Mandela (1987)




Director:     Philip Saville.

Starring:     Danny Glover (Nelson Mandela),  Alfre Woodard (Winnie Mandela),  John Matshikiza (Walter Sisulu),  John Indi (Oliver Tambo), Warren Clarke (Swanepoel),  Allan Corduner (Benny),  Julian Glover (Senior Police Officer).

TV movie.

Based on the story of Nelson and Winnie Mandela, leaders of the civil rights struggle in South Africa.   


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

1948.  South Africa.  The Prime Minister Daniel F. Malan.  "Today South Africa belongs to us.  We shall be introducing legislation to implement our policy which we call apartheid, the separation between the races.  Races will live and travel separately.  Education will be separate for all groups at all levels.  Work fitting for the white man will be reserved for him and him alone.  Apartheid rests on three unarguable foundations:  Afrikaner experience; scientific proof that  the white man is a superior being; and Biblical whips(?).  Apartheid represents divine will." 

The radio announcement is accompanied by film of white policemen descending on a settlement and forcing everybody into busses.  Then a bull dozer is brought in to knock down the shacks of the settlement. 

1952.  A young Nelson Mandela gets off the train and goes into a settlement.  He knocks on a door and introduces himself and says he is from the African National Congress.  The woman sends Mandela away, but he gets invited in at the next place he visits.  He speaks to a group of people inside a building about what the movement needs.  They need people who are willing to die.  These people will have to be able to tolerate being kicked and beaten.  A man gets up and says he has a bad temper and has to hit back.  Mandela says they must not strike back and they must learn to control their tempers.  A woman gets up and tells Mandela to go back to the city because she has two sons in prison now.  She says Mandela wants them to let themselves be killed in prison.   

Mandela says he has been going back and forth across the country speaking to different groups and they will have an army of unarmed people committed to the cause behind them.   No one needs to be alone.  Instead, they will be united with others all committed to the liberation of their nation.  And this includes black, white and yellow.

A peaceful protest is being held.  The police warn the protestors that they will be arrested if they don't disperse in ten seconds.  The group just keeps singing.  So now the police start pushing them down the street. 

A group of white policemen meet.  They are worried about the ANC.  In their defiance campaign they called for 10,000 volunteers and got 8,500 volunteers.  But worse is that ANC membership rose from a membership of 7,000 to 100,00 and the campaign is still going on.  And that is why, says the head of police, that he needs to have a wider degree of latitude in handling the protestors.  He wants to be able to label as a communist anyone who is trying to bring about any change in South Africa whether it's social, political or economic change.

The police get their wider powers and have been given the specific task of going after the leaders of the ANC  -- to cut the head off of the snake.  The first man to go after is Chief Albert Luthuli.  The second target is General Secretary Walter Sisulu, "a real troublemaker".  And then there is an attorney named Oliver Tambo, a member of the ANC executive committee, that they must get their hands on.  Tambo is very clever and must be watched closely.  The task of brining in Mandela is given to Sgt. Swanepoel.   Mandela is also a lawyer and has just been elected to the Transvaal ANC. 

Mandela speaks to a group telling them that the Defiance Campaign has been a resounding success.  Swanepoel leads a group of police into the meeting.  As narrator, Mandela says the harder the movement worked, the harder the police tried to arrest the leadership.  They were arrested again and again, but had to be released again and again because the authorities had no proof of the charges against them. 

In court Mandela, Sisulu and Tampo are given a nine month stint in prison, but are released on the condition that they will not be politically active for two years.  So the men walk out of the courthouse.  To meet them is Swanepoel who gives them a court order not to leave Johannesburg. 

At the law firm of Mandela and Tampo, the three men gather some things together. 

1956.  Nelson comes into his office and is a bit surprised to see Swanepoel sitting at his desk.  With him are other policemen.  Swanepoel tells Nelson that he is under arrest on the charge of high treason.   

1957.  There is a big trial going on for high treason.  There were 156 people being tried all at once, but now 61 have had their indictments squashed and 65 were found not guilty.  Only 30 people remain and the defense lawyer asks that they all be freed on bail.  The judge agrees and all 30 get out of jail. 

