A Look Back at the Anti-Apartheid Movement

Connie Field

Director Connie Field

Filmmaker Connie Field took some time out to answer a few questions about her film Have You Heard From Johannesburg, and discuss the parallels between the anti-apartheid movement and present-day protest movements. This five-part series premieres on Independent Lens on January 12, 2012 (check local listings for air dates and times on your local PBS affiliate).

What impact do you hope this film will have?
I hope people who watch it will understand that they have the power to change the world, even when confronting oppressive governments and mega structures like multi-national corporations and banks. Its relevance will be especially apparent for those in the Occupy Wall Street movement and those who are following it. Our story of a half-century struggle helps one understand that it takes years to accomplish significant social change. As one activist who worked in the anti-apartheid movement for 25 years put it, “you had to have the patience of the long distance runner.” For people still struggling for their human rights, it is the tale of how you can harness the world to support your struggle.

Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo smiling

Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo

What led you to make this film?
As I was finishing my film Freedom on My Mind, on the civil rights movement in Mississippi, I realized that there was an international movement of a much greater scope and longer duration — the global struggle against South African apartheid — regarded as the most important transnational social movement of the 20th century, and it had not been told. Because I am not a historian but a filmmaker, I set out to put this story on film. While traveling to many countries and interviewing well over 150 participants in the anti-apartheid struggle, I saw that this history was filled with inspiring, dramatic stories of people who devoted many years to this struggle and many of whom gave their life. It is the story of local heroes all over the world, everyday citizens who cared about justice and equality and had an impact in a country that was continents away. We live in a globalized world and we can only make this world equitable by knowing how to engage campaigns on a global level. And one does that by acting locally but thinking globally, which is how the international anti-apartheid campaign succeeded. It is really the story of the world’s march towards a universal morality that began in earnest with the Declaration of Human Rights.

Watch A Landmark Series on the Anti-Apartheid Movement on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
The biggest challenge was that there was nothing written about it from a global perspective, so it is all original research. I worked with a team of scholars, but each of them knew a particular part of this history, they did not know the whole story. E.S. Reddy, who was the secretary of the United Nation’s Committee on Apartheid was my key advisor, because from his position he knew of the activity all over the world. This meant that the process was very time consuming and that the editing took a very long time because we were literally discovering the story as we edited. The other challenge was how to structure the story, should it be chronological or thematic? I ended up with a combination of the two.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
I worked with key people in the anti-apartheid movement in each country who helped me do my initial research and they were the ones who lined up many of the interviews for me. Many of them also knew my previous films, and that helped a great deal. In addition, I prepare extremely well for my interviews, so the subjects feel confident that I know what they are talking about and that allows them to be more forthcoming. I am interested in getting the story from their perspective and want to hear all, and they sense this.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
We included most of the scenes we had to cut as bonus extras in our DVDs. And the DVD has the full feature-length stories (seven films, eight and a half hours total length), as well as the 52-minute TV versions which are showing on PBS. All the episodes of the TV versions have been cut down from their original length, and therefore important stories have been omitted for the TV audience. One of the most important is the story of Leon Sullivan in the United States. He is in our feature-length version of The Bottom Line, but had to be cut for the 52-minute version. So folks can see that story in the original version on our DVD. The sports boycott story is also not being shown on PBS. The sports boycott is a really great and fun story and had a significant impact on South Africa. And again, you can see this on our DVD.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
It is the scene when Nelson Mandela is just released from jail and he goes to visit Oliver Tambo who had been leading the struggle in exile. They haven’t seen each other for 28 years. Tambo then returns to South Africa after 30 years of exile, but he dies before he can see the pinnacle of the success of his struggle: Mandela elected president of South Africa. I always tear up when I watch it, and I have seen it many, many times.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
I believe in the films I make and think they can be useful in building a better world, which is what is most important to me. That gives me a great deal of motivation. I pick subjects that I am very interested in and so I never get bored making the films, which often take me a long time because the funding is much lower than needed. I also love production, and I love exploring the world, especially other countries.

Do you think the new South Africa is as successful as hoped?
A lot of people had high hopes for the new South Africa and find themselves disappointed that it is not the rainbow nation of equality they dreamed of and I get questioned about this whenever I show the series. And I always tell them what Bob Moses, who was featured in my film Freedom on My Mind, said about what they accomplished in Mississippi in their fight for voting rights. He told me they succeeded in bringing Mississippi up to the level of the rest of the country; they did not solve the problems in Mississippi. The legal vestiges of apartheid have been removed, and that is a grand victory, as was gaining voting rights for blacks in the south, but the problems of inequality still persist in South Africa and that is another struggle that people are fighting today. It is the same fight we have in America and for that matter, all over the world.

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  • Subrata Ghoshroy

    I happened to catch it by coincidence right after watching another PBS program on music in the civil rights program. I was totally riveted by the film – sometimes standing up for many minutes as I watched it. I was only 11 when the Sharpeville massacre took place and wrote my first political commentary entitled “South Africa in the river of blood of black folks” (a rough translation from Bengali, my native language). The rare footage of the personalities I have read and heard about was terrific. Salim Salim was fantastic. The scenes at the UN kept reminding me of the struggle of the Palestinians. The recent events at UNESCO and the Security Council about the Palestinian application for full membership is a movie we have seen before. Thank you for making this wonderful film. I cannot wait to see the next episodes and the full DVD.

    Subrata Ghoshroy, Boston, MA

  • Maizielucillejames

    Thank you, Connie Field for this outstanding well-researched documentary about the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. Although I am familiar with many of the main events which made world headlines, there were other facts introduced in the film, which both clarified and helped me to better understand the difficulties black South Africans faced in their decades-long struggle for equality.

    Part 1 and Part 2 were well presented, and I look forward for the next episode in this five-part series. Hopefully, PBS will air repeats of this series for those who missed it.

    Ms Field, ‘Have you heard from Johannesburg’, is one of the best programs I’ve seen on PBS Independent Lens; a film which I am sure will earn numerous awards for its excellence. I applaud you for making this important historical film, and I will be sure to purchase the DVD.

    Sincerely,

    Maizie Lucille James
    January 19, 2012

  • Celeste Chalmers

    As young white South Africans (opposed to the Apartheid regime) who grew up amidst the turmoil you describe in your documentary, we would like to encourage you to return to South Africa now and over the next decade or so, and continue to report on the social and political changes that are still occuring. It’s not what it seems, and as the pendulum swings, apartheid is rearing it’s head again. Sadly, the new democracy is not as much of a democracy as what the world thinks, and the new government not that different to the old regime. We implore you to continue documenting South Africa’s path into the future from where your documentary left off in 1994. Please continue to tell the story, thank you.