Film Review: ‘Mother City’, unveiling Cape Town’s hidden struggles through the lens of community activism



Published Jun 12, 2024


Bob Perfect

Since the dawn of democracy in South Africa in 1994, the City of Cape Town has provided no affordable housing in central Cape Town.

This is one of the most shocking points made in Miki Redelinghuys and Pearlie Joubert’s documentary, Mother City, which is set to open this year’s Encounters SA International Documentary Film Festival.

The documentary follows Nkosikhona (Face) Swartbooi and the Ndifuna Ukwazi and Reclaim The City movements over 6 years as they fight to rectify past and ongoing injustices created by Apartheid spatial planning in Cape Town.

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and Cape Town is considered by many to be the most unequal city in South Africa. Mother City shows us why.

Cape Town is seen as an idyllic paradise for tourists from overseas and those fortunate enough to afford to live in the city, but the film shows us that life is a constant struggle for the poor and working class people who are kept on the outskirts.

It was a system initially set up by the apartheid government, but the legacy lives on due to the current policies of the DA led City of Cape Town.

Director Miki Redelinghuys. Picture: Supplied

While Nkosikhona is indeed the face of the documentary, Mother City, at its core, is about the power of community.

Despite the many injustices Cape Town’s poor and working class face, through collective organisation we watch a group of people build homes out of abandoned buildings first commandeered as acts of protest.

We also see them come together and use direct action to enact pressure on the City of Cape Town to address the issues of affordable housing in the city. Unfortunately, the City has more excuses than solutions through the course of the film.

It would have been helpful to see interviews with representatives of the City, although I am not sure how open to discussion they would have been.

Other than Brett Herron, who resigns from his post as the mayoral committee member for Transport and Urban Development during the filming, members of the municipality come across as aloof and uncaring. They pay lip service when pressured, but spend most of the film stonewalling Reclaim The City and Ndifuna Ukwazi.

We see that there’s plenty of red tape when it comes to providing affordable housing in the city, but not when selling land demarcated for public development to private property developers.

The poster for documentary, Mother City.

At 112 minutes, the length could be off-putting to potential viewers, but the film never drags and the length feels necessary to tell the full story.

There are a few brief moments of victory in the film, but there’s no cable car to the top of the mountain they have to climb. It’s an arduous journey that takes its toll on our main subject.

Nkosikhona is a driven leader with a righteous cause, and you can see the fire build inside him as he struggles against a behemoth, but that fire is nearly extinguished by an avoidable tragedy.

Despite being constantly beaten down by the system, through the power of community, the fight continues.

*This review was produced as part of the Talent Press programme, an initiative of Talents Durban in collaboration with the Durban FilmMart Institute (DFMI). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author ( Bob Perfect ) and cannot be considered as constituting an official position of the organisers.