In a panel discussion that followed a screening of Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu, Thabo Rametsi, the actor who played Mahlangu, made the point that in films that dealt with apartheid made by British, American or other non-South African filmmakers, the events were often more important than the people. In Kalushi, the debut film of South African director Mandla Dube, the people were more important than the events.

This was evident throughout the film, which begins with Mahlangu as a young man who ekes out a meagre living selling fruit and vegetables on trains. Despite living in the apartheid regime, Mahlangu is a cheerful soul. He lives with his doting mother and older brother, and he spends his free time with his girlfriend Brenda, played by Pearl Thusi.

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His cheerfulness dissipates after he is brutally assaulted and humiliated by a white police officer on a train. This is followed by the deaths and brutalisation of scores of schoolchildren who were protesting against having Afrikaans as a mandatory language in their education. These protests in 1976 became known as the Soweto Riots.

Upset by the continuing and ever-increasing dehumanisation of black South Africans by the white supremacist apartheid regime, Mahlangu decides to take a stand and fight back. He runs away from home and sneaks into Mozambique with three comrades to go into exile.

In Kalushi, the people are more important than the events

After languishing in a refugee camp in Mozambique for a few months, the three sent communication to the African National Congress’s military wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe, who picked them up and took them to Angola. There they underwent rigorous paramilitary training.

Mahlangu and his comrades’ return to South Africa via Swaziland was the beginning of the end of his freedom. In a series of unfortunate events, they get caught up in a chase and shoot-out that leaves two white men dead. Despite not being the triggerman, Mahlangu is found guilty under the common purpose doctrine. He is subsequently sentenced to death by hanging.

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Ever defiant, Mahlangu gives a rousing speech in the courtroom. His last words were: “My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight.”

Kalushi Tells a Human Story

Kalushi is a powerful film on multiple levels. It strongly delivers on its message of one man’s ability to love. Everything Mahlangu does is out of love. He loves his family, his girlfriend, his friends and his country. He is willing to fight for what he loves, even if that meant his certain death.

“Revolution is an act of love,” he says in the film, with all the sincerity in the world.

Where this film really succeeds is in telling the human story of the toll that being a revolutionary takes on the people close to them. You get to see up close the pain and heartache of people who will lose a son, a brother and a partner. This is the narrative we seldom see and there is rarely a fairy-tale ending. As Thabo Rametsi noted in the panel discussion, events are not more important than people and in Kalushi, the people take centre stage.

Kalushi is a brilliant film that works well, despite some directorial liberties (for example, Mahlangu’s girlfriend, Brenda, is a fictional character). The viewer feels the full brunt of the injustice of apartheid. You feel the urgency of a young man who simply wants freedom for his people. You desperately want him to succeed, but unfortunately we know how his story ends. It is a comfort, however, that his death was not in vain. His blood did indeed nourish the tree that bore the fruits of freedom.