Long Walk To Freedom

This is (South) Africa: An Interview with Tony Kgoroge, Terry Pheto and Atandwa Kani

We pray for all South Africans, of every colour, that God may give us strength to tolerate one another; and that one day, in His name, we shall be one nation of God’s children who have all made this lovely country what it is. – Winne Madikizela-Mandela *

I grew up with a great passion for reading and my parents’ home was filled with books. From coffee table tomes with glossy covers to German children’s books, American paperbacks and the classics by Dickens and Austen, words and stories were available in abundant variety in every nook and cranny of my home. In 1994, my parents added to the vast collection a work entitled Long Walk to Freedom.

The sheer size and weight enraptured me as I gazed warily at this massive book written by our president, Nelson Mandela. One day I pulled it slowly off the shelf and lay down on the living room carpet to study it. After turning a few pages I shook my head and heaved it back onto the bookcase. I was daunted by this behemoth. “One day,” I told myself, little guessing that it would be turned into a film. Although I have vowed to read it, one day, I am not perturbed about seeing the film first, because I know how this story ends.

Most of us do, and as my best friend pointed out when I saw her parents had bought the book as well, “When you walk into a South African’s home, you kind of expect to find that book on the shelf.” So what does the film offer an audience that the book doesn’t? This is one of the first questions I posed to Tony Kgoroge, Terry Pheto and Atandwa Kani, who play Walter Sisulu, Evelyn Ntoko Mase (Mandela’s first wife) and a young Nelson Mandela, respectively, in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

“The book is almost a thousand pages,” Terry reminds me. “To capture that in two and a half hours, it’s a very rare skill…it’s never easy, especially with the life of Nelson Mandela, because there is so much he went through as a person with his family and as an adult, even before he moved to Johannesburg and got involved in politics. That on it’s own is a movie. His journey as a young man; him as a lawyer, as a lover, is another film in itself. To compile it all into one film is not an easy task; to execute it flawlessly without losing the essence of the man and the story; without comprising the two or overlooking certain important aspects.” The film is an effort to provide greater insight into Mandela’s life, as Tony points out. “Obviously the book is more detailed in terms of the events that took place, the people he met and how they affected his life. In the movie you get those people’s point of view, more of history. The film focuses on some events more than others…but the film captures the spirit of the time.”

For any actor, playing a real person is a completely different challenge to creating a character from scratch. I asked them how they prepared for these roles, especially given that, with Mandela being ill and the other two deceased, they don’t have the opportunity of meeting them in person. “Research,” Terry says. “It’s a historic piece. It’s a real people’s story. It’s going back to archives. I never got a chance to meet her [Evelyn], because she’s late. We don’t really know her; we only know Nelson Mandela had a wife before Winnie. I had to rely on family members and people who met her and the material given from the research team. I put it all together to build a character that is sincere and wholesome. Her story for me is one of the times we get to see Nelson Mandela as the man.”

“I went through more or less the same process” Tony says. “Getting into the documentaries that were made at the time. Reading stuff that they used to read to each other, some of them would write to each other. I knew Walter as a politician and as the second commander-in-chief to Madiba, but I did not know him as a father, a grandfather; so the first thing was to visit the family. I spoke to them about how he was as a husband, as a father, as that guy in Orlando.”

For Atandwa the challenge lay in portraying Mandela at a time before the world knew him. “The fact that they are real makes it harder; but for young Madiba there really is nothing that is documented, there is no material. All we have is word of mouth of what he did and the reasons why. All I could do, based on the traditional African storytelling, was to ask people…It was a game of connect the dots. You go to people who had connections with the Madiba clan, with the Mandela family. You ask about his character, the attributes he had. About his tenacity and fortitude. What he had done and why he did those things. We work backwards, the man we knew from the politician, and you strip it to the things he had learnt. You strip away the politician that was really taught by Walter Sisulu, mentored by him, to this boy who had this great outlook on life. You’re playing Madiba when he wasn’t the great Mandela. You’re just a 16-year-old kid. I was just playing a guy. You just want to run and get out there and explore; but I had to play him with a great sense of valour, with a possibility and potential of greatness.”

