It is no secret that most mainstream movies dealing with real history take great liberties when it comes to telling their chosen ‘story‘. After all, such movies are made to entertain and make money. That means a simplified, easily digestible and sexed-up historical ‘story’. The ‘End Game’ is no exception.
Publicly billed as a ‘political drama and thriller’ that chronicles South Africa’s ‘journey to reconciliation … transition to democracy (and ultimately) to the end of apartheid’, the film is purportedly based on the personal recollections of Michael Young, a former public relations head at Consolidated Goldfields (inheritor of Cecil John Rhodes’ mining empire). Young’s recollections form part of a 2002 book, ‘The Fall of Apartheid’ by Robert Harvey (ex-MP in the United Kingdom, former Assistant Editor of the Economist and writer and columnist for the Daily Telegraph). It was during the late 1980s that Young (played by Johnny Lee Miller) initiated and then facilitated secret talks between the ANC’s Thabo Mbeki (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) and members of the Afrikaner intellectual/academic establishment, including Willie Esterhuyse (played by William Hurt) from Stellenbosch and F.W. de Klerk’s brother, Wimpie de Klerk.
Unfortunately but predictably, the ‘End Game’ is consistent with its Hollywood-esque brethren in its idealized and self-serving manipulation of history. The dominant trope of the film revolves around Mr. Young and how he almost single-handedly brings these arch-foes together to save South Africa from imminent catastrophe. Mixed in with the perfunctory scenes of contextual violence (a few inserts on ANC operatives planting bombs and apartheid security forces battling it out with township youth), the machinations of the evil-looking bad guy (Mark Strong as apartheid super-agent, Dr. Neil Barnard) and the moral certitudes of the easy-going, lovable saint (Clarke Peters as the imprisoned Nelson Mandela), we are presented with a neatly packaged, all-in-one visual narrative. An ‘End Game’ indeed.
So what? one might ask. It’s an entertaining storyline, the transmuted accents are respectable enough and surely it sheds some needed light on an otherwise murky part of South Africa’s history. Well, the simple answer is that if we are to understand and (hopefully) learn from our history, whatever the form within which it is presented then there must be more than a modicum of historical fact and contextual veracity. The ‘End Game’ gets about as close to such veracity as FIFA President Sepp Blatter does to being an honourable man.
The most fundamental, and indeed ironic, problem for a film that so consciously embeds itself in a historical narrative is that it is ahistorical on so many fronts. For example, there is no attempt to provide even the thinnest of historical contexts when it comes to the crucial fact that key representatives of South African domestic capital issued public calls for the abolishment of apartheid in 1985 (following Botha’s verkrampte Rubicon speech), long before Young and his supposed ‘end game’ talks appeared on the scene. The same applies to the decision by leading international banks and finance institutions to affect a freeze on loans to the apartheid state in late 1985, a move that more than anything else gave a green light to corporate capital to start engaging in political talks with the ANC. This is exactly what Anglo-American (AA) did in Lusaka the very next year, with then AA CEO Gavin Relly giving public confirmation of corporate capital’s own agenda for a ‘new’ South Africa in which “statutory apartheid must go … the political process be opened up by the release of prisoners of conscience, that political parties, currently banned, be allowed to operate within the rule of law and that real attempts be made for constructive negotiation between all parties in South Africa”.
In a similar vein, the film airbrushes the content and events surrounding the early 1986 visits of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to South Africa and the ANC in Lusaka respectively. During these talks, the EPG proposed to the ANC that there existed the potential political space for the legalisation of the ANC and SACP, conditional on the cessation of armed action and the entering into negotiations with Pretoria. According to the foremost ANC ‘inside watcher’ at the time, Tom Lodge, the ANC was nearing acceptance of the proposals when the apartheid state scuttled any hopes of negotiations by launching raids on supposed MK bases in the neighbouring countries of Lesotho and Botswana.
Such omissions allow the film to give the false impression that rather, it was the much later and personalised behind the scenes manoeuvring by the likes of Michael Young and Consolidated Goldfields that represented the first, and thus most consequential, example of such thinking and practical moves. In turn, this makes the film’s centring of Young’s secret talks in far-away London falsely appear as the main negotiations fulcrum upon which the ANC itself relied.
But that’s not all. The film treats the politics of the ANC and the apartheid state in the late 1980s as if it was wrapped up in some sort of autarkic bubble, clearly captured in the film’s core set piece – the personalised, cosy hide-away talks in Victorian houses on the outskirts of London. Not even a genuflective nod in the direction of the fundamentally important impacts of the changes in the USSR, the war in Angola, the apartheid state’s destabilisation campaign across the region, the mutinies in MK camps or the sizeable influence of the international anti-apartheid movement.
Consistent with this manipulative moulding of history, the film gives absolutely no real agency to the millions of South Africans who fought it out on the ground with the apartheid regime, especially those active in the plethora of civic organisations and unions whose struggles were at the heart of the crisis and thus at the heart of negotiations around it. In this story, everything is reduced to the personal character and force of a small group of heroic individuals who ‘save the day’ and yes, ‘save’ all of South Africa from an impending disaster in whose resolution, very conveniently, the interests of corporate capital are exactly the same as those of the ‘people’. It is a classic variant of the ‘great men’ (no women of any significance are to be seen) school of history in which real, ordinary people have little role and are given no meaningful acknowledgment.
While there are many other unforgivable historical elisions, where the film does succeed, even if unintentionally, is in casting its faintly entertaining light on the elitist underpinnings of both ‘sides’ in the struggle and subsequent formal negotiations that eventually took place over the future political and socio-economic character of South Africa. History tells us the rest.
Couldn't agree more. The move to 'non history' and holloywood romanticisation and blurring of South African and African history at large continues. I avoid all these movies including Cry Freedom, Dry White Season et al because of the lack of agency and absolutely simplistic, narrow depiction of our stories and history.
I think the role of civil society is implied. The opening montage certainly establishes civil society. But I take the point about the overplay on 'great men' being responsible for our liberation.