Oliver Tambo and a woman named Adelaide are driving to a restaurant to eat.  They pass by a woman named Winnie and stop to give her a ride.  Tambo tells her that he has seen her somewhere recently and Adelaide tells him that Winnie was in the newspapers.  She is going to get a job as a social worker.  They go to the restaurant but Oliver realizes that he forgot to bring his wallet.  He walks into the restaurant and sees that Mandela is there.  He tells Adelaide to go in and order anything she wants and tell Mandela he has to pay for it all.  Mandela tells her to get what she wants and she gets enough food to feed all three people in the car. 

Nelson accompanies Adelaide out to the car.  He sees Winnie in the back of the car and asks to be introduced to her.  Nelson seems impressed by her looks and he remembers that he did see Winnie in the newspaper and even remembered where she is staying. 

In school Winnie gets a telephone call.  It's Nelson and he makes a date with Winnie to see her Sunday.  At the time for the date Winnie sees that Nelson is surrounded by three people asking him for his help.  Nelson grabs her and hurries her to his car.  They go to a restaurant.  At the restaurant Nelson is interrupted by another man who wants to talk to him.  And now a woman comes up telling Mandela that they have just arrested her husband.  From the restaurant kitchen comes two more people wanting his help. 

Winnie attends Nelson's trial.  Nelson testifies that the ANC can use the numerical superiority of the blacks in the country to bring about economic changes through things like staying home from work. 

On a date Nelson asks Winnie if she would help raise money for the defendants in the treason trial?  Winnie is a bit disappointed in the nature of the question, because she was expecting something romantic, but she says yes.  When they get to the car Nelson and Winnie kiss. 

The judge asks Mandela if the ANC is not a direct threat to the Europeans?  Mandela says absolutely not.  They are not against whites, but only against the system of white supremacy.  He rejects racialism regardless of who practices it. 

Nelson stops his car beside the walking Winnie.  He says that there are gangs in the area and she shouldn't be out walking alone.  Winnie says she is sorry.   Nelson then tells her to go see the dressmaker, because the lady will make Winnie a wedding gown.  Winnie is stunned.  She can't believe her ears.  Nelson tells her she can choose how many bridesmaids she needs.  He then hurries away in his car leaving Winnie still stunned by the news.

June 1958.  Nelson marries Winnie.  There are lots of people at the wedding, including some whites.  Alone together Winnie says she wonders what their lives will be like.  And thee is one thing she knows for sure:  Life with Nelson Mandela is also life without Nelson Mandela.  Nelson says he will take her on a honeymoon.  Winnie asks what honeymoon?  The honeymoon will be with Nelson in the dock and Winnie in the public gallery.  He laughs and she taps him on the shoulder with her fist. 

March 21, 1960.  Sharpeville.  A bus driver comes to pick up the workers to take them to their jobs.  He is stopped by protestors who ask him not to pick up the commuters.  They are having a work stoppage.  The bus driver asks what will happen if he doesn't agree?  They will take his official pass from him and that will cause him a great deal of trouble with the white authorities.  The people are gathering together at the police station to protest the pass laws. 

The white chief of police is concerned as he calls his superiors.  He says he thinks they must be surrounded by about 20,000 blacks.  He says they are going to be breaking down the fence soon.  The chief, if not scared, is extremely concerned.   He says the crowd is hostile and has sticks and stones with them.  He adds:  "I would say I was under siege, sir." 

Soon enough police reinforcements in trucks drive through the gates with rifles in their hands.  The police now surround the police station.  The  order is given to load their weapons, aim and then fire.  The men don't fire right away, but the sergeant fires his weapon into the air.  This scares the crowd.  They turn and start running. Now the sergeant tells his men to fire.  As they are running away they are being shot and killed.  The sergeant does not call a cease fire until almost all of the still living protestors are getting close to being out of range. 

People come out later to search through the dead.  (69 peaceful protestors are killed and over 180 are wounded or hurt.)

Mandela's law office is very sad over the events at Sharpeville.  Mandela figures the government is next coming after them. 

As a protest against what happened at Sharpeville, there is a demonstration where a small group of people burn their passes.  The leader of the group Albert Luthuli is arrested. 

