WEBTAKES: Have You Heard From Johannesburg
Reviewed by Richard Porton
Produced and directed by Connie Field; camera: Tom Hurwitz; series editor: Gregory Scharpen; segment editors: Ken Schneider, Dawn Lodgson. Color, eight and one-half hours. A Clarity Films release.
In a recent New York Times article on the elation in South Africa during the World Cup, Shaun Johnson, the head of a charitable organization, terms the country “riven racially” and the article’s author, Celia Dugger, observes that it is “defined by violent crime, poverty, and AIDS.” Yet, while this is how South Africa is often portrayed in the media these days, the much more optimistic story of the antiapartheid movement’s success in dislodging the National Party from power and forging a multiracial society should not be minimized or forgotten.
As an antidote to historical amnesia, Connie Field’s Have You Heard From Johannesburg, an epic documentary on the struggles, and ultimate success, of the antiapartheid movement from the Forties until the Nineties, is both valuable and necessary. Field is well known for Freedom on My Mind, her moving documentary on the battle to register African-American voters in Mississippi during the Sixties, and, in many respects, Johannesburg invites comparisons between the American Civil Rights movement and the decades-long resistance to apartheid. Indeed, historian George Fredrickson’s 1982 White Supremacy: A Comparative Study of American and South African History, which considers similarities and disparities in the two nations’ segregation policies, as well as the shifting views of violence vs. nonviolence in both liberation movements, overlaps with the aspirations of both Freedom and Johannesburg.
The film’s first part, Road to Resistance, sets the stage for chronicling the arduous path to eradicating the apartheid system in the early Nineties. The Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, during which peaceful protestors condemning oppressive “pass laws” were gunned down in the street, makes the entire world more cognizant of racial inequities in South Africa. And in a pivotal tactical maneuver, the African National Congress abandons a policy of Gandhian nonviolence (the Defiance Campaign) and endorses armed struggle in 1961.
Johannesburg gains considerable steam, however, in Hell of a Job, the subsequent installment. This chapter of the film is particularly valuable for clearing up many of the myths that dogged the ANC and the international antiapartheid movement for years. While American and European conservatives followed the right-wing government’s lead in claiming that the ANC was a “Communist” and/or “terrorist” organization, Field makes the eminently rational case that, when the ANC’s Oliver Tambo was sent into exile to gain international support for the struggle, the Soviet Union was one of the few countries that lent any substantial support. Yet Tambo and his associates were also buoyed by the support of social democrats such as the British Labour Party’s Barbara Castle and Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme, as well as clergymen like Britain’s Bishop Trevor Huddleston. Pragmatism, not rigid ideology, always determined the tactics of the ANC leadership.
To a certain extent, events like the Soweto Riots of the Seventies and the martyrdom of Steve Biko, the brilliant exemplar of “Black Consciousness,” made South African racism more visible to foreigners. Indeed, by far the most inspiring moments of Johannesburg involve the support of thousands of international activists for the movement that finally brought down apartheid. Some of the most edifying, and oddly upbeat, episodes of Johannesburg—namely Fair Play, From Selma to Soweto, and The Bottom Line—chart the ways in which radicalized young people in Europe and the United States made public awareness of injustice in South Africa a priority through tireless promotion of economic sanctions and campaigns to urge banks, corporations, and universities such as Barclay’s, Polaroid, Shell Oil, Columbia, and Berkeley with considerable links to the South African government to make the morally responsible choice to divest. And for largely apolitical sports fans, the energy expended to ban South Africa from participation in the Olympics, as well as the disruption of the tour of the South African rugby team, the Springboks, during tours in Britain and New Zealand, were powerful exercises in consciousness-raising. The fact that, in 1986, the U.S. Congress implemented stiff economic sanctions against South Africa—President Reagan’s veto (which was overridden by the Senate) notwithstanding—is evidence that the work of radicals had an indelible impact on mainstream politics.
Johannesburg brilliantly interweaves meticulously chosen archival footage and new interview material. At a time when a “talking heads” approach to nonfiction is frequently derided, Field’s sprawling film is especially noteworthy for the eloquent testimonies of key participants in the battle to abolish apartheid. In archival footage, Oliver Tambo’s stirring rhetoric during visits to The Netherlands, Sweden, and the United States, provides evidence that, as an orator, he was in the same class with Nelson Mandela—the iconic figure of resistance who was of course in jail during most of the events covered in Johannesburg. The recent interviews include an admirable array of European and American activists and politicians who kept the cause of South Africa’s black population alive during some dark years—some of the most impressive include Peter Hain, whose advocacy in Britain of sports boycotts against the apartheid state almost made him the victim of South African state terrorism, Ron Dellums, the former U.S. congressman who was instrumental in pushing for American economic sanctions, and Sam Ramsamy, chairman of SANROC (the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee). To her credit, Field also landed remarkably frank interviews with several former bureaucrats of the National Party who discuss the folly of white domination.
In an interview with vanityfair.com, Field remarks that she made Johannesburg “not so much because of an interest in South Africa but because it was the most globalized human rights campaign there was and we live in a globalized world.” While an unmistakable component of globalization is the crushing enormity of current social and economic crises, Field’s film reminds us that grass-roots resistance can topple seemingly entrenched power structures.
Richard Porton is one of Cineaste's editors, as well as an occasional contributor to Cinema Scope, The Daily Beast, and Moving Image Source.
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