PBS Must-see: ‘Have You Heard from Johannesburg?’

Connie Field’s five-part series, “Have You Heard from Johannesburg?” is both a history lesson and a lesson in the growing global community. This is a saga that is too complex to be contained in two hours and goes beyond the borders of South Africa. Field took a decade to make this documentary series which looks at half a century of activism.

PBS is showing individual episodes. “Road to Resistance” and “The New Generation” premiered in back-to-back screenings on 12 January 2012.

Last week, “From Selma to Soweto” and “The Bottom Line” also premiered in a back-to-back screening on the 19 of January.

This Thursday, 26 January 2012, “Free at Last” premieres.

The Road to Resistance” begins as the U.S. adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the Palais de Chaillot on 10 December 1948. World War II has just ended (1945) and the German Nazi atrocities were becoming apparent. The Nuremberg trials ended in 1946.

Yet in the face of global trends toward civil rights, South Africa moves to become more restrictive, dividing its citizens into four categories: white, colored, native/black and Indian/Asian). Black people were not so much citizens of South Africa as members of tribes that were self-governed.

Each race was expected to live in assigned areas, meaning forced relocations. Interracial marriage was prohibited (1949).

Americans such as George M. Houser becomes a part of the American Committee on Africa. Houser, Americans for South African Resistance and other similar organizations in America and Europe support the Defiance Campaign.   If you were too young to recall, Field reminds us that on 21 March 1960, the world was shocked by the Sharpville massacre.

Oliver Tambo (1917-1993), along with Mandela, participated in a student strike at Fort Hare University and were expelled. Tambo, Mandela and Walter Sisulu founded the African National Congress Youth League in 1943. Tambo would eventually become the Deputy President of the ANC, but by 1959, he moved to London where he stayed until 1990.

The decision to use violence is a hard sell to the world and this becomes a controversial point with governments and churches. The ANC have the man who trained Tambo on their side, English-born Anglican bishop Trevor Huddleston (1913-1993).  Some churches come out to support the ANC, even supplying them with money. The ANC forms an alliance with the Communist Soviet Union. And Sweden. Field doesn’t stop to ask hard questions about the UK and the US.  Instead we see how the churches and other countries begin to define the situation of South Africa as a Civil War, as a just war.

Mandala is jailed for life in 1962 on charges of sabotage.

What is it like to be a stranger, a foreigner an animal in your homeland, Tambo asks. Tambo emerges as a dignified resolute young man. If there is a villain, it might be Johannes Gerhardus Strijdom (1893-1958), a prime minister of the Union of South Africa (1954-1958) who was an ardent white supremacist who is mentioned in passing.

You can still view “Road to Resistance.” Visit the PBS website for local listings.

“The New Generation” looks at the youth who followed Mandela, Tambo and Susulu, growing up under the oppression of apartheid. The life sentence of Mandela seemed to tell a generation “You people shut up forever.” But there was a new generation all over the world. In Holland, some people drew the parallel between Hitler and the Nazis and South African apartheid.

Imagine the education of enslavement that had developed in South Africa.The hero here was Stephen Biko (1946-1977) and he’s compared to Martin Luther King Jr. Consider how much worse the conditions were that Biko labored under when he founded the Black Consciousness Movement to foster black pride and yes, understand that “black is beautiful.” Imagine being banned in your own home country–unable to meet with people, publish or speak.

It was in the South Western Townships, known as Soweto, a lower-class urban area of Johannesburg, South Africa, that massive protests occurred and were brutally put down by the government on 16 June 1976. Known as the Soweto uprising, the demonstration attracted 10,000 students marching from Naledi High School to Orlando Stadium. Police fired on the students. The first death was Hastings Ndlovu. What we remember is from the photo: Hector Pieterson dies. Dogs are set loose and stoned to death. What the Soweto Uprising did was gain the world’s attention and draw international support for sanctions against South Africa.

Visit the PBS website for local listings.

PBS skips the segment “Fair Play.” The U.S. boycotted Olympics, but around the world, activists pushed for a sports boycott against South Africa, resulting in disqualifying South African teams from various international competitions.

Selma to Soweto” reminds us that in the U.S. there was a growing awareness of Civil Rights. African Americans put pressure on the U.S. to impose sanctions against South Africa. Selma is a reference to the three Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 that was about voting rights for African Americans. The first walk was on 7 March 1965 and 600 marchers were attacked outside of Selma, Alabama in what was dubbed “Bloody Sunday.”  The route is now the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights trail. It wasn’t until the third march that the protestors made it to Montgomery, led by Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) and greeted by various celebrities, such as Harry Belafonte.

