Voices Carry

04.13.10

Connie Field, Have You Heard from Johannesburg, 2010, black-and-white and color film, 517 minutes. Left: Members of the Leandra Youth Congress regroup after repelling an attack by vigilantes at the funeral of their community leader, Chief Ampie Mayisa, in Leandra Township, Transvaal on January 25, 1986. Photo: Paul Weinberg / Mayibuye Centre Archives. Right: Oliver Tambo with Nelson Mandela in Addis Ababa in 1962. Photo: © IDAF.


IF ANY ONE WORD could describe this epic documentary about the struggle against apartheid in the latter part of the last century, that word is exhilarating. More compelling and instructive than any fictionalized movies on the subject, the seven-part, eight-and-a-half-hour Have You Heard from Johannesburg (2010) is charged by the impassioned, clear-eyed approach of its producer/director Connie Field and energized by a cast of characters, whose names, but for one or two, are no doubt unknown to most Americans, including those who lived through the period—the 1960s through the ’90s—when the majority of the events chronicled occurred.

Field’s work is an ambitious attempt to convey the increasing international awareness of the violence, humiliations, murders, exiles, and imprisonments practiced by the Pretoria regime, which answered the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the late ’40s with its own racial segregation policy, and, under Pieter (P. W.) Botha, sustained it arrogantly and stubbornly even when that policy had become both blatantly embarrassing and economically suicidal. Field focuses not only on the ethical issues but on the economic, social, political, cultural, and religious pressures that finally led to the rescinding of apartheid policies (by Botha’s successor, Frederik [F. W.] de Klerk) and the release of four key figures from their twenty-seven-year imprisonment. By that point, in 1990, the most notable of the incarcerated, Nelson Mandela, had become a household name worldwide. Understandably, he bookends Field’s project: Part One opens with his release, then backtracks to the events that occurred during his imprisonment; Part Seven reprises that release, which is given greater meaning through the scale and depth of what has intervened. But if Mandela’s symbolic status is unquestioned, the figure who stands out as the blood, guts, and mind of the movement (and as the political savvy behind the African National Congress) is Oliver Tambo. Shown in rare interview footage, he emerges as a dynamic leader of impressive intellect and courage, exiled to England and unceasing in his devotion to the cause.

The film incorporates miles of newsreels along with material from television and elsewhere. The first three parts trace the origins of the apartheid policy, the parameters of the fight, and the establishment and outlawing of the African National Congress. The next three focus on different strands of international pressure, and the last on the wearing down, near economic collapse, and ultimate concession of the regime. Some parts seem self-contained. Part Four, “Fair Play,” concentrates on international efforts to prevent the nation’s rugby team, the pride of white South Africa, from playing in matches abroad. Part Five, “From Selma to Soweto,” recounts protests in the ’80s at universities across America, led by Columbia, demanding that the institutions’ divest from South Africa, and leading ultimately to the vote by both houses of Congress to override Reagan’s veto of economic sanctions. Both episodes in the film demonstrate Field’s talent for weaving an extraordinarily complex tapestry of historical events and international personages into a dramatic structure, complete with climax and catharsis.

But Field is no sentimentalist. Her method is neither contrived nor unearned; it underlines that the long struggle consisted of separate battles in separate arenas, each reaching a turning point that gave impetus to the next. To see only one or two parts is to miss how implied victory is tempered by the fight as it continues elsewhere.

Field assembled an astounding number of impressive individuals to flesh out this story, from heroic members of the African National Congress to enlightened government and church figures of such countries as Sweden and the Netherlands; from the tireless Desmond Tutu to Barbara Castle, the fiery antiapartheid member of British Parliament. There is not a dull or inarticulate figure among these talking heads. Those driven by pragmatism prove that only when the power of the masses is matched by economic pressure—in this case the refusal, however begrudging, of banks and corporations to do business with a failing regime—is success possible. As Tony Bloom, board member of the Barclays Bank there, soberly puts it, “getting out of South Africa was the right business decision.”

One key figure remarks that had Reagan and Thatcher not been elected, it would have been impossible for Botha to maintain apartheid. Both leaders continued to evoke the specter of Communism to ostracize the ANC. So it is especially gratifying to see a clip of Secretary of State George Schultz, following his 1987 meeting with Oliver Tambo (demonized for years by Botha, Reagan, and Thatcher as a puppet of Moscow), telling the interviewer how charming, intelligent, and informed he found the man—not at all the Communist stereotype one had thought. Tambo, gravely ill at the time of Mandela’s release, finally returned to Africa after twenty-seven years of exile, only to die a year later, before his comrade was elected president. This film, placing him once more before a new generation of potential movers and shakers, is mandatory viewing.

Tony Pipolo

Have You Heard from Johannesburg plays April 14–27 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.