Last night we saw the excellent movie Goodbye Bafana, based on the book of the same name. It is the true story of James Gregory, a young prison guard in South Africa who gets sent to work at the maximum security prison at Robben Island in the late 1960s. As he speaks the tribal Khosa language which he learned from a black friend on the farm where he grew up, he gets detailed to guard new prisoner Nelson Mandela and some of his ANC contemporaries. They are imprisoned for acts of terrorism against the Apartheid government. Gregory is asked by the intelligence agency to listen into Mandela’s conversations and feed back any details of ANC plans.
Gregory and his wife Gloria are typical of their time. All their news they get from the newspapers, tey have no TV. ANC publications are banned so they believe what the authorities tell them – that the ANC are communist terrorists intent on taking away land from white people and killing them. They attitudes are similarly racist. At one point Gloria tells her children that it is God’s way that black and white should remain separate.
One incident in the story occurs during Mandela’s first meeting with his wife, Winnie. Sat behind a glass screen and speaking through telephones, Gregory is listening to every word. He feeds back to the intelligence agency that Mandela has a son from his first marriage who has just got a car and a driving license. It is not long before this son is found dead in a car accident. Gregory suspects that he was murdered and blames himself.
As the story develops, Gregory starts speaking to Mandela in Khosa, and their friendship gets closer. Gregory’s attitudes slowly change, particularly after he sees how blacks are treated in the street and get a chance to read an illegal copy of the ANC’s charter of beliefs. Finding life more difficult on Rebben Island, Gregory eventually moves to a different job, but six years later is reunited as Mandela and other ANC prisoners (Walter Sisulu, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada and Raymond Mhlaba) are moved to a slightly more comfortable prison at Pollsmoor. Once again, Gregory is Mandela’s primary guard. This remains the case until Mandela’s eventual release from Victor Verster Prison on 11th February 1990.
Apart from the obvious touching friendship, one of the things that stuck out from the film was the attitudes of the society in the 1960s and on through into the 1980s. The prison guards and police had some very racist thoughts and actions which jarr with our modern attitudes. Some of the lines are difficult to hear. However, they were, I suppose, simply a product of their time. When fed propaganda by the government, when not many people had TV’s and given that most ANC and anti-aparteid documents were banned, there was no other source of information from which to gather their views. They views they held were the views fed to them. Gregory eventually saw through it.
It is worth making the connection to today – what are we being fed by the media and newspapers that dictates what we believe and think about things? True – we have access to a much wider range of information through the internet and more permissive governments, but it is still worth asking what that media is telling us and whether it is misleading or damaging. Things such as beauty is best, might is right, or the continual desire that is drummed into us to own more things and that this will make us happy. Surely we are all a product of our time that is difficult to escape.
Overall, a wonderful, thought-provoking film.