In the minds of many, the struggle of black South Africans for majority rule is framed by the massacre of rebellious youths in the streets of Soweto and by Nelson Mandela's towering dignity as he emerged from prison to lead his people to freedom. Less well known is the experience of a generation of young men who left their country clandestinely to build the African National Congress (ANC) and spread its liberation message in places as far-flung as Dar Es Salaam, Belgrade, London, Havana and New York. Left to their own devices, hunted by the Afrikaner regime (and considered terrorists by the U.S. government), lacking legal status and often socially isolated, these foot soldiers of the anti-apartheid cause forged ahead as one of the century's great freedom struggles stretched into 30 years of brutal conflict.
Bronx-born filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris knew more than most about this history. His stepfather, Benjamin Pule Leinaeng, or Lee, as everyone called him, had been among the first wave of exiles to leave South Africa in 1960. Lee dedicated his life to becoming a broadcast journalist in service of South African liberation, ultimately going to work for the United Nations' anti-apartheid office. Harris' mother, Rudean, an American educator, was also active in the struggle. Harris had even spent part of his childhood in Dar Es Salaam. But none of this prepared him for what he experienced at Lee's funeral in Bloemfontein in the new South Africa in 2000.
Lee's funeral in January 2000 was the inspiration for Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela. Harris was attending as much out of duty as anything else. Though Lee had raised Harris and his younger brother with all due care, Harris had never really accepted Lee as his father. Lee had already been in exile for over 15 years spending time in Tanganyika and the former East Germany before coming to the U.S. on a journalism scholarship when he married Harris' mother in New York in 1976. She was a chemistry professor at Bronx Community College who had taught in Africa. "Lee thought of you as his children and would refer to you as his sons," Rudean reminds the filmmaker. "He would never say his 'stepsons.'"
Harris felt respect and romanticized sympathy for Lee's struggle, but he'd had trouble with the older man's bouts of depression and drinking, and had often rebelled against Lee's authority. Moreover, lingering distrust from his biological father's abandonment had left Harris instinctively distant.
In Bloemfontein, however, Harris discovered an image of Lee dramatically different from that of the moody, foreign stepfather. He was especially affected by the recollections of two of Lee's associates, Moses Medupe (Dups) and Mochubela Seekoe (Wesi), who were among the group of 12 students, including Lee, who left Bloemfontein in 1960. Dups and Wesi spoke fondly of Lee as a young man and described what life was like for blacks in Bloemfontein under apartheid and during the long years of exile. Family and friends who gathered at the funeral to eulogize Lee spoke of a brave and cheerful youth setting out to battle apartheid, a comrade who never wavered in that struggle even as it wore him down. They all told stories of the ANC's beginnings in Bloemfontein, in the heart of Afrikaner country, and of the terrible repressions that drove the organization underground and to establishing centers of resistance outside the country.
These were stories Harris had heard as a child, but now, fleshed out and told by people for whom they'd been life-and-death struggles, they took on new depth and urgency. Harris also came to view his "stepfather" in a radically different sense as he was greeted without reserve as Lee's eldest son, and as the heir to Lee's legacy of honesty and commitment to his people. That legacy was even visible in the name of the local library the B.P. Leinaeng Library.
In 1960, the group of 12 Bloemfontein students they all considered themselves disciples of Mandela (then president of the ANC) burned their pass cards inr esponse to new "Bantu laws," which prohibited all but vocational education for black South Africans. Their act of defiance effectively rendered them stateless criminals and sealed their commitment to leave the country to seek the weapons to battle apartheid, above all education. With reckless idealism, they simply set out north on foot, across the harsh African bush, in a bootstrap attempt to establish the ANC abroad.
The story reminded Harris of a photograph he'd grown up with, an old black & white photo of the "Bloemfontein 12" when they arrived in Tanganyika, five months after they left Bloemfontein. Harris realized the various fates of the 12, some of whom were present at Lee's funeral, provided a remarkable historical window on the ANC's struggle in exile.
Harris also talks to another of the surviving 12, Percy Mokonopi, who joined the military wing of the ANC and became a general in the new South African police after liberation. The police help Harris recover the varying histories of the 12 some of whom died in mysterious circumstances and especially Lee's important work which included helping to establish the ANC Mission to the United Nations in the 1980s. Isabella Winkie Direko, a tireless educator and community activist (and member of Parliament in the new South Africa), who taught the boys at Bantu High School and encouraged their desire to resist apartheid, adds her insight on the unforgiving choices the "Sharpeville generation" faced, and the history they ultimately made out of those choices. Harris' mother and Lee's widow, Rudean Leinaeng (who served as a producer on this film), rounds out Lee's story from her unique perspective of wife, mother and anti-apartheid activist in her own right.
Harris uses dramatic re-enactments, performed by Bloemfontein acting students, to tell the early story of the 12 and their escape from South Africa. While South Africa today is definitely post-apartheid, it is also post-anti-apartheid. The country's population is overwhelmingly young, and the liberation struggle is more often a history lesson than living memory. Harris' use of Bloemfontein youth to recreate a history they only partly knew parallels his own reclamation of a past that had framed his childhood.
Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela is Harris' posthumous embrace of the father who raised him. By recovering Lee's history, and the history of the 12 and the generation they represented, Harris also pays homage to the legacy of an extraordinary struggle for justice in the face of overwhelming odds, a struggle that isn't always fully remembered, even in South Africa.
"When Lee's comrades shared with me their struggles with alienation, depression and home-sickness, I gained an appreciation for their strength and stamina and felt tremendous remorse for rejecting Lee as my father," says director/producer Harris. "I wanted to reconnect with him by way of the men who were bonded to him by a common political, historical and emotional journey. It was only in the process of making this film that I realized just how much I was his son."
Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela is a co-production of the Independent Television Service (ITVS), in association with American Documentary | POV and the National Black Programming Consortium.