[26 January 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“President Reagan has fought long and hard to prevent Congress from imposing new economic sanctions on South Africa. Recently, even leaders of his own party begged him to stop. He didn’t. Today, he lost.” Footage of Dan Rather’s report on CBS in October 1986 serves as a kind of exclamation point when it appears in Have You Heard From Johannesburg. Before and following this clip, the film shows member of the Black Congressional Caucus then and now, recalling their fight to support the ANC against the racist South African government. When at last the Senate and the House voted to override the president’s veto, the movement was approaching its goal, the end of apartheid, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison (still three and a half years away, in 1990), and the official recognition by Western nations—the US, Britain, France, and others—that apartheid was, in fact, a threat to world peace.
This moment was an overlong time coming, of course, but still, when it does come in “Free at Last,” the fifth and final PBS installment of Connie Field’s documentary on 26 January, you’d be hard-pressed not to feel at least a bit of relief. As the film reveals, the strategies to get to this moment shift over the years, as the ANC is joined by other organizations, based in in South Africa and elsewhere. The ANC continued to represent through Oliver Tambo in exile (who says in an archival interview that even as bomb attacks were escalating in South Africa, “We continue, of course, to calculate on what this means for civilians” as well as Mandela (who became the movement’s most recognizable “name and face”). When an interviewer asks him, “Does your wife worry about you?”, Tambo patently responds. “Of course she does. I expect I really do expect that I will be killed by the regime or its representatives.”
The film looks as well at other parts of the movement, including the United Democratic Front (UDF). Formed in 1983, this coalition of close to 400 church, student, and workers organizations brought increasing pressure on President Pik Botha, from the moment he’s elected in 1984, through to his about-face in 1990. The film ends as Botha realizes he is “against a wall,” along with all the other international leaders who have been propping up the policy by their silence and also by their mutually profitable economic support. As citizens dance in the street, Mike Terry, of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (1969-1994, a set of dates the film underscores by noting they amount to 25 years), observes, “You suddenly realized that what you had done was, you’d really reached ordinary people and they were celebrating and they felt that they played a part in that.”