5978064205_02167a35ef_mLizzy Tomei is a journalist and master’s student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is currently interning with our Forced Evictions campaign.


Less than two decades ago, South Africa joined the ranks of democracies around the world as years of agonizing civil struggle and violence gave way to the moment so many had fought for: the end of apartheid, and the beginning of a government representative of all its people. With the anti-apartheid movement’s most prominent freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela, at the helm of government, the country enshrined its new ideals of social justice in one of the most progressive constitutions written in the 20th century. South Africa in 1994 became an inspiring symbol to millions worldwide of the power of ordinary citizens to effect change in the name of justice.

But while South Africa’s transition from inequality was a tremendous moment, realizing the nation’s ambitious policy goals in the years since has been far more difficult. When it comes to rights of the poor to housing, South Africa has suffered from a familiar development trap WITNESS has observed across its Forced Evictions campaign: Economic growth has replaced—and in some cases, been a devastating impediment to—social and human development.

But there are new freedom fighters rising. In their inspiring new documentary, “Dear Mandela,” premiering today in South Africa at the Durban International Film Festival, filmmakers Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza chronicle the four-year-long fight of shack-dwelling activists  defending their homes in Durban, one of the country’s largest port cities, against demolition by housing officials.

DEAR MANDELA theatrical trailer

WITNESS first learned of Chris and Dara’s work in June 2010, when Ryan Schlief, program manager on the Forced Evictions campaign, met them at The Good Pitch panel at the Silverdocs Film Festival. Since then, their documentary has evolved into a powerful feature-length film depicting a new generation of human rights defenders in South Africa.

Under what was popularly known as “The Slums Act,” local government had planned to eradicate many of the informal settlements in KwaZulu Natal—the province that includes Durban—by 2014. But after a long journey from the grassroots to South Africa’s highest court, affected communities finally prevail: In a striking example of the power of “people who know their rights,” the Act is declared unconstitutional, a ruling that has subsequently made it more difficult for other provinces to forcibly evict shack dwellers.

I spoke with Dara and Chris to learn more about how the concurrent processes of filmmaking and activism amplified each other over four years. Watch the video (7 min) to hear more from behind the scenes:

Have you seen other videos that are challenging perceptions of people living in informal settlements? Please share links to them in the comments section!

3 thoughts on “New Film Captures the Trials and Triumphs of Housing Activists in South Africa

  1. Thanks for your comment, Wendy. We’ve just learned that “Dear Mandela” was awarded “Best South African Documentary” at the Durban International Film Festival. Said the jury: “A movie about courage, this documentary is beautifully shot, socially relevant and still manages to offer humour as it reveals a growing grassroots political literacy in South Africa’s informal settlements.”


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