Unwrapping the Mandela effect


Nelson Mandela is associated with many things – the fight for freedom; the end
of South Africa’s apartheid era; the beginning of democracy; and peace and
reconciliation. A new feature-length documentary delves into what Mandela
means to people around the world and the impact his philosophies of freedom
and forgiveness have had globally.

The idea for A Letter to Nelson Mandela came to South African writer / director
Khalo Matabane (State of Violence; When We Were Black; Conversations on a
Sunday Afternoon) when he was having dinner with people in the Basque region
of Spain in 2011.

“At that time the Basque inhabitants wanted more autonomy and independence
from Spain, so our dinner discussion revolved around reconciling Spain. One
person at the table said that Spain needed a Nelson Mandela.
“I thought it interesting that there was this human being – Mandela – who was
perceived as having the power to bridge gaps between people and reconcile
them. So I began to think about the impact that Mandela has made in the 21st

“At the moment everyone in the world is making films about Mandela’s life, so
my film has to different. I decided to explore his ideas and what they mean to
people and set out to get voices from all around the world,’ explains Matabane.

To date he has conducted interviews in India, South Africa, South Sudan,
Nigeria, France, Spain and Germany, with more interviews to follow in the US,
the UK and Mexico.

“My original intention was to interview really high profile people who had been
through similar experiences as Mandela – who’d been imprisoned, tortured and
who’d suffered like him. But when you make a documentary things evolve as you
go along and there is always an element of surprise,’ notes Matabane.
Interviewees so far include American rapper Talib Kweli, whose lyrics have socio-
political content; Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian playwright, poet, political activist
and first African winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature; John Carlin, author of
Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation about the
1995 Rugby World Cup and the basis for the 2009 film Invictus; American poet,
writer and actor Saul Williams; Rokhaya Diallo, founder of Les Indivisibles, a
French organisation that uses humour and irony to fight racism and stereotypes;
Palestine-born filmmaker Elia Sulieman (Divine Intervention, The Time That
Remains); former constitutional court of South Africa judge Albie Sachs; South
African writer Rian Malan (My Traitor’s Heart); and Binyavanga Wainaina, the
founding editor of the literary magazine Kwani and winner of the Caine Prize for
African Writing in 2002.


In the film Matabane subscribes to the Rashomon theory – that a single truth is
not real, due to the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection.
“There are multiple realities about Mandela and this is the truth,’ he explained.
“But how do you capture a political icon of the 20th century who is so huge?
Obviously there are many people who love him, especially in the western world.
Others see his necessity and respect his role. There are others who are critical
and believe Mandela should have done more. It’s not for me to judge what
they’re saying, it’s for me to create a space for dialogue,’ comments Matabane.

He points out that so much has already been said about Mandela that it’s
difficult to find people who say new things about him.
“You feel like you know about Mandela when in reality you don’t. I wanted to
explore what is the real truth about Mandela. Everyone has a point of view
about him. I’m trying to get away from all the cliches about Mandela,’ says


Once he began filming Matabane’s own thoughts about Mandela emerged.
“There were no images of him available when I was growing up in a village in
Limpopo. I heard stories about him from my late grandmother so I imagined him
like a character in a folk tale – as half man half animal and with a single eye. In
my imagination Mandela was a giant – able to destroy his enemies and save
weaker people. To my grandparents’ generation Mandela was a huge figure.
There was a perception that he was a military man and that one day he would
march through the streets with guns,’ he comments.
Matabane was in high school when Mandela was released in 1990. “We huddled
round the monitor to see images of Mandela and he was this old, frail man who
didn’t look like anything like I’d imagined.
“When I started making this film all my childhood memories of Mandela came
flooding back and I started to question whether they were real. I wondered if
maybe I had made these memories up.’
Thus the film is part memoir. To this end Matabane will narrate his letter to
Mandela in the completed film and his memories will appear as animated
He stresses that the film is of an epic nature, a global project that speaks from a
South African perspective.

Funding difficulties

Surprisingly, securing finance for the film proved extremely challenging.
“You’d think it would be easy to get money for a film about Mandela but it was
just the opposite,’ stated Matabane. “We did manage to get funding from the
National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) for development and production.
Additionally, we have funding from ARTE and are in negotiations with the
The South African co-producer on A Letter to Mandela is Carolyn Carew of Born
Free Media, who is working with German co-producer Christian Beetz of
Gebruder Beetz Filmproduktion Berlin GmbH & Co. KG.
Delivery of the film is scheduled for this September.


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