DISCLAIMER: This reflection is not meant to romanticise crime. Perhaps it is more to contextualise it.
For a country which has experienced so many immoral laws, we sure mistake legality for morality more often than we should. These two are viewed as the same- if it is illegal, then it is immoral. I often wonder how it is that poverty is so immoral but it is not illegal. Instead, it is poor people who are illegal. This seems like one of the many issues that the film Jerusalema (2008) tackles.Morality. And the disillusionment that came after the end of the official Apartheid regime. Perhaps it does so unwittingly, as the scriptwriter, Ralph Ziman once remarked that he “wanted Jerusalema to take a harsh but realistic look at Johannesburg, but [he] also wanted to reflect the hopes and aspirations of its citizens. When you look at Hillbrow from a distance, it does look like that shining city on a hill, the New Jerusalem that will be our salvation, but when you get onto its streets, you find another story.”
Based on a true story, the film begins with Lucky Kunene (Rapulana Seiphemo) quoting his two heroes, Al Capone and Karl Marx. “Al Capone said if you’re going to steal, steal big. But Karl Marx said all property is theft”. All property is theft. When we have; it means that someone else does not. All we have, we have acquired through someone being violated in the process- blatant theft, worker exploitation etc. This introduction into the film foreshadows the journey that I took with morality as the story unfolds.
In Christianity, Jerusalem is especially significant because it is where Jesus Christ was crucified and resurrected. In this way, Jerusalem has come to symbolise a place of rest. A place of hope. The first song which plays on the soundtrack is a song called Jerusalem written by Alan Lazar and performed by Sipho Nxumalo. The song portrays Jerusalem as an eventuality to be nurtured; a freedom to be protected. Throughout the film, different renditions of the Xhosa hymn called Jerusalem are sung. Ringo Madlingozi and the late Mandoza sing their own as well; with Madlingozi’s clear voice singing “ndiyakulangazelela, ndakufika kuwe”. I search for you. This hope, this post-Apartheid hope is the mood of the film. The new South Africa will be Jerusalem.
In the beginning of his narration of his story, Lucky sets the scene, providing context. “The beginning,” he says “Soweto. 1994. Freedom. The new South Africa. I had dreams”. He talks about the honest living he and his best friend, Zakes (first played by Motlatsi Mahloko and later by Ronnie Nyakale) made, “selling peanuts for peanuts”. This hope that he had of this new South Africa, this Jerusalem, is portrayed through young Lucky (Jafta Mamabolo) getting accepted into the University of Witwatersrand. This was the new South Africa. However, just as soon as he is celebrating- he is awakened by the harsh reality that he has not been granted a bursary and therefore cannot afford to go to university. Not quite the new South Africa he envisioned.
One day after school, Lucky and Zakes bump into an old guerrilla called Comrade Nazareth who trained in Moscow for the armed struggle. As they are in conversation, Zakes reveals that Nazareth is involved in car hijacking, to which Nazareth responds with the words “it’s called Affirmative Repossession”. Shortly after that, Lucky and Zakes commit their first robbery in an attempt to get tuition. After that, they become involved in carjacking. In a song called “Ghetto”, The Muffinz sing “when judgment comes, forgive us Lord for we have made mistakes forced by circumstances to live a life filled with thieving and sinning. They stole our dreams in the ghetto, we were doomed from the get go.” These sentiments are often contested. Criminal activity is seen as choice. Mostly by the very architects of crime- those with property.Sometimes by those whose agency has been able to somewhat defeat the structures in existence against them- the barriers to success. In Sociology, agency is understood as “the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices” and structure as “the distinctive, stable arrangement of institutions whereby human beings in a society interact and live together.” These two phenomena, so to speak, are constantly in battle with each other.
Agency: You can choose to make it out of poverty if you work hard enough. Look at me, I was poor. There are other ways.
Structure: The system has ensured that Lucky does not have access to wealth and therefore he cannot afford to go to university. The system has excluded him.
As the years pass, Lucky tries to escape a life of crime and eventually lands back in. This time, Comrade Nazareth’s sentiments of Affirmative Repossession are echoed as he starts a housing trust that withholds rent from the landlords until the rundown buildings in Hillbrow are fixed. As he does this, he is labelled “the African Robinhood” who is going to “take back the land acquired by whites”. These ideas are crucial to understanding the anger that many have with the system. Along with the disillusionment. The system inspires a distrust that leads to people committing or supporting this crime. This is how Lucky manages to grow his empire. Violence escalates as it often does where money and crime are concerned.
Most notable about the film is that as it climaxes, we realise that Lucky has spun himself an impossible web as he further gets into hot water. This is why it is incredibly difficult to classify Lucky as the protagonist. However, the conditions predetermined by the system for him also make it difficult to classify him as the antagonist. So in this way, it brings to light the complexities of morality. Particularly in Post-Apartheid South Africa which was expected to be a New Jerusalem by many who did not foresee the structural barriers which would live on for much longer. The dwindling hope of South Africans as we realise that the end of Apartheid was not the end of suffering is not unrelated the rise of crime in South Africa. The story of Lucky Kunene and many other Lucky Kunenes does not exist in an immoral vacuum.