'bearer of love'

South Africa: Milisuthando Bongela unpacks her striking debut film

By Wilfred Okiche

Posted on April 4, 2023 16:20

 © Director Milisuthando Bongela attends the Directors Panel at IllumiNative Presents Inaugural Indigenous House at Sundance Film Festival 2023 – Day Two on January 22, 2023 in Park City, Utah.  (Photo by Anna Webber / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)
Director Milisuthando Bongela attends the Directors Panel at IllumiNative Presents Inaugural Indigenous House at Sundance Film Festival 2023 – Day Two on January 22, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Anna Webber / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

One of the highlights of the 2023 Sundance film festival was ‘Milisuthando’, an inventive documentary essay created, written and directed by South African journalist turned filmmaker, Milisuthando Bongela. Presented in five unique chapters, Milisuthando is a complex undertaking that assumes different iterations and ideas at once and yet manages to hold on to a coherent core.

The film which is presently navigating the global festival circuit details Bongela’s unique experience growing up in the Transkei. The Transkei was a segregated zone for Xhosa people established in 1976 as an apartheid-era experiment to promote a sense of independence for Black people.

For the entirety of its existence – the experiment was dissolved in 1994 – the Transkei and other homelands remained diplomatically unrecognised, with autonomy granted entirely on the terms of the apartheid regime.

It was in this environment that Bongela came of age. Milisuthando recalls Bongela’s memories growing up in the homelands, blissfully unaware of the specter of apartheid. The film also concerns itself with the fracture that ensued when Bongela and her family are integrated into the larger South African rainbow project after the fall of apartheid.

Audiences are invited to witness her racial and sociopolitical awakening and the ways in which she continues to negotiate her existence as a Black woman untethered from her country’s past, present and future.


Milisuthando is a transformative cinematic experience and in this interview with Bongela after her Sundance premiere, The Africa Report attempts to unpack the film’s complexities as well as the director’s constantly evolving worldview.

Milisuthando is such a bold way to announce yourself. African names always mean something, what does yours mean?

Milisuthando Bongela: I think that is the key, the meaning behind the name. Milisuthando means bearer of love where there is none and it is a name my parents made up. I feel like it is an instruction and a compass for how I should be in the world. The film was named many other things before this and none of them ever felt right. We finally settled on Milisuthando some months back and something about it felt right.

The history of Transkei is complicated. On one hand, it is borne out of prejudice. On the other, it provided this cocoon that made it possible for some Black people to ignore the hate and bigotry going on outside.

I should stress that in addition to the Transkei being this instrument of apartheid in collaboration with Black leaders who saw it as a necessity at the time, there was a lot of class stratification there. I come from the middle class that was created as a result of white South Africans taking flight when the Transkei came into being in 1976. Some white people remained but it created a vacuum of civil service positions that needed to be filled and suddenly there was a Black middle class.

That is where my parents fit in. My mother was a teacher and choir conductor, and my father was also a teacher and school principal. But there were also a lot of poor people in the Transkei as there are everywhere else. I don’t want it to seem like it was milk and honey for everybody. Maybe it was for this new middle class. This was also replicated in the other homelands because, after Transkei, nine more were established over the years.

What was it like growing up in such an environment?

Belonging to the middle class gave me access to books. My first reading was the books my dad wrote. My first encounter with the written word was in isiXhosa. We had a home library and access to music. I never knew a world in which my mind was not engaged. I was taken seriously, and we were allowed to ask questions and have discussions and engage with ideas. There was this culture of education, every adult I knew was studying for something.

We were practising our indigenous culture and Christianity at the same time, and they weren’t at odds. My father was also a composer, so I came from a world that mirrored fineness. There were times we would cross the border to East London to go shopping and those were the times I would see my parents change a little bit. They would shrink a bit or change their demeanour. I am sure the grownups did, but for us, we did not think of ourselves as Black or politicised.