Between Tony’s intense, yet soft-spoken, wisdom; Atandwa’s boundless energy and charm and Terry’s calm poise, it is evident why they were cast in these roles. The film features some of South Africa’s finest actors and many, Tony, Terry and Atandwa included, have a rich background in theatre. I ask them about the varying challenges they find between the two mediums. “I was, quite literally, born in the theatre,” Atandwa tells me. “My old man’s an actor. My theatre experience is immense. The challenge on stage varies. You have to portray every single minute detail of emotion to everyone without being too explicit. This man,” he gestures at Tony, “has mastered the art of film. With me, when cameras are around I’m like: what is going on? You just hope you hold onto something and hope they capture it. And this one,” he turns to Terry, “is like the Leonardo DiCaprio of South African film.” Terry raises an eyebrow at the male comparison. “Leo?” she asks. “Ok,” Atandwa concedes. “Judi Dench. Helen Mirren. What I’m trying to say is: you know what you’re doing.” Terry shakes her head, “Judi Dench? Helen Mirren? These are icons. I’m not even halfway there. I still have a lot to do and a lot to learn. Look,” she says veering back to the debate. “Story is story. It just depends which medium you prefer. One doesn’t take away from the other one for me. That’s where it [theatre] all began for me. With film, it’s a different kind of love. You love them the same, but different.”

Tony likens it to tuning a radio. “Moving into film I learnt to channel the performance. You have to make sure it’s the correct frequency and I’m still learning that now, acting with other actors and seeing something they do that’s different. Like with international actors, they come from a different school of thought, a different culture and form of art. And they are forever in acting classes. When we’re not working, we’re looking for other jobs. It’s all part of storytelling and that’s what I love. Whether on film, TV, stage, that’s part of my job, that’s what I do.” For the future, Atandwa says, “I’m going to act my ass off somewhere,” and, industrious as he is, already has several theatre projects lined up. With the self-ascribed moniker “Prince of Theatre” in place, it’s no surprise. “ I’m reading a couple of scripts,” Terry says. “Considering a few projects. I haven’t done TV in a while. It’s difficult to give an answer. This film could change a lot of things and hopefully open doors.” Tony nods thoughtfully. “I’m going to look for a job,” he says with a laugh. Meanwhile, Atandwa jumps back in, “I’m begging him to cast me,” he says, referring to Tony, and Terry adds “I did my first TV show with him. I want to do TV again, because I want to work with him again.” It is clear, throughout the interview, that they both hold him in high regard.

And on that note, I ask them about their personal heroes. Working on a film about a man deemed as a hero across the world, I am interested to hear what they have to say. If you’ve made a film about Mandela, do you say Mandela is your hero, or is that too obvious? I’ll never forget watching Miss Teen South Africa, years ago, and every single contestant said Madiba was her hero. It seemed awfully staged. The actors, on the other hand, delve a little deeper. “I want to say my old man, I want to, because of what he’s done and worked his whole life for,” Atandwa says, “but my hero is my mom. She was the one holding the family together while he was doing that. He was out there changing South Africa through theatre. The person I had an intimate relationship with was my mother. My hero is my mom. That woman just worked and held the family together. My mom, my Mandi. I love that woman to bits for what she has done.”

“I always looked up to different people for different reasons,” Terry says. “And one of them was my mom who helped shape the woman I am. I learnt from her I could want more than she could offer and that was OK. It was OK for me to explore and learn on my own and I could always come back to her and ask for advice.” Tony shakes his head, “Now you’re going to make me feel guilty. I also want to say my mom.” I don’t allow it, however, and tell him that I want the initial answer. Tony plays ball. “Walter. But it’s not only him. There are lots of them. The Magnificent Seven [in addition to Sisulu, this included Nelson Mandela, Raymond Mhlaba, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni and Elias Motsoaledi]. We call them the Magnificent Seven of the African National Congress, all of those guys who took up the Rivonia Trial upon their shoulders. They decided to stand up against a system that was so powerful, it could have destroyed Africa, within the blink of an eye” he pauses, “oh, and my other hero is my mom, my dad.” He also lauds Chris Hani, Joe Slovo, Zola Skweyiya and Winnie Mandela. “That woman shaped the other consciousness of the African Congress that we have yet to tap into. Her alone, no one else but her alone, as a woman, stood there and lifted that man up.”

Although the response to the film has been mostly positive, there has been criticism that it covers too much. “The film is called Long Walk to Freedom,” Atandwa points out not. “Not ‘Long Walk to Jo’burg,’” Terry adds. “All the events are there,” Tony says. “But it will never be enough. For me, if I were the director, Chris Hani would play a big part in it. If I was to do it, that whole negotiating process would take probably 45 minutes of the film. That would be my personal choice. If it was you, you would focus on something else. A director has to make a personal choice.” While the film aims to give broader scope to the story that we know, there is the ever-present concern of sanctifying Mandela, martyring him, forgetting others who lived, and died, for the struggle and, also, of commercialising Madiba. Today his image is continually plastered across calendars, mugs, T-shirts and every manner of paraphernalia, cheapening his ideals and his vision as people try to turn him into something they can sell in much the same way people have slandered what Guevara stood for by turning his image into a commodity.

