POV: What has been the overall reaction to the film?
Thomas Allen Harris:
The response to the film has been really great both nationally and internationally. People really like the interweaving of the political story with the personal story; they say it allows them to understand the sacrifices and the struggle for the freedom of South Africa in a much deeper way. So many American were involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, and this film, for them, fills in a gap — how the struggle evolved internationally — with regards to the history of the anti-apartheid movement. For them, the film also connects the intellectual, historical as well as the emotion journeys, and in this way the film is very self-reflexive. Viewers have also said that the film brings up a lot of nostalgia for the days when they were involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, as it was such a global grassroots community struggle that forced the hand and changed the policies of governments and multinational corporations alike. In this way, it was the first international struggle of its kind.
Many people who see the film are touched by the story of exile and its toll on a family. It surprised me how many people have been touched by the experience of exile in their own families. South Africans, Greeks, Koreans and South Americans have shared with me their struggles with exile due to political histories in their respective countries. One young South African woman who saw the film at the Brooklyn Academy of Music began crying; she had been born in America to exiled parents, and she said the film took her on a journey she hadn’t expected, and made her aware that she was also in exile.
In South Africa, many people have told me that this history of exile is not known. Most people have no idea about the activities of the ANC in exile, let alone the length and breadth of it. That the film tells the story of exile through the perspective of a group that left as part of the first wave of exiles makes it an even more comprehensive experience for young and old South African audiences. This information is not taught in schools, and is not part of the popular narrative of the liberation struggle within the country, so young people of all races are surprised, intrigued and inspired by this story. The inspirational aspect of the film and the stories of the Twelve from Bloemfontein are also a big part of the viewing experience for young people in the U.S. Many have told me that they feel the urge to do something after watching the film; they want to get aware and involved as activists.
POV: What is the inevitable question that you’re asked after screenings?
How are the disciples? What are they doing? There is also a lot of interest in my mother Rudean Leinaeng (who was also a producer on the film) and many people have urged me to make a film about her and her involvement in the various intersecting movements: black nationalism, the pan-African movement, women’s movement, the anti-poverty movements as well as the anti-apartheid movement.
POV: Can you tell us about your current projects?
Harris: I am currently in process on two projects. One is a documentary in development entitled Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People. The other is a narrative film entitled Tears from Lagos, which is about a young immigrant woman who comes to New York looking for her brother.
POV: Has your subsequent work been influenced in a particular way because of your experiences (both stylistically and technically) from working on The Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela?
Harris: The Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela was my first film shoot in super 16mm using such a large crew and cast (we had over 100 actors in the film). It also confirmed my desire to begin producing more narrative films while maintaining my roots in experimental and documentary filmmaking. I’ve been doing this kind of blending for over 15 years, and with this film, I can see the shift in my work towards a type of narrative I am interested in making. This also has to do with my growing awareness of the international response to Twelve Disciples, and the fact that there is definitely a significant international market for my work and an audience hungry for it. I realized in the making of Twelve Disciples why I was always drawn to international projects, having made films in Brazil, Canada, Europe. Twelve Disciples is my first formal international co-production, and I realized that because of my particular history of having grown up in East African, having a South African step-father who raised me, and having lived in Europe and South America, that I have always had an international perspective and identity. My work comes out of this place.
POV: What happened to the twelve disciples who left Bloemfontein?
Harris: Here’s what happened to the twelve.
Billy Mokhonoana (Marakas) — Deceased. As the head of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League in the Free State, he organized the youth into an active group. He was the first to leave the country. After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, Billy burned his Pass with other youth leaguers, went underground and left the country in April/May. He organized safe passage for the rest to follow. He died in London in 1962 under mysterious circumstances, reportedly while riding his motorcycle. His body has never been returned to his family in Bloemfontein.
Selebano Mathlape (Thlaps) — Selebano studied in Yugoslavia, East Germany and then economics in England. He worked in Holland, were he started a research training institute, the Economic Research Training for Post-Apartheid South Africa. He was the Chairman of the Board of the Free State Development Corporation and a political advisor to the Premier of the Free State. He recently passed away.
Moses Medupe (Dups) — Moses studied economics in Yugoslavia and returned to Tanzania and Zambia to work with the ANC. As Director of the ANC Staff Furniture project, he produced and sold furniture to raise funds for the ANC. He returned to Bloemfontein in 1992, where he was Deputy Director of Public Works in provincial government. He recently passed away.
