In 1996, only two years after Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa, acclaimed filmmaker Connie Field began working on an epic seven-part documentary series about the global campaign to end the racist apartheid regime that plagued the country for more than four decades.
Have You Heard From Johannesburg chronicles three generations of that struggle — from the early freedom fighters and African National Congress (ANC) leader Oliver Tambo to the international campaign to boycott corporations operating in South Africa and impose economic sanctions on the regime — through some 135 interviews spanning 12 countries, encounters with former apartheid officials and profiteering corporate executives, and archival footage from around the world.
After attending a recent screening at the Ford Foundation of one part of the eight-and-a-half-hour series, The Indypendent’s Eric Stoner spoke with Field about whether nonviolent action played the decisive role in bringing down the apartheid regime, why economic justice has eluded post-apartheid South Africa, and what activists today can learn from the anti-apartheid movement.
Eric Stoner: Tell me a bit about how the story developed.
Connie Field: This is an untold story that didn’t exist in any medium. When I started, I had very little information about it. It was a huge process just gathering the story from all over the world, like doing original historical research.
ES: I understand certain parts of the series can be viewed separately?
CF: Three of the stories I call standalones. They are about specific campaigns that were waged from outside of South Africa to help topple apartheid there. Viewed individually, each tells the story of a particular campaign. One of them, From Selma to Soweto, shows how African-Americans changed U.S. foreign policy in South Africa for the first time in history. Countries that were more heavily involved in the Cold War or had serious economic interests in the system of apartheid, such as Britain and the United States, were steadfastly “protecting” the regime by not acting against it. So when people in our country literally forced the government to enact sanctions against South Africa over President Reagan’s veto, it was incredibly significant. The resistance within South Africa really relied on support from the United States. The other two stand-alones are about the sports boycott and the economic boycott that forced companies to pull out of South Africa.
ES: What will viewers get by watching the entire series that would be missing if they only watched individual parts?
CF: One of the features has been in distribution for a couple of years and I’ve been various places with it. What I learned from those screenings is that these powerful stories have to be put into context. The whole story is what gives these separate parts their significance; that’s why I was very happy with Film Forum wanting to show Have You Heard in its entirety.
ES: How did the international campaign and the very effective boycott by blacks inside South Africa work together to end the system of apartheid?
CF: It’s very important to understand that this story worked because of the combination of people inside South Africa working together with people outside the country. What the outside movements helped accomplish was the isolation the apartheid regime so that it would negotiate. With that external pressure and the uprising within South Africa, the government was faced with a revolution or doing something to save themselves.
ES: While the anti-apartheid struggle was primarily nonviolent, the ANC did resort to violence. Would you say that violence or nonviolence was more influential in bringing down the regime?
CF: The ANC had an armed wing, and in the 1980s they certainly stepped up the amount of force they were using, but it wasn’t tremendously effective. It was really the nonviolent mass movement that was happening in the 1980s, which by then was huge and unstoppable. Violence didn’t really change anything.
ES: What lessons do you think activists today can take from the anti-apartheid movement?
CF: Many of the tactics that were used proved capable of affecting things on a global scale. Pressuring international corporations that continued to operate in South Africa was essential, and the resistance movement did that quite successfully. To understand that you can affect what corporations do is tremendously important, because corporations control our universe. And for people who are struggling in their countries for their rights, understanding how the ANC went about gaining the kind of international support it had provides a tremendous lesson.
ES: Since the movement built up over decades, I was reminded of the importance of perseverance.
CF: You have to be in for the long haul if you want to change anything. The ANC was formed in the early 1900s and their struggle went on for almost a century. W.E.B. DuBois said that the last century was about race and the issue of the “color line,” and it’s true. The whole world progressed from fighting off colonialism to the civil rights movements, including in our own country, and that entire century culminated in the defeat of apartheid in South Africa. Now people are very committed and concerned with trying to eradicate poverty. That’s going to be a big global struggle that will take us through the next century. But it doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
ES: For decades the ANC had a very progressive economic platform, including advocating the nationalization of certain industries. Then during the transition, they caved on many of these issues. How did this happen and what has been the effect of this reversal on economic policy?
CF: Yeah, that’s very true. Had the Soviet Union not imploded there would have been a much stronger influence by the communists and socialists in the ANC, of which there were a huge amount.
In the end many of them got bought off. Throughout the later half of the 1980s, there were meetings going on all over the world between the big corporations and ANC leaders that made some of the foremost revolutionaries of the ANC into millionaires. Everybody knew that the ANC was probably going to govern post-apartheid South Africa; they all wanted to protect their interests.
ES: I felt empowered by the film and I hope that it encourages others to get involved in current struggles for social justice.
CF: That’s why I thought it was such an important story to tell. It’s a victory achieved by people all over the world. I think the ANC led a brilliant liberation movement that we can learn a lot from. When you don’t know what your history is, you don’t know what your possibilities are either. As Howard Zinn taught us, the people’s history often goes untold. This was a global story of people’s history that I thought needed to be told so that people can get a sense of what can be accomplished.
Have You Heard From Johannesburg will be shown at the Film Forum in its entirety April 14-27. For more information, filmforum.org.