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A Masterful Look at Anti-Apartheid

• January 10, 2012 • 9:00 AM

South Africa’s painful journey from white minority domination to democracy, and the roles played by the rest of the world, is chronicled in a five-part documentary airing on PBS.

Shortly after my mother died in 1983, I sat down with her financial adviser to go over her estate and to decide what to do with the money she had left me. I discovered mom had investments in South Africa, then a pariah state for its racist policy of apartheid. When I told the adviser that I did not want to invest in that country, her response was, “What’s wrong with South Africa?”

My answer was to find another investment adviser and divest immediately — which made me one of the millions of people influenced by the international anti-apartheid movement, an effort that is exhaustively documented in the five-part film Have You Heard From Johannesburg being broadcast as part of PBS’s Independent Lens series on January 12, 19, and 26.

The anti-apartheid movement “historically was the most successful liberation movement to engage the rest of the world,” said Johannesburg producer/director Connie Field in an interview with Miller-McCune, and it was “the nonviolent means that won the day there.”

Field has been working on Johannesburg for a long time. She began shooting in 1997, did 140 interviews all over the world, and finished the series only last year. Originally seven episodes and 8.5 hours long, the documentary has been shown in several versions.

In 2006, one feature-length episode, titled “Apartheid and the Club of the West,” was released theatrically in San Francisco and played in a handful of other cities. Then, in 2010, the full series played theatrically at New York’s Film Forum. PBS is showing a shortened version consisting of five 52-minute episodes, but the original cut plus the PBS cuts, as well as four hours of additional film, will be available in a seven-DVD set on Field’s website.

Opening with the rapturously received release of Nelson Mandela from prison in February 1990, Field’s documentary quickly jumps back to 1948, and the beginnings of the “separate development” laws aimed at creating a society in which the minority white government controlled all aspects of the black majority’s lives.

To fight this racist regime, the African National Congress first advocated nonviolent action. But after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, in which 69 nonviolent demonstrators were killed, and after which many ANC leaders were either jailed or went into exile, other strategies were pursued. Armed struggle was always part of the mix, but given the superior firepower of the South African army and the country’s draconian state security laws, blowing up power plants became nothing more than a scary diversion.

What eventually turned the tide was a mix of economic embargoes and sanctions, a divestment movement that encouraged individuals and institutions outside the country to sell their South African stocks, and an international sports boycott.

Watch A Landmark Series on the Anti-Apartheid Movement on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

If there’s a central figure in Have You Heard From Johannesburg, it is Oliver Tambo, who ran the ANC from exile for three decades. He traveled the globe as the active face of the movement, trying to convince governments, individuals, and corporations to take a stand against the repressive South African regime.

And if there are villains in this masterful documentary — other than the white South African leaders — it is the paired-at-the-hip duo of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who were convinced that the ANC and its allies were communists, and resisted change to the bitter end. Reagan in particular comes off as utterly intransigent, so out of touch that the U.S. Senate almost gleefully overrode his veto of a bill calling for economic sanctions against South Africa.

“Anti-communism was the geopolitical core of this era. It was a power struggle, especially in places like Africa, where they would fight proxy wars,” said Field. “The excuse was that Mandela and the ANC were communists. South Africa is our ally because they were against the Soviet Union.”

Yet others recognized the democratic and human rights issues at stake, even if it took some convincing. Sweden and other Nordic countries pledged financial support to the movement. The World Council of Churches also gave money. Dutch activists, motivated by their blood ties to the Boers of South Africa, convinced their government to actively oppose the racist regime. By 1977, when Polaroid became the first company to stop doing business in South Africa, the country’s international isolation was fast becoming a reality.

Eight years later the hammer really came down.

“When the banks refused to roll over their loans in 1985 [and foreign companies began pulling out in droves]; that was pretty central,” said Field. “But it was also a combination of all the things that had gone on before; it was the ANC, the Stephen Biko generation, and the young people of the ’80s. All of that came together and made everything else happen. This is how a liberation struggle works hand in hand with pressure from all over the world.”

So, South African President F.W. de Klerk, bowing to the inevitable, released Nelson Mandela from jail and negotiated the transfer of political power. Free elections were finally held in 1994, and Mandela became president. But even though South Africa finally became a color-blind democracy, and the anti-apartheid movement remains a shining example of how to nonviolently confront a corrupt political regime, plenty of problems remain.

“All that happened in South Africa was they took away the outside structures of apartheid; they didn’t do anything else,” said Field. “They did not have a ‘complete revolution’ of their social system. What you do with a country after all this is the hardest job. You have the realities of poverty, economics, racism. And the ANC, who were the leaders of the liberation movement, now they are in power — and they are trying to maintain their power.”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Also debuting on January 12 is Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the culmination of filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s 16-year quest to obtain justice for a trio of Arkansas teenagers known as the West Memphis 3.

Arrested in 1993 for the brutal murders of three young boys, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley were tried in an atmosphere of hysteria — the prosecution contended the children were killed as part of a Satanic ritual — with questionable forensics and a highly suspect confession swaying the jury. Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life terms, while Echols was given the death sentence.

All this is briefly recounted in Paradise Lost 3, which is a partial recap of the filmmakers’ previous films on the subject, 1996’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, and 2000’s Paradise Lost 2: Revelations.

West Memphis 3

Pictured: the West Memphis 3. A new HBO documentary, "Paradise Lost 3," is the latest installment in the series chronicling the 1993 case of three children brutally murdered in Arkansas.

What’s new in the third film, which will be broadcast on HBO, is a recounting of how revulsion over the West Memphis 3 case became a national movement, attracting the support of celebrities like Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks. The documentary also recounts the numerous legal appeals over the years, some of them involving suspicion of jury tampering, DNA evidence and other forensic clues.

All of these appeals were shot down by the trial judge until, in late 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court overruled his attempt to exclude DNA evidence that could lead to a new trial. That’s when the prosecution offered a devil’s bargain. Aware that the trio were desperate to get out of jail and that a likely new trial could lead to exoneration and multimillion dollar lawsuits, the state proposed that Echols, Baldwin and Miskelly could be released from prison if they agreed to an Alford plea deal, a rarely used legal maneuver in which defendants plead guilty to a crime, but still maintain their innocence.

Sentenced to time served and a 10-year suspended sentence, the West Memphis 3 walked free on August 19, 2011. But as Baldwin says toward the end of this sobering film, justice has not really been served. Three innocent men, after serving more than 18 years in jail, have been convicted of a crime they never committed, while the real killer — which the documentary alleges is the stepfather of one of the murdered children — walks free.

Mesmerizing in every aspect, Paradise Lost 3 is not just an indictment of the Arkansas legal system – which comes off like some corrupt and inept Third World bureaucracy — but how fear of “the other” can easily lead to a gross miscarriage of justice.

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Lewis Beale
Lewis Beale is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Newsday and many other publications.

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