I have been watching the most extraordinary documentary at the Film Forum. It’s called Have You Heard from Johannesburg, and tells the story of the world struggle against apartheid. It’s epic, seven and half hours long, made up of individual segments; the Film Forum is showing them grouped together in three parts. Don’t be intimidated by the time. I found that the hours passed by like lightening, if I may expropriate Klan-fan Woodrow Wilson's comment about Birth of a Nation: as history written in lightning.
The first three hours made me cry several times: here were the massacres at Sharpeville and Soweto, and the execution of Stephen Biko; the imprisonment and/or exile of the ANC and PAC; the multiracial effort inside South Africa and out to put paid to the racist state. Old campaigners (each episode is in memory of champions no longer with us) tell the tale, in sometimes surprising places (for ignorant me, anyway). Holland, for instance, with its historical ties to the Afrikaners; Sweden, where Olof Palme was one of the earliest Western leaders to condemn apartheid. I was particularly impressed with Oliver Tambo, whom I knew next to nothing about.
The next part, also three hours long, passed in a blink of the eye. The first part of this detailed the efforts of Dennis Brutus to ban South Africa’s participation in the Olympics and other sporting events, and then concentrates on the ferocious protests against the all-white SA rugby team’s tours of Britain, Australia, and New Zealand in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the latter two places, the recognition of national racism against Aboriginal and Maori populations enriched struggles for justice at home as well.
The fifth episode detailed efforts in the US, during the Reagan years, when Randall Robinson and TransAfrica worked the streets in front of the SA embassy in DC and colleges/universities and municipal entities felt the power of the people for divestment. Over all is this is that malignant little cretin so sainted by the right, Ronald Reagan, doing his best to prolong the abomination of apartheid. Desmond Tutu delivers a nice bitch slap to the destructive old fool: Reagan told him the US had to support SA because they were on our side in WWII. Actually, as Tutu notes, SA's Nationalist Party, the makers of apartheid, were admirers of the Nazis; a particularly obscene moment in one of the earlier episodes shows SA Prime Minister Vorster -- a fan of Hitler who wanted to keep his country out of that war -- in Israel, laying a wreath at Yad Vashem (Israel was happy to ignore the UN’s weapons-to-SA ban).
Reagan could only muster 21 Senators to sustain his veto on the Congressional sanctions bill. The likes of Jesse Helms, who so long stained the halls of Congress, stood by Ronny, as did Bob Dole (ah, the precious "ideas" of the party of no). Thus ended Reagan’s policy of “constructive engagement” with SA, which translated as more cattle prods for the police state.
I was young and excitable in those days, but I still burn with the fires today, contrary to the supposed belief that one is supposed to grow more reactionary with age. Anyway, how well I remember the South African exchange student who spent a year in my high school. Of English ancestry, she didn't seem to know that there were black people in her homeland.