none of us realized the entrails of the Skhosana story right away – the incredible role of the Security branch in the war for Duduza. Suffice it so say that I discovered after we’d finished that shoot that Maki may have in fact helped deliver the fatal booby-trapped grenades on instructions from a man she had fallen for, who turned out to be the most lethal assassin in a group of turncoat ANC guerrillas who were, in fact, working for secret government death squads out of Vlakplaas.
I’ve been to Nelson Mandela’s home village three times now. I’m always struck by how remote it is, even with the main Mthatha-East London freeway running through it. These are African hills. The light washes over them, thunderclouds, peach sunsets, dogs spoiling for a scrap, the melodic passage of women bearing packets. The birdsong and these African hills. If one subscribes to Mandela’s saintliness, this, and Robben Island are sacred places. And an Afrikaner farmer’s son, a former riot cop, has come here to do penance. Or so I thought. While Willie has gone through a political transformation there isn’t a hint of guilt about it. He’s just comfortable with these Xhosa villagers. And he fits in. It’s an everyday ideal of racial harmony.
Robin Benger May, 2010