The film engages with whiteness in ways I found startling. It was clearly an interruption for you making that transition to post-apartheid society…

Of course, it was an interruption. It was a major hole in my life. My life seemed like it was a straight line and there was this sharp element that cut a huge gash into whatever reality I had when we left the Transkei in 1992. It was a major spiritual, physical, emotional, and psychic event going into whiteness, as it always is with any Black person anywhere in the world.

It is also something we inevitably have to deal with because who else owns the resources in a place like South Africa? This is an unfair thing. So, the first half of the film deals with my humanity, home, family, this universe I came from, and how the event that interrupted it cannot be undone.

We also came up in the time of Nelson Mandela as president and that had a massive influence on how we saw and positioned ourselves toward this idea of integration. This man was on television every day being the most amazing leader and telling us he loves us. And we believed it. I still believe it. None of it was a lie. Now how does that position you morally, ethically and politically, especially as a child? It means you keep quiet when you hear a racist joke.

Actually, in 1995 in South Africa there was no language naming a racist joke. It was like all the kids were sent into the lion’s den. What were our parents thinking, knowing what they knew about dealing with white people? And our parents do not have regrets. They look at us and see successful adults enjoying the fruits, so it is quite complex in that way.

It is a personal film, but it is also political. And in terms of form too, as you discard the three-act structure and adopt a language that is mostly yours.

It’s not that I did not try to make a conventional film. We did try but I just never felt satisfied with the traditional approaches. I did not go to film school and for a long time, I felt guilty about that. But there was a point I decided to unlearn that shame and consider it a good thing because nothing was imprinted in my mind in terms of how you approach a documentary. But even in these trials, I knew that I did not want to be didactic. I did not want to rely on these well-worn paths of having to explain South Africa’s history.

I knew I was telling a story that had not been told before, in this way and by someone from my generation. So, I used what I knew, which was my first-person narrative voice. I studied journalism and worked in a newsroom for many years and I knew this story was not aligning with the traditional journalistic approach. That kind of journalism is more fact-based; it provides information but does not often create understanding. The personal essay format gave me freedom, in my writing and also in the film.

What were your guiding pillars while pursuing this approach?

There aren’t many films that have been made in the personal essay style in South Africa by Black women. Of course, they exist but maybe because of issues of access, I haven’t seen them. Bev Ditsie’s Simon & I was incredibly helpful to me in terms of how far I could take the “I.” This paucity of references also meant that there were no limitations for me.

It took me and the editor a long time to figure out our voice. I did not exactly always know what I wanted but I knew what I did not want. One day I called my team after staying up all night and presented the new structure. It was the trajectory of my life with lots of poetry. We now had to figure out the balance between linear and non-linear, poetry and prose, fact and fiction, propaganda and newsreel. Eventually, we distilled the structure, built each universe and sewed all of them together.

I am curious about the ways you experienced whiteness and how you grapple with it even today.

My own relationship to whiteness is that I wasn’t conscious of it until much later. Coming from the Transkei, everybody who wasn’t Xhosa was new to me. When I got to the model school, it was overwhelming, and I did not have the tools to deal with it. Even the playground was segregated, and I used to play round robins to decide where to sit. Later on, when I became racially conscious it was already too late to decide to stay away from white people because they were already a part of my life.

But the friendships that survived are the ones where I am saying to them that even though I want to believe in the connection and the bond we have, we must be honest about what we are both bringing forward. What I am bringing is an inferiority complex that is left over from the last 20 years of my life. And you are bringing your superiority complex that has probably never been checked. So how do we negotiate true intimacy?

I do believe that the antidote to fascism is intimacy. Systems do not build themselves; they are upheld by people. Everyone has a different approach to this, of course, but racism isn’t going to be solved by Black people sitting alone having conversations or white people doing the same. We have to find a way to have a conversation with one another and that is the thing we are most afraid of. At some point, we must engage the feelings and the hurt and the vulnerability and the jealousy and all these other more complex human feelings.

The second half of the film might read as if I am centering whiteness, but I am not doing that. I am saying the problem is with white people and this is how these two people and I are engaging while still trying to hold on to our friendship. This was only my example, and I am not trying to be prescriptive.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.