Stander: The True Story of the Insider Who Turned Against the Establishment
I remember the scenes from my childhood in South Africa: police and army battalions, in full riot gear, blocking township streets with armoured vehicles and barbed wire. Scores of black youth protesting the injustices of Apartheid. The battle of stones against guns. The oppressed versus the oppressor.
The riot scenes in Stander, expertly crafted by Canadian director Bronwyn Hughes, are some of the most authentic I’ve seen. The Soweto Uprising of 1976 is often regarded as a watershed in the fight against Apartheid. Similarly, this violent flashpoint is the catalyst that forever changes the life of Andre Stander (Thomas Jane) as he begins a journey of audacious rebellion and self-destruction, the likes of which the South African public had never before seen. Amidst the uprisings, Police Captain Andre Stander, the son of Major General Frans Stander, turns bank robber.
Since the dismantling of Apartheid in 1994, the stories that have emerged about that time typically revolve around the disenfranchised and oppressed fighting for freedom against an egregious system. Stander flips that narrative entirely, and presents the true story of a man who undermines the very system of which he is an agent. Captain Stander is a privileged white Afrikaner with strong ties to law enforcement. However, from the moment we meet him, it’s clear that he’s a maverick - an individualist in a country and an institution that rejects non-conformity.
South Africa in the 1970s and 80s was a police state. The anti-Apartheid movement was gaining momentum and a growing fear of a communism threatened to de-stabilize the regime. The police worked tirelessly to uphold the laws of the Apartheid government and to maintain order within the country. Their goal was to give the appearance of total control.
As a schoolboy, I remember the military vehicles and armed police on city streets. I remember the poster on my classroom wall with pictures, in relief, of the different kinds of mines and explosive devices that were the “weapons of the terrorists.” The police did what police do in fascist regimes – instill fear in one group to justify the oppression of another. Although there were some white South Africans who opposed the Apartheid government, few were public critics or activists. Those who did challenge the system were mostly journalists, lawyers, academics or artists. Many were silenced.
Andre Stander represented a kind of everyman who thumbed his nose at the government in a way that embarrassed and undermined the powerful. His resistance was unexpected. He was curveball. Stander wasn’t fighting for equality, per se; he was making a mockery of the police, while being one of them. For the South African public, that was thrilling. “You mean that we’ve just been robbed by Andre Sander? Andre Stander! Now that’s something, hey!” says a bank manager after an armed robbery. And that was how it was.
As a young boy I heard the stories of the “Stander Gang” as the media dubbed them after Stander had recruited two other men. They were larger than life. Smart, carefree and above all, they were rebels. The public loved them. They were not seen as a threat to public safety but a threat to the system that we all knew to be corrupt. Rather than hoping for their arrest, people were actually rooting for them, willing them get away with it. We were living vicariously through them. They were all of us, flipping the bird to the cops, to the establishment, and getting rich at the same time.
This is how we feel watching the film, too. We’re rooting for Stander and his gang of misfits. We’re feeling the rush of adrenaline and the thrill of the speeding getaway car. We’re riding shotgun as we stick it to the man. But on an even deeper level, Stander is the dissident who does not eschew his macho persona and this may be key to understanding the public’s response to him.
The South Africa of my youth was patriarchal to its core. As a white South African male, I grew up with the knowledge that the time would come when I would have to defend the Apartheid regime during my mandatory two years of national military service. Although this frightened me, it was a fait accompli. It was part of growing up and becoming a man. There were very few conscientious objectors as refusal to do service came with a minimum of six years imprisonment and usually deep contempt from your family and peers.
Stander’s rebellion does not threaten the patriarchy, but rather it amplifies it. His rebellion does not come from a place of liberalism or a sense of justice and humanity. He cannot be derided as a “sympathizer” or “bleeding heart”. Thus, his rebellion becomes all the more palatable to white South Africa. He’s not like the conscientious objector or pacifist who decries violence – he’s “one of the boys.”
For Canadian audiences for whom apartheid South Africa was only ever experienced from afar, the film offers not only a unique insight, but it tells us so much about just how dangerous insular societies can become. I cannot help but see familiar patterns emerging around the world: oppression, militarism and patriarchy. The white minority in South Africa was highly militarized and masculinity was inextricably tied to nationalism and military power. More and more, I see the same ideas being leveled at liberally minded men that pacifism, feminism and inclusivity are somehow emasculating and that rebellion towards a system is only acceptable if it’s boorish, self-serving and audacious. Surely it’s not normal to root for the criminal or to support the fascist bully.
And yet, when we feel the need to challenge the system but want to maintain our level of comfort – whether financial, social or personal – or when we’ve been conditioned to believe that empathy is weakness – it seems that this is precisely what we do. Even here in Canada during the Federal election, one campaign mocked Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau with the throwaway response “Nice hair, though” as if undermining his masculinity and therefore his ability to lead.
In the film, Andre Stander embodies the struggle of men in overly patriarchal societies to positively channel empathy and compassion. He assuages feelings of guilt and remorse by voluntarily subjecting himself to a violent beating – the only language he knows.
While Stander doesn’t stick entirely to the real life story of the man - there is no evidence that he was even at the 1976 riot despite his claim during his trial - what the film does exceptionally well is recreate the South Africa of my childhood. No detail has been overlooked. A particularly nice touch is the use of the actual TV newsreaders of the day to help tell the story. While they’re mostly in the background, they add some real authenticity. The result is a particularly immersive trip to into the past.
Part biopic and part heist movie, Stander effectively captures the mood of a very complex time. It’s a satisfying film that explores life under Apartheid through a unique lens. But more than that, it examines the complexity of the human experience and just how unpredictable and volatile we can be.