We South Africans are special. Our transition from the apartheid system towards democracy was nothing short of miraculous and we will never forget the struggle. Right? Not really.
A lot of school kids today are simply too young to remember the dark days of apartheid and many, regardless of race and class, think it’s boring and that we should move on.
Not according to Connie Field, whose documentary series Have You Heard from Johannesburg? is showing on SABC2.
“The story isn’t about apartheid as much as being about a successful global movement and how it was built,” says Field. “My intention is not for people to dwell on the past, but for them to apply the lessons learned from apartheid to issues today.”
Field is the first to tell you that the series of documentaries is not meant to be some kind of definitive tale of the struggle. Rather, its emphasis is on the role that international campaigns played in turning apartheid into an issue that people all over the globe cared about.
“It’s not the story of how people won their liberation here in South Africa,” she says. “Rather, it’s the story of the international campaigns that sought to isolate South Africa. But there’s no way of telling that story without also including the key things that happened internally.
“So I do focus to an extent on the defiance campaign, the Rivonia trial, the treason trial, the Soweto uprising, the murder of Steve Biko and, of course, the UDF [United Democratic Front], but only because of their international impact. Nothing that was achieved regarding getting companies to pull out of South Africa and getting the apartheid government to the negotiation table would have happened without the attention that these events brought to the situation.”
The series also isn’t a documentary about those in exile. “I do place a big emphasis on Oliver Tambo, because he was the consummate diplomat … I also look at Abdul Minty, an exiled South Africa who was very involved with the apartheid struggle in Britain since the Fifties, but mostly I’m looking at what the people in other countries did to help end apartheid. It’s not about the ANC in exile,” she says.
Field admits that focus isn’t easy when you’re telling such a multi-faceted story, though she did focus on the sports and economic boycotts. The United States’s sanctions very nearly didn’t happen. Ronald Reagan, after all, felt he had an enemy in common with the apartheid government, namely communism. “A lot of Republicans realised that supporting apartheid could stop them from being re-elected and jumped ship. Richard Lugar, who is head of the foreign relations committee to this day, says that he would be the one most likely to vote alongside Reagan on every issue, except this one,” says Field. Which doesn’t make him a hero, of course. “I think it was a very practical political decision rather than an altruistic one.”
I entered the interview wanting to tell Field there is nothing she can teach us about apartheid. But I was wrong. Although our own struggle is well documented in our school curriculum, very few of us know about the important role those who fought against apartheid in other countries played.
The film examines the lives of people such as Mike Terry, the English activist who spent 25 years of his life fighting apartheid, New Zealander Trevor Richards and others. “I think for me the inspiring thing is that apartheid was not just defeated by people fighting for themselves.
“There were people who cared enough about the value of freedom that they devoted their lives to an issue which wasn’t directly theirs.” Not many of us are familiar with the aforementioned names, although we should be.
Perhaps, with the help of this documentary series, we will be able to look at the struggle against apartheid from a fresh angle.
Watch Have You Heard from Johannesburg every Sunday on SABC2 at 9pm