Harry Belafonte and Rosa Parks would now, during the Reagan years, protest against South Africa. Then there were others such as Stevie Wonder, Paul Newman and Tony Randall. With celebrity involvement protest became normalized and most of the protestors were everyday citizens. Then there was a movement in the 1980s to divest from corporations involved in South Africa. Mostly beginning on campuses such as Columbia, it spread. The protesters made a direct connection to Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement.

“Selma to Soweto” is available on demand at the PBS website until 10 February 2012. Visit the PBS website for local listings.

If sports didn’t hurt South Africa, then how about where it really hurts: “The Bottom Line.” Many American and British companies were doing big business in South Africa. International pressure forced Polaroid, Shell, Barclays and General Motors to pull out of South Africa and re-think just how they did business. Because of apartheid and the cheapness of life and labor of the majority of the people who were black, the lifestyle of the privileged whites was Nirvana. They had servants. They had cars. They didn’t even have to have citizenship to enjoy the easy life.

The black South Africans had to carry passes with their photos. Without their pass, a black person would be imprisoned. Their passes indicated where they were allowed to be. And those photos were taken with Polaroid filmd. Polaroid was in South Africa since 1938.  The story about Polaroid and South Africa became big news, although it was a small part of their international sales. Talk about a PR nightmare.

From Polaroid, to banks and from banks to Shell Oil Company. The protests remained peaceful, but they were dynamic. The boycotts unified people of different nationalities, different races, different economic classes and different religions.

It becomes not a matter of personal belief or politics, but what is good business? Being boycotted at home and being unable to make profit from the system of apartheid in South Africa, companies made business decisions.

“The Bottom Line” is available on the PBS website on demand until 26 January 2012. Visit the PBS website for local listings.

In “Free at Last,” with all this global peer pressure, South Africa was forced to change. The South African government attempts to break the opposition by giving the ethnic Indians and the coloreds more rights than the blacks. P.W. Botha, the prime minister (1978-1984) proposed the creation of a new federal system in which there would be a whites-only house (House of Assembly), a separate house for Indians (House of Delegates) and a separate house for colored (House of Representatives). Control of the country was with the whites-only.

Instead of a prime minister, there would be a state president. Botha became the first state president (1984-1989). Allowing self-governance within the Indian and colored communities wasn’t enough. Protests and violence continues.

Violence by the ANC was condemned by governments such as the U.S. (Reagan) and the U.K. (Margaret Thatcher), but the same condemnation was not leveled at the torture and brutality of the Botha government. In the U.S., the Senate and the House of Representatives overrode Reagan’s veto and imposed new sanctions against South Africa in 1986. One of the pre-conditions of lifting the sanctions was the release of Mandela. He would become the face of the movement.

The effects of the economic sanctions can no longer be denied. And the protests, domestic and foreign, continue. Can one really justify dogs and police attempting to keep peaceful demonstrators off of a beach because they are not white?

Nelson Mandela is freed and the concept of political activism and protest has taken on global aspects. We remember Nelson Mandela, but not to much Tambo and this series shows us just how important both men were.

“Free at Last” premieres this Thursday, 26 January 2012.Visit the PBS website for local listings.

Mixing in grainy footage from the past along with more contemporary interviews with the participants, director Connie Field rushes through the history of a 30-year struggle that crossed borders and examines how it changed the concept of protest and what could be protested. Field knows her stuff. She directed the 1990 Oscar-nominated “Forever Activists” about seven American veterans of the Spanish Civil War. She  had previously directed the 1994 Oscar-nominated “Freedom on My Mind” which looked at the history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.

Field knows there’s a price to be paid in social struggles and looks at it, She doesn’t allow the action to get bogged down with some thorny questions about personal lives and conflicts. We hear from a young Winnie Mandela, but we don’t delve into her later separation and more contemporary criticisms of her former husband. The film also doesn’t take a critical look at the choice of the ANC to use violence, particularly the practice of “necklacing.”

It might have been interesting to understand about the architects of apartheid like Johannes Gerhardus Strijdom. Consider that apartheid lasted longer than the Nazi regime yet we know less about them than Hitler.

Field obviously made choices and her task was daunting. This series is a worthy and exciting depiction of history and how boycotts can be effective. It shows how common people, young and old, can come together and make a difference in the world. The global community pulled together and changed the world peacefully.

“Free at Last” premieres this Thursday, 26 January 2012. Check local listings for the time of this episode as well as others. Visit the PBS website for local listings.

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