“Unity is strength,” says Albertina Sisulu of the African National Congress. “There is no way we can succeed as a single organization to fight his battle.” Describing the inception of the people’s movement in South Africa in the 1950s, she makes clear an overarching theme for Have You Heard From Johannesburg, namely, that this movement “has inspired every other people’s movement since,” including 2011’s Arab Spring and OWS. The history of the movement is chronicled in Connie Field’s sweeping documentary, featuring interviews with participants and an incredible collection of footage and photos. Premiering on PBS’ Independent Lens on 12 January to commemorate the centennial of the ANC, the film is reduced from its original seven parts to five (airing on 19 and 26 January as well).
Tonight’s chapters (“The Road to Resistance” and “The New Generation”) underline the ANC’s early understanding that the movement would need international support, following the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the decision to send Oliver Tambo to Europe to insure the movement would continue no matter what happened to organizers in South Africa, the decision (urged by Nelson Mandela and others) to embark on an armed struggle, and the crisis created when Mandela and seven others were sentenced to life in prison for bombing power lines. Interviews with international supporters of the movement—including Soviet officials who saw an opportunity to back an anti-imperialist struggle—reveal Tambo’s efforts to keep the movement alive despite such setbacks. The film also considers the US and Britain’s continued support of the apartheid government against the people’s movement, a decision premised on a global economic calculus. Sir Sonny Ramphal Vice President of the UN General Assembly, laments, “That really was a tragedy because apartheid was hostile to every Western value. It was the absence of democracy, it was a police state and tyranny, it was racism in its most blatant form. And yet, the West aligned itself with South Africa by refusing to condemn it.”
The second chapter focuses on the crucial and increasingly sophisticated campaigns forged by young people who were frustrated when the opposition movement was “all but crushed during the 1960s.” “Our parents did not say anything or do anything,” remembers Duma Ndlovu of the South African Student Organization. “The police were the law of the land.” Students organized in South Africa and elsewhere, especially in the Netherlands. Interviewees include Connie Braam, a founder of Anti-Apartheid Netherlands (AABN), and Rev. Albert van den Heuvel of the Dutch Reformed Church Holland; he describes their particular dilemma: not only had Dutch colonists provided the word “apartheid,” but, “Much worse, we had given them their theology; 20% white people in South Africa felt themselves chosen by God to lead 80% of blacks to a better life. And a better life meant to be servants to the whites. That was the legacy from the Netherlands.”
When students protesting at Soweto were massacred on 16 June 1976, the story was immediately worldwide news, the brutality captured by journalists’ cameras. The film includes an interview with Barend Du Plessis of the South African government, still affronted that Holland was “so viciously leading international condemnation of the political system in South Africa.” He notes, “After all, they started the whole thing here and we’re their descendants.” Though the US and the UN enacted an arms embargo against South Africa, President Carter’s UN Ambassador Andrew Young vetoed economic sanctions. In 1977, Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) leader Steve Biko was killed by police, galvanizing the youthful resistance movement. Even as Pik Botha insists in archival footage that South Africa will never “accept one man, one vote: it means our destruction,” Ndlovu remembers the effects of violent oppression. “After Biko died, after we buried him, it was like, freedom in our lifetime. For you if for nothing else, we will get this freedom.”