The moving, triumphant images of Nelson Mandela in the hours and months after his 1990 release from prison bookend Have You Heard from Johannesburg, but this seven-part documentary about the decades-long fight to dismantle the murderous apartheid government of South Africa does not bend to the Great Man theory of history. Rather, with Mandela incarcerated and unseen for much of its 50-year narrative, Connie Field’s ambitious chronicle emphasizes how slow, steady grassroots action, particularly by Western activists and native exiles, culminated in the capitulation of a racist police state to the reality of its inevitable extinction. The interviewees aren’t detached pundits, but passionately involved, determined veterans of what often seemed a hopeless fight; their retrospective emotions are divided between certainty in the cause and amazement that, in the face of persistent official opposition from America, Britain, and other global powers, they ultimately succeeded. There are familiar heroic leaders (Mandela, Steven Biko, Archbishop Desmond Tutu), but the strength of the story is in the mass mobilization of oppressed South African blacks and morally outraged foreign citizens to make pariahs of the nation’s white-minority authoritarians by protest, boycott, and economic asphyxiation. The rabble, on the side of the angels, stormed the gates of hell and prevailed.
Aside from most of the first and final chapters, Field’s segments don’t offer a strict chronology, instead examining the struggle from different perspectives and in varying contexts. So “From Selma to Soweto” delineates the campaign of U.S. anti-apartheid groups like Transafrica, aided by an emerging generation of African-American legislators, to impose economic sanctions on Pretoria via the unexpected overturning of Ronald Reagan’s veto by his Republican Senate allies; then “The Bottom Line” closely traces successful boycotts of “partners in apartheid” like Polaroid, Shell, and Barclays Bank that tightened the squeeze on the system until astronomical debt and the withdrawal of foreign capital numbered its days. In context, the flashier stratagems of the movement look both savvy and witty; “designer arrests” of Stevie Wonder and Harry Belafonte outside the South African embassy in Washington capture the media’s attention, and the cannily planned sit-in of a Congressman and two cohorts in the ambassador’s office blooms in the arid news environment of a Thanksgiving Eve.
The film’s somewhat less exhaustive survey of the workings of apartheid after its creation in 1948 is nevertheless painfully and hauntingly conveyed with archival footage of commonplace humiliations of “colored,” Indian, and black inhabitants, forcibly relocated to barren “homelands,” penned into exurban labor camps called townships, and arrested when failing to produce a passbook ID. Set in stark contrast are clips of Afrikaner whites lounging at resorts, maintaining a staff of servants as a standard middle-class perk, and hearing generations of leaders, many of whom had been pro-Nazi in WWII, defend the institutional brutality as “our way of life,” or in the words of prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, “a policy of good neighborliness.” From the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, which convinced the African National Congress to modify its tactics to include violent sabotage, to the bloody response to the 1976 Soweto uprising that galvanized international disgust with the regime, historical mayhem is filtered through Field’s chorus of key players, from ANC members living abroad to apartheid-era government officials and businessmen (vile as their role in the events often appears, the filmmakers give them a fair opportunity to defend or condemn themselves).
The political figure who gets his own segment is not Nobel Peace Prize winner Tutu, seen throughout delivering his moral exhortations to crowds and interviewers with unflagging grace and candor, but Oliver Tambo, whose decades as acting ANC president, struggling to gain supporters across the continents as his organization saw all its leaders imprisoned or chased from the country, constituted in his associates’ eyes a “Hell of a Job.” Tambo, a Christian humanist accused of being a Soviet puppet when the U.S.S.R. supplied him with arms and training camps he could procure nowhere else, had the gravity of statesman and the good humor of a man comfortable with his lot. Sharply asked by a reporter if he’s a terrorist, Tambo breaks into a grin and chortles, “What do you think?”
Along with the segments on the push for sanctions and the campaigns for the divestment of colleges, municipalities, and other institutions from corporations engaged in business with South Africa, Field’s most focused and compelling work may be in “Fair Game,” as she dissects how the nation was first isolated in the realm of sports, first by being banned from the Olympics, and then seeing the European and Australian tours of its fervently loved Springbok rugby team disrupted. Anti-apartheid protestors marched on stadiums, rushed onto the field (occasionally unleashing rabbits and moles), and forced the team off major airlines and onto precariously loaded charter planes. The episode’s coda—the 1995 World Cup victory by the Springboks, with Mandela’s support—works as a touching redemption here where it failed to in Clint Eastwood’s soporific Invictus. The accumulation of setbacks and victories, inertia and dynamism over the eight-plus hours of Johannesburg adds up to an epic of lasting social change won by tenacity and fearlessness in the face of the seemingly invincible. When the snarling, cretinous premier P.W. Botha is brought so low that longtime ally Margaret Thatcher deems him too soiled to receive her public handshake (now that’s a pariah), his shame is as sweet as Mandela’s dance of liberation.