The film examines what “truth” and “reconciliation” mean for one ordinary man: Sipho, an ageing black librarian in the township of New Brighton. It shows his painful journey towards confronting his own experiences under apartheid: the killing of his son, shot dead by police, and the rift with his brother, an activist who went into exile.
SIPHO MAKHAYA is the junior librarian at the Port Elizabeth Central Library. With forty-three years of dutiful service to the institution, and with the new ANC government’s policy of promoting black men to positions of authority, Sipho is quietly confident of soon being appointed Chief Librarian.
As young men during the dark days of Apartheid, Sipho and his brother THEMBA’s choices in South Africa were few: either, as Sipho did, find a way to live within the oppressive system - or go Themba’s way: fight against it and risk almost certain imprisonment and sometimes death, or exile.
All these years since his youth, Sipho has privately chafed against the perception in his community of Themba as a “hero of the Struggle” while he himself has been invisible. Then the news comes that Themba has died in exile, and that his body is being returned to South Africa for burial. Sipho, accompanied by his daughter, THANDO, drives to the airport to meet Themba’s daughter, MANDISA (who has grown up in England). As it turns out, Mandisa arrives with an urn of ashes instead of a body. Sipho is outraged: not only is this socially embarrassing in terms of African culture - but he also has to come to terms with his brother’s “ghost” without the reality of Themba’s body.
Painful memories of Themba come flooding back to Sipho. Since early childhood, Themba was the favoured one in the family. It was Sipho who had to work to help pay for Themba to attend university - an opportunity which his brother squandered. Great personal losses in Sipho’s life have been the direct result of his brother’s conduct.
Then comes another crisis. Sipho gets the news that he has been overlooked for the promotion at the library because of his age. Everything he has invested in and stood for seems suddenly of no worth. On his way home from the library, he gets drunk - and is found by his daughter and his niece. Back home, with his defences down, he rails against all the hurts and injustices he has had to suffer. The most painful of these is that his only son followed in “glamorous” uncle Themba’s footsteps, only to be killed by the Apartheid security police. No less painful is the fact that the womanising Themba had a long affair with Sipho’s wife and she subsequently left him.
Almost cruelly, Sipho deflates the myth that Mandisa has clung to of her father’s being a “hero of the Struggle”. She reels as one revelation after another unfolds. But in the end, she finds it within herself to say sorry for what her father has done to him. Sipho reflects. In clinging to his anger, he is in a prison of his own making. His only way of freeing himself is to forgive. Sipho is finally able to deal with his brother’s “ghost” through the presence of Themba’s daughter. He says to her:
“If I can forgive all the white people for what
they did to us in this country, how can I not
forgive my own brother?”
When Themba’s funeral is over, Mandisa asks Sipho whether he will go back to the library. No, he says - he intends to ask the President to fund the first public library in the African township where he lives. There, he will be in charge: “Mr Sipho Makhaya, Chief Librarian of the African Public Library in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, South Africa”.