The government concludes that the police were provoked by a communist-inspired mob.  A state of emergency exist throughout the country.  The leaders of the ANC have been arrested.  And the government is not going to do anything to change its apartheid system. 

The government has detained 20,000 blacks over the civil rights movement.  Some ANC men in prison talk about turning to the use of weapons against the whites.  Sisulu tells them that they will only  follow the directions of the ANC executive committee.  Mandela is also in the same prison.  He also rejects the turn to violence on the part of the blacks.  Sisulu and Mandela both figure that the ANC is going to have to go underground since it has been officially banned.

In the high treason trial, the last 30 defendants are finally going to hear their verdicts.  The judge lets them all go because the government couldn't prove their case that the ANC was trying to overthrow the government.  Nor could the government show that the communists had turned the ANC into a communist group.  There is great cheering among the defendants. 

Nelson comes home to Winnie and his two girls. There are lots of hugs and kisses. Unfortunately, Nelson has to leave soon. He is going to leave the country, if he can.  Wiinie says:  "I didn't marry a man.  I married a struggle."

Pietermaritzburg. 1961.  Mandela and other leaders meet for a meeting before a large crowd.  Mandela says that the government has only responded to their efforts by tougher legislation and violence.  He says that the people have a right to self-defense.  He also tells the crowd that he will not leave South Africa nor will he surrender. 

The newspapers are full of articles about Mandela at Pietermaritzburg.  The white chief of police tells Swanepoel to find this Mandela immediately.  He wants this publicity about Mandela to stop. 

A white man named Benny lets Mandela hide in his house.  Mandela gets up at 5 a.m. to do two hours of exercise. 

People in the movement take Winnie to see Nelson.  Their car is followed by a car with two policemen in it.  At a pre-arranged meeting place, Winnie's car stops and she is transferred to an ambulance.  Another woman dressed like Winnie is put in the car.  When they are ready the ambulance heads off to the right, while the police car follows Winnie's car off to the left. 

Benny stays outside of his house while he gives Nelson and Winnie some private time together.  In bed Nelson tells Winnie that he wishes he could have given her a better life, but Winnie says she wouldn't have it any other way.

Nelson and Benny use Benny's car (with Nelson playing the chauffer) to drive over to Chief Albert Luthuli's house. Nelson tells the chief that by right of self-defense they should be able to sabotage certain government targets.  A man makes a time bomb and it is used to blow up a statue of a soldier with the word Majuba at the base.  (The battle at Majuba Hill, near Volksrust, South Africa, February 27, 1881,was the main battle of the First Boer War and was a resounding victory for the Boers.)  They blow up electrical towers and oil storage containers. 

Winnie is brought to a bazaar.  She walks over to an area with a lot of dresses.  Hidden among the dresses is Nelson.  He pops out among the dresses and this startles Winnie a bit.  He tells her not to be sad at what he is going to tell her.  He has to go on a journey. 

Swanepoel tells his men that they have to capture this Mandela.  He shows a photo of Mandela in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with Oliver Tampo, the head of ANC in exile.  He has other photos of Mandela in Algiers and in London talking to the Labor Party.  Swanepoel wants Mandela arrested as soon as he comes back to South Africa. 

In Ravonia Mandela drives to a safe house in Benny's car with Benny in the backseat.  Winnie runs out to greet her husband.  They have a big party with lots of guests. 

Mandela is playing chauffeur to Benny again, when he is stopped at a check point.  A policeman asks for the driver's pass and Mandela hands it over.  The policeman recognizes his photo as being that of Mandela and he notifies the other policemen.  Mandela and Benny are taken into custody.  Benny is released and he goes over to tell Winnie what happened to Nelson.  Mandela will probably be appearing in a Johannesburg court tomorrow.   Winnie says:  "I think I just lost part of my soul."

Mandela is found guilty on two counts.  His punishment is three years at hard labor for the first offense and two years at hard labor for the second offense.

Somebody rat finks on the ANC leadership and the cops descend on the house where the meeting of the leadership is taking place.  Swanepoel finds some key documents at the house and is very happy to find them. 

