Thursday, October 21, 2004

Basotho hero finally comes to life on screen

The premiere on South African TV last night of a documentary film on Moshoeshoe, the king who built the Basotho nation, honours the 19th-century hero as SA’s “first Mandela”, says University of the Free State rector and vicechancellor Prof Frederick Fourie.

The documentary has its origins in a conversation between Fourie and South African authorpoet Antjie Krog last April.

“We were discussing history and heroes and she (Krog) said: You have got to honour Moshoeshoe’,” Fourie says.

That comment spurred Fourie to head for the library and fuelled his discussions with historians who told him more about the Basotho king.

“It dawned upon us that he was our first Mandela, our first nation-builder and reconciliator. He is an important symbol, especially now that we must build a new society from a very fractured one,” he says.

Veteran journalist Max du Preez, who has done about six years of research on Moshoeshoe, had given up hope of making a film on the African statesman.

“No one wanted it. The SABC said no, (M-Net’s) KykNet wasn’t interested,” Du Preez says.

But Krog told Fourie of Du Preez’s dream. The professor contacted the journalist and the film was eventually made.

“I wanted to make a film because I recognise how powerful television is and I am a bit obsessed with popularising history,” says Du Preez. “I thought Moshoeshoe was too spectacular to hide in a book and I wanted to jolt South Africans into saying: My God, we forgot this great man in our past’.”

The film, The Renaissance King, tells Moshoeshoe’s remarkable story and links his philosophy of inclusivity and democracy with the aims of President Thabo Mbeki’s African Renaissance.

“He stabilised SA at a time of great upheaval,” says Du Preez. “There was massive famine and tens of thousands of people died during the Mfecane. Only one guy said: I am going to stop this.’ No one can imagine what the effect would have been if the Mfecane went on for another 20 years.”

The king united thousands of people from various tribes and nations, which were scattered during the Mfecane, a time of upheaval characterised by violence and plundering against the Sotho people by invading Nguni clans.

The united people eventually formed the Basotho nation.

Moshoeshoe moved to Thaba Bosiu in modern-day Lesotho, and gained a reputation as a wise leader who was compassionate towards those he defeated.

This, and his successful defence of his people, resulted in many people flocking to Thaba Bosiu for protection.

“He is one of the easiest people in our past that we can all identify with. Anyone can stand up and say: I’m so thankful for this guy’,” Du Preez says.

A cameo appearance by Du Preez’s great-great grandfather, former South African statesman Paul Kruger, in Moshoeshoe’s life simply added to the fascination he has had for the king since his childhood in Free State.

Kruger, who was not yet president of the Transvaal Republic, met Moshoeshoe as a negotiator for the Republic of the Orange Free State. On the second day of negotiations Kruger remonstrated with the Basotho King for arriving late for talks and asked why he came in a loincloth.

“He towered over Kruger, looked him in the eye and said: Because I am Moshoeshoe.’ I think that is so powerful,” Du Preez says.

Fourie said that yesterday’s premiere was “phase one” of his intention to deliver the message of Moshoeshoe’s reconciliatory role to SA and the world.

“It’s part of a general transformation (of the Free State campus and society),” the Free State professor says. “Many people count faces, black and white, but I see it as a more fundamental thing.

“The way people view history shapes the way they view the world. Moshoeshoe is a good icon,” says Fourie, who dreams of erecting a statue of the king on campus, next to the one of former Free State president MP Steyn .

“My biggest goal is to create a shared sense of history,” says Fourie, whose idea of an annual memorial Moshoeshoe lecture on African leadership is also awaiting for formal approval from university officials.

SABC 2 will screen The Renaissance King on November 4.