Otelo Burning, a South African-directed film that opened the Durban International Film Festival in 2011, has as its backdrop the township of Lamontville, and the political violence that erupted there during the 1980s. Much like Mpumalanga that we wrote about last week, Lamontville too was besieged by infighting during the 1980s as members of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the United Democratic Front (UDF) clashed. The IFP declared that the UDF was a proxy organisation of the ANC, aimed at undermining Inkatha, and the UDF in turn renounced Inkatha, accusing the organisation of being a government sympathiser. Fighting broke out between supporters of the two groups in late 1984, and continued unabated for the next half a decade. In the last few years of the 1980s the violence was endemic: in 1988, 912 people were killed in Natal, and in 1989, the year that the film is set in, more than 1000 people lost their lives. While the state of emergency was lifted throughout the rest of the country in June 1990, it remained in force in Natal until October 1990.
Otelo Burning tells the story of 16-year-old Otelo Buthelezi, his younger brother, Ntwe, and his best friend, New Year, as the trio are exposed to the world of surfing, and the opportunities that it offers outside the life of the township. While primarily a surfing movie, the film also does an excellent job of depicting life in South Africa in the late 1980s, a time when the country was in flux as the government desperately tried to hold onto power, and on the other side of the coin, the opposition found strength in numbers, through organisations like the UDF. While the white population was still enjoying the benefits of apartheid, there was very little work available for the rest of the populace, and high levels of poverty frustrated and angered the people. No work also meant a lot of spare time to go looking for trouble, which seemed no stranger to Otelo….
While teenagers danced and drank and took chances like young people anywhere, in the township people hid as revolutionaries paraded through the streets, scraping machetes along the ground. The film brings together the ordinary difficulties of coming of age with the complexities of wider South African society at the time: as Otelo’s talent for surfing becomes evident, jealously rears its head and Otelo is betrayed. In exchange for money for a new surfboard, Otelo’s brother is sold out as a suspected informer for the apartheid security police, and is murdered.
On the day that Nelson Mandela is released from prison, Otelo must choose between his life as a successful surfer, and the freedom that represents, and justice for his brother. While there’s hope for Otelo’s future, and that of South Africa, there’s also the threat of destruction. A well told story, as well as metaphor for a country on the precipice.
Otelo Burning, directed by Sara Blecher, is available for download via iTunes
Curries Fountain Stadium, which forms part of the Durban Liberation Route, was the site of a number of the UDF’s mass meetings during the 1980s