“I’ve been fortunate to meet Nelson Mandela more than once,” Terry tells me. “And he always said to me he doesn’t like being painted as a saint. Through the film, and the women, the different characters he interacts with, you get to see a different man. He never tries to be perfect. You get to see all of that. They did not create a superhero character…but his flaws never took away from the greatness of the man…the film will remind people of what he did and why the legacy is so important.”

“You first see him as a young boy,” Tony says, “that he was just as normal as any of us. You see him as being built into this young man, and being crafted by culture, which made him the man that he was; which later on took him to prison and took him out again and made him president. You see him coming from nothing and becoming this iconic person with great human spirit and great love in his heart.” As for the commercialism, he accedes, “You cannot avoid that. All we can do is make sure that the commercial part does not take over what the man has done for the people and for what he has done for the country. The film does not paint him as that commercial entity. It places him as a person. Like he himself said ‘I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.’”

“He’s not perfect,” Terry reiterates. “We must be conscious of that. This man went through a lot, he’s done a great deal for this country and the world and hopefully they’ll be human enough to realise that this is a legacy they have to protect, even for us as actors we have to protect that. We have to, in a way, think about what we stand for as South Africans, as young leaders, as people, the roles we play in society. What did we learn from this man?”

As for the man who is playing Mandela, there is a lot of buzz about a magnificent performance by Idris Elba. For those of us familiar with his work, it comes as no surprise. “Madiba is a man with this amazing stature, he’s the draw card, he’s that man, that’s Madiba.” Atandwa says. “Now if you’re sitting in a room and Idris walks in all those notions of Madiba and Idris, they assimilate; because he’s a man of that great stature, he has that charm. And when you meet him he’s just humble and charming – he truly does represent the character of the man that is Madiba. And in the film that’s what you’re looking for. And Idris is huge,” he adds – and if you talk to anyone who’s met Mandela, one of the first impressions made will be his incredible stature, whether you’re gawking up at him in awe or losing your hand in a big, warm handshake. “He’s [Idris] a great actor, it’s needless to say…I think he was perfect to play this role, not to say there’s no one else to do it, but he was perfect.”

“Idris does a phenomenal job,” Terry says. “But I think Naomie [Harris] stole the show.” As for the portrayal of Winne, she adds, “they don’t try to make her a saint or a victim. You get a different perspective of what she went through. You get this complex character. I can’t believe all this happened to her and she’s still standing.” Atandwa agrees, “Winnie’s story is so controversial and nobody knows why. Everyone knows what she did, but nobody knows why it happened and this film gives you a great and complete understanding and when you watch her you think ‘had I been in her position I would have done exactly the same thing’ and I think she kept to that and my heart just melted for this woman and this is a performance that Naomie has made.”

As the conversation leapfrogs between politics, culture, theatre and music, I realise, yet again, that the stories we have to tell and the experiences we have to share is what excites me about South Africa. Perhaps the film is too ambitious, but it could open doors for other stories to be told and I ask the actors about South African stories they wish to see on screen. “Steve Biko and Chris Hani,” Atandwa says. “I think those two are the most prominent, untold stories.”

“There are so many stories besides political figures that we know…there are also the women that went into exile. There hasn’t been a long walk version of Winnie Mandela. She hasn’t endorsed any particular film, besides the role that Naomie played in this film. I feel like her story deserved a fair chance. And there are all these great leaders in the past like Queen Manthatisi, Shaka, Moshweshwe and Nongqawuse. Our country is so rich in stories and hopefully with this film it will give others the confidence to invest in more stories and more epic films. ”

“So much of African culture and history is word of mouth,” Atandwa says. “We need to start documenting it; we need to put it on paper.” As names and stories crop up, I put forward another question: what title would they give the film if they had to change it? Atandwa reflects on this for a while and Terry leans over, whispering surreptitiously, “He’s going to say something smart.”

“A Great Man’s Story,” he eventually suggests. Terry leans in again, “Forget that thing I said about him saying something smart. “Because of what it depicts,” he explains. “it’s basically the storytelling of a man. OK, no,” he changes his mind. “A Man’s Great Story.” I tell him he needs to choose, because if you switch the order of the words, it changes the meaning. He contemplates this for some time, tossing the titles back and forth. “A Great Man’s Story,” he decides, “because that’s what he is, isn’t it?”

 Originally published on Fortress of Solitude.

* My uncle was a flight attendant for SAA in the 1980s. He often met Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as she flew back and forth between Jo’burg and Cape Town to visit Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. On a couple of occasions my uncle asked her to write him a note, to which she kindly agreed. This quote, written in June 1986, is from one of those notes. 

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