B. Pule Leinaeng (Lee) — Deceased. Lee was sent to East Germany to study journalism for one year, then returned to Dar-Es-Salaam where he worked in the publicity department of the ANC. He became founding member and editor of Spotlight, a weekly ANC bulletin, and SA Freedom News. In 1967 he went to the USA on scholarship to study at Lincoln University and then Temple University. He received a Masters Degree from NYU in 1976. He helped establish the ANC Mission at the United Nations. In the 1980s, he served as Chairperson of the ANC chapter in New York State, and later Acting Chairperson of the regional political committee of the ANC in the U.S. He was a staff member of the United Nation’s Anti-Apartheid Unit, where he translated and broadcast anti-apartheid programs in Tswana, his native language, to the front line states in Southern Africa. He returned to live in Bloemfontein in 1995, and went into the construction business with his brother until he died in January 2000.
Joseph Shuping Coapage (Coaps) — Deceased. Joseph attended college in Germany and later, Lincoln University and Temple University in the U.S. He worked for many years at the ANC Mission at the United Nations, traveling around the USA giving speeches and raising awareness of the anti-apartheid struggle. He died in Philadelphia in 1995. His body was flown back to Bloemfontein to be buried.
Theodore Motobi (Motobi) — Deceased. Theodore went to Cuba for military training and to study economics. He returned to Africa and worked as Chief of Logistics in Zambia for Umkhonto we Sizwe (or MK), translated as Spear of the Nation, the military wing of the ANC. He contracted tuberculosis and died in Angola in 1980.
Dr. Pule Matjoa (Pule) — From Tanganyika, where he worked in the Ministry of Communications, he went to Cuba for military training, and later went to university there for dentistry. After graduation, he worked in Cuba as a community dentist. He returned to Dar-Es-Salaam in 1972 and was Medical Officer in the ANC camps from 1972-79. Then he went to Lesotho, where he joined the Ministry of Health as Chief Dentist for the entire country, while also serving on the ANC’s Security Council. He returned to South Africa in 1992 and worked for the Ministry of Health, until he retired last year. He still has a small private practice.
General Percy Mokonopi (Percy) — Percy went to Cuba for military training and education, but soon after he arrived, he left Cuba to work with as Chief of Logistics in Zambia. He was the ANC representative in Angola, and later served on the Helsinki World Peace Council. When he returned to South Africa in 1992, he settled in Pretoria and became General of the South African police forces after independence, when the SA and MK forces merged, until he retired. His family excommunicated him after he “skipped” the country. He is the only living disciple who never returned or visited Bloemfontein. He has since then passed away.
Mathew Mokgele (Beans) — Mathew went to Cuba for military training and also boxed professionally there. After seeing his talent, the Cubans began training him for the Olympics. He was injured in Cuba and returned to East Africa, where he joined Umkhonto we Sizwe (or MK), translated as Spear of the Nation, the military wing of the ANC. He returned to Bloemfontein in 1991 and lives in the house in which he was raised.
Peter Swartz (Peter) — Deceased. He was the only Colored (a person of mixed descent) of the group and an active member of the ANC in the Colored community of Bloemfontein. He made two aborted attempts to leave South Africa before joining the Twelve, but had been arrested and sent back. For this reason, he was well known to the South African authorities. The third time left, he met up with the Twelve en route to Dar-Es-Salaam, where he attended Kivukoni College and then went to the UK, attending the London School of Economics. He disappeared in London in 1965, never to be seen or heard from again. His family was so harassed by the police in Bloemfontein after he left that they destroyed anything to do with him, including all photographs.
Bethuel Setai (Setai) — Bethuel left for the USA in 1962 to attend Lincoln University. He later received a Ph.D in Economics from Columbia University and while here, he helped to set up the ANC office in New York. He taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Lincoln University. He returned to South Africa in 1991 and now works as a consultant to the South African government.
Mochubela Seekoe (Wesi) — He went to Cuba for military and academic training, by way of Khartoum, where he met and spent a week with Nelson Mandela (as did the others who went to Cuba). He joined Umkhonto we Sizwe (or MK), translated as Spear of the Nation, the military wing of the ANC, and was ANC representative in Dar-Es-Salaam until 1971, when he was sent to the U.S.S.R. to study Chemistry. He stayed in Russia for 10 years to get his Ph.D. In 1980, he went to Lusaka, and then in 1983 went to Lesotho on diplomatic missions for the ANC. In 1989, he went to St. Louis to teach and do research, and in 1998, returned to South Africa. Until recently, he was the South African Ambassador to Russia.