By Billy Wharton · 22 Apr 2010
Eight and half hours is a long time for any movie, much less a political documentary. However, Connie Field’s "Have You Heard from Johannesburg" has a serious ambition – to tell the complete story of the South African anti-apartheid movement from an international perspective. The result of this desire is a seven-segment documentary grouped into three parts. Parts 1 and 3 fit as an organic whole, while part 2 examines the more specific topics of the sports boycott against the apartheid regime and the development of the divestment campaign.
The film justifies the exceptionally long treatment by making a solid case that the anti-apartheid movement deserves attention as one of the first truly global movements for social justice. Field weaves together the story of the developing anti-apartheid forces in South Africa with a burgeoning boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in the West. During the film’s best moments, the viewer sees these two often quite distinct movements converging toward the common goal of destroying the apartheid state. Some positive consequences flow from this paring.
New Historical Actors
The first is the subtle shift in emphasis from Nelson Mandela as the focal point of anti-apartheid to less popularly recognized actors such as Oliver Tambo. Tambo served as the African National Congress’ (ANC) president-in-exile and managed to build a strong network of international resistance to the South African regime. Field presents him as a critical figure – one-part stately ambassador, one-part committed revolutionist. Tambo’s transition from a religiously informed pacifist to a spokesperson for urban guerillaism mirrors that of the freedom movement in South Africa.
The jet-setting Tambo is also used to investigate the interesting linkages between the neighboring African states and the anti-apartheid movement. Field successfully conveys the strategic importance of the ANC being provided with the ability to operate on the borders of the apartheid state. The decolonization movement of the 1960s flows into the upsurge in resistance in South Africa. Tambo capitalizes on these sentiments to build vital alliances with neighboring Zambia, Angola and Tanzania.
Equally critical to Field is the role played by the support movement in the Western world. Large stretches of the film are dedicated to documenting attempts to isolate the apartheid regime. A particularly brilliant section of the film in Part 2, examines the manner in which campaigners such as the poet Dennis Brutus successfully forced South African national sporting teams out of international competition – first with high profile struggles around the Olympics and then to lesser known bans issued by groups like the International Table Tennis Federation. The final showdown with Apartheid sport came in a spectacular fashion with the “Rugby Wars” waged by support groups in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. In each, Field skillfully displays the manner in which grassroots groups forced unwilling sports associations and governments to take actions that supported the freedom movement in South Africa. Regular people really did exercise a degree of political power.
A deeper political reading of the film reveals some missing pieces. On one level, the film is a documentary about the mainline political activists in the anti-apartheid movement. However, a few key issues are neglected. The first is any substantive commentary on the manner in which the racial classification system presented challenges to the political formation of the anti-apartheid movement itself. How, for instance, did the Indian community, the Coloured community and the African community negotiate differing historical and political legacies? What were the tensions and how where they overcome over the course of time? How did the South African Communist Party serve as a pole of attraction for whites in the country?
Equally frustrating was the treatment of the key pivotal moment in the formation of the resistance movement – the resurgence of political activism in the mid-1970s. This resurgence produced serious tensions between the older generation of ANC activists and younger activists influenced by Black Consciousness thinkers such as Stephen Biko. The linkages between the ANC of the 1960’s, the Soweto Uprising of 1976, the formation of the United Democratic Front in the 1980s and the defeat of the regime in the 1990s are portrayed in too linear a manner. There were important political debates going on inside the movement and this film would benefit from airing them. Nearly 16 years after the transition one would think it would finally be safe to publicly investigate these issues, but the risk relates to a third objection.
The film tries to avoid any discussion of the condition of post-Apartheid South Africa. A few hints of disappointment with the controlled transformation away from apartheid slip out – a mildly critical comment by a participant in the Soweto uprising, the lavish backdrops of the houses of ANC officials versus those of base level activists and the later involvement of elite businessmen with the ANC – but there is no substantive examination. This is the conceptual rock upon which other documentaries of the anti-apartheid movement, most especially the otherwise interesting Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, have crashed. Can a film simultaneously document the development of the anti-apartheid movement while offering thoughtful critiques of the subsequent decisions made by the ANC-led governments? The consequence of not doing so in Have You Heard is a relatively flat ending with the solitary figure of Nelson Mandela accepting his seat in the United Nations.
Overall, Field has made an important contribution to the world of political documentaries. Those unfamiliar with the anti-apartheid movement, beyond the towering role of Nelson Mandela, would do well to engage with all or part of this film. The focus on the international anti-apartheid support movements offers an opportunity for Western viewers to self-identify with this liberation struggle. In addition, the film begins to fill the large void in popular understanding of this movement in the West. The ability of popular forces to defeat a regime as deeply entrenched and heavily armed as that of the apartheid state should provide inspiration to all those engaged in popular movements for social justice.
Going forward, the hope is that we might hear the voices of grassroots participants in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Doing so will require a serious amount of oral history documentation and will, necessarily, force the film to grapple with the cruel everyday realities of poverty and discrimination in post-apartheid South Africa. Have You Heard from Johannesburg is not able to accomplish this task, but does open the conceptual door to further investigations.
Have "You Heard from Johannesburg" will be playing at the Film Forum in New York until April 27, 2010.
Billy Wharton is a writer and activist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and the Monthly Review Zine.
Editor's Note: This article is published by SACSIS with the author's permission. To watch the documentary, "Have you heard from Johannesburg?", please click here.