Goodbye Bafana

Goodbye Bafana


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

To tell the story of the ANC struggle against the white South African regime through Nelson Mandela’s prison guard is like telling the story of the Third Reich through Adolf Hitler’s valet. The range of vision is considerably restricted.

James Gregory (Joseph Fiennes) was a farm boy whose best friend was a Kaffir. He grew up and joined the prison service where he witnessed systematic cruelties against black men within a claustrophobic environment of extreme racism. And yet he never said a word. He had his family to think about.

Copy picture

By the time he is posted to Robben Island in 1968 he has a lovely wife, Gloria (Diane Kruger), and two well behaved children, a boy and a girl. Gloria worries about money and his chances of promotion. She is a hair stylist and quickly establishes herself amongst the other wives. James is conscientious, naïve, loyal, essentially decent and decidedly dull. Neither are intellectually inquisitive, nor a bundle of laughs. Politically, like so many during those years of denial, they appear neutral.

The film is based on Gregory’s autobiography and concentrates on his involvement and, later, friendship with Mandela (Dennis Haysbert). On the island, he is used by the security forces in Pretoria as a spy, being the only guard who can speak Mandela’s native tongue. His official position is Chief Censor, checking and editing letters – one every six months per inmate.

Gregory’s disillusionment with the system slowly grows, as does his admiration for Mandela, with whom he remains until his release. He is haunted by the knowledge that information he passed to Pretoria led to the murder of innocent people. Gloria, meanwhile, remains a dutiful housewife and mother, more or less oblivious of apartheid.

Goodbye Bafana – that’s his childhood friend, by the way – is well made and beautifully acted. The frustration arises from its narrow remit. Gregory’s colleagues and superior officers are bullies and racists. Although the other leaders of the ANC are on Robben Island, they do not contribute to the film. Even Mandela is seen as a wise, considerate, formal presence, exactly what you would expect.

This is James Gregory’s story, touching the hem of greatness. He is proud of his association, that of guard to the prisoner. What, you may ask, was Mandela thinking, after being isolated, chained and humiliated for a third of his life? You won’t find an answer here.

Reviewed on: 11 May 2007
Share this with others on...
Goodbye Bafana packshot
Nelson Mandela's prison guard tells his story.
Amazon link

Director: Bille August

Writer: Greg Latter, based on the book by Bob Graham and James Gregory

Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Dennis Haysbert, Diane Kruger, Shiloh Henderson, Mehboob Bawa, Adrian Galley, Warrick Grier, Patrick Lyster, Leslie Mongezi, Sizwe Msutu, Terry Pheto

Year: 2007

Runtime: 118 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Germany/Belgium/South Africa/UK/Luxembourg


Search database: