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‘Goodbye Bafana’

Not only Mandela was freed

by Kaori Shoji

A good politician — as opposed to a dramatic revolutionary — is hard to find, but Nelson Mandela could safely be called one of the best living examples of that rare and precious category.

“Goodbye Bafana” highlights all the traits usually associated with Mandela’s name: incredible courage and inner strength, integrity and charisma, staunch leadership in the face of adversity. The film however, is not a Mandela biopic — rather, it’s based on the novel penned by his prison guard James Gregory.

Set in apartheid-entrenched South Africa in 1968, “Goodbye Bafana” traces the career and spiritual journey of the Afrikaner Gregory (played with a studious geekiness by Joseph Fiennes) and his family as they move from Pretoria to Robben Island, where Gregory had just been appointed warder of a maximum security prison for black political activists. The job is a step-up on the social ladder, and Gregory’s wife, Gloria (Diane Kruger — whose regal beauty and radiant intelligence is perfect for the role), is ecstatic: Now they will be able to have a big house and social life.

Goodbye Bafana
Rating
Director Bille August
Run Time 117 minutes
Language English

Over the course of the next two decades, Gregory makes the shift from a narrow-minded racist to an avid supporter of the anti-Apartheid movement, primarily because of his relationship with Mandela (Dennis Haysbert). In 1968, Mandela was already serving a life sentence on the island, though his incarceration did nothing to diminish his influence or, according to the movie, put a dent in his overwhelming dignity and discipline.

Director Bille August throws subtlety out the window as he draws the contrast between the stoic, cool black prisoners and smug white warders accompanied by shrill and silly wives. In such an environment, it’s hard to see how Gregory could not make that leap over to the other side ASAP.

But the whole point of the film is Gregory’s painfully slow enlightenment, which matches the changes and upheavals endured by South Africa before systematic discrimination was finally abolished. Patiently, the film charts the interminable amount of time it takes for this nerdy, grim-visaged officer to recognize that Mandela is worth the entire white community on the island many times over. After Gregory sneaks peeks at the Freedom Charter penned by the great man — which, on Robben Island, was an act on par with ducking into a triple-X-rated, gay-movie theater — he has heart-to-heart talks with his son about the importance of having a political conviction and sticking to it.

Gregory nurses his secret admiration for Mandela and the growing suspicion that Apartheid could actually be a mistake. Still, years go by before he can pluck up the guts to do anything about it. In the meantime, he’s promoted, gets a raise and, because he learned to speak Xhosa as a child, is ordered to spy on Mandela and censor all prison correspondence.

Gloria is no help to her husband’s moral dilemma — in one scene she complacently coos to their children that whites rule over blacks because it’s “God’s will.” Her ignorance of the outside world and stubborn refusal to notice anything unpleasant, such as a young black woman being brutalized by white policemen right before her eyes — is instructive. Gloria’s existence was dictated by privileged comfort and white-community gossip, a state of mind ingrained in most Afrikaners of the era.

The best thing about “Goodbye Bafana” is Fiennes. He plays Gregory as an uninspired everyman eager to please the boss and appease the wife who gently but insistently nags him onto ever-higher rungs on the hierarchical prison ladder. Gregory is never made out to be anymore heroic than he was; the one incident of importance in his life was meeting and guarding Mandela — nothing that came before or after matched the repercussions. In the book he milks the experience for what it’s worth (Mandela’s biographer Anthony Sampson has challenged the veracity of it), and there’s an element of pity and even of slight contempt in August’s gaze. Gregory’s story, for all its sincerity, has the faint but unmistakable tint of celebrity worship. That such an ironic story ever came to pass is perhaps one of the biggest vindications of the anti-Apartheid movement.