In prison there is a happy get together with most of the ANC leadership.  Mandela is happy to see his friends, even if he doesn't like the fact that they are in prison now.  Their lawyer tells them that they will probably all be charged with sabotage and guerilla warfare.  And the prosecution will insist that  the ANC is a communist organization.  The lawyer says the government wants a hanging.  Mandela says he doesn't want to approach this trial as a legal matter.  They must turn the trial into a political trial.  They want to use the trial as a platform for their political views.  They even want to tell the authorities that they wanted to overthrow the government and then will give the reasons for this.  Mandela says they will fight the authorities not on their terms, but on terms of the ANC. 

There are peaceful protests under banners that say:  "Don't Kill Our Leaders!"  Winnie goes into the court house to watch the trial.  Mandela does a good job in explaining his positions and in criticizing the government's false interpretations of his positions.  The judge says he has decided not to impose the death penalty on any of the defendants.  But their sentence will be life in prison. 

1964.  Now the political prisoners are taken to the prison on Robben Island.  The prisoner have to work hard at breaking rocks. They start singing while they work, but the guards make them stop.

1966.  Mrs. Mandela has been isolated to a small area and cannot do any writing of articles or do any public speaking.   

1967.  Mrs. Mandela visits Nelson in prison. 

1969.  The police grab Winnie Mandela and put her in jail. She hears the screams of a woman and shouts encouragement to her.  She is in solitary confinement.  Nelson gets a letter from her and he writes back to her.  She has now spent a year in jail.  and now she has been in for 14 months.  She it taken from her cell to be interrogated by the nasty Swanepoel.  He wants to know how is she getting messages from Tambo and how is she getting them to Mandela?  Winnie says she just wants to sleep.  (They are probably using sleep deprivation to get her to talk.)  She falls unconscious.  

Winnie is now in her 17th month of solitary confinement.  She writes Nelson that she is not getting any letters from him. 

Winnie is released from solitary.  The news makes Nelson very happy. 

Soweto Uprising, June 16, 1976.  The police attack the settlement killing people and setting fires.  After the massacre there is a huge mass funeral for the dead.  (The estimates of the number of dead varied from 200 to 600 with 1,000 wounded.)  Winnie says a few words about the 50 dead they are burying this day.  The uprising was about the black school children refusing to learn Afrikaans and demanding to be taught English.  She also says that it will not be long before their leaders will lead them all to freedom.  The people start chanting:  "Free Mandela!"

May 16, 1977.  At her place Winnie is arrested by the police again.  She is being banned to the Orange Free State.  Further restrictions are placed upon her. 

Winnie sees Mandela in prison.  He has some white hair now after so many years in prison. 

Nelson is transferred from the prison on Robben Island to Pollsmoor, a maximum security prison near Cape Town. Now contact visits are permitted between Nelson and Winnie.  And Nelson meets again his now grown daughter and his young granddaughter.  There is a big family hug. 

There have been world-wide protests for the release of Nelson Mandela.  The government is considering the release of Nelson Mandela as long as he will not participate in the planning of the ANC or any other such organization.  The prison guard at Pollsmoor urges Mandela to grab his chance for freedom now.  He has already done more than enough for the movement.  In fact, he has spent one-third of his life now in prison.  Nelson sits listening to the man's words. 

Winnie visits Nelson and is expected to give the news media Nelson's decision on what he is going to do.  One of his daughters reads Nelson's response.  He will stay in prison rather than agree to Prime Minister Botha's conditions. 


There's good news and bad news about this version of the story of Mandela.  The bad new is that it finishes before Mandela is finally freed. (But on the other hand, there are films on Mandela that deal with this period very well.)  The good news is that the run up to the Mandela story is covered.  For instance, some of the incidents not covered in other Mandela films are the courtship of Mandela with Winnie and the Sharpeville Massacre.  Another interesting feature is that the film talks about the right of self-defense concept (presented at Pietermaritzburg) that was used to justify sabotage bombings.  I don't remember Martin Luther King, Jr. ever talking about sabotage bombings.  So in this movement in South Africa, there were peaceful demonstrations (and bombings).  That surprised me. 

Another thing that came our more in this version of the Mandela story is how much his wife Winnie suffered in her support of the civil rights movement. 

Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard are very good as Nelson Mandela and Winnie Mandela. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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