The Anti-Apartheid Movement's Untold Stories

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the African National Congress, the party that played a crucial role in the global movement to end apartheid in South Africa. That history, along with rare interviews with the party's key players, is featured in the series Have You Heard From Johannesburg? Host Michel Martin speaks with director Connie Field.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. The global fight against apartheid took decades to win. That term refers to the laws adopted by the South African government in the 1940s that racially segregated people in almost every area of life, from where they could sit, to where they could eat, to where they could live, to whom they could marry.

But black and brown South Africans fought back in a way that grabbed the world's attention. Grassroots movements spread around the world, from sports arenas to college campuses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: At the University of Illinois, 60 students were arrested at a meeting of school trustees.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Anti-apartheid protests at the University of California, Berkley Campus seemed to throw back to the free speech demonstrations of the 1960s.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: South Africa needs the investment of the Western democracies.

MARTIN: This epic story is captured in a film series, "Have You Heard from Johannesburg?" It features interviews with key players from across the generations. It has already won several awards from film festivals around the world, and this month, it is making its U.S. broadcast premiere on PBS.

The series is being shown in three installments. The first came last Thursday and the second comes today. And producer, writer, director Connie Field joins us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

CONNIE FIELD: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Do I have this right, that it took 10 years to do this series?

FIELD: Oh, you do have it right, and given then some. This was a very enormous story to capture, and it was also a story that had never been told before in any medium. No one has sort of looked at this story from a global perspective. And I went on a global gathering of, you know, interviewing people. I interviewed over 140 people all over the world, collected footage from all over the world.

And, also, being an independent, actually, I did raise a good deal of money for this project, but not as much as would have allowed you to hire as many people as you need to make it go as quick as possible. So all these things, you know, took their time.

MARTIN: Well, I can imagine so. And you are a veteran of - you're an independent filmmaker, as you mentioned. You're a veteran. You've done previous films about the civil rights movement. And you do see the analogies here, but I did want to ask you specifically why you were attracted to this.

FIELD: Well, I got attracted to this because it was a global story. We live in a world that is very interconnected, getting more and more interconnected day by day. For those of us who care about changing the world and trying to make it better and more equitable, it means that we really have to work on a global level.

This is what this campaign did, and it operated - to use a cliche, act locally, but think globally.

MARTIN: Well, I want to hear more about that. That's an interest - exactly, when we talk about just how the campaign ensued. But before we do that, I do want to mention that you introduce people to names that they may have heard, but aren't really quite sure exactly what they did. And you bring these figures into sharp focus.

One of them was Oliver Tambo. He served as president of the African National Congress, the ANC. He lived in exile for decades. And while he was in exile, he went around the world trying to get support for the anti-apartheid movement. I just want to play a short clip about him from the film. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HAVE YOU HEARD FROM JOHANNESBURG?")

OLIVER TAMBO: Colleagues worry about me in the ANC, but I myself expect - I really do expect that I would be killed by the regime or its agents.

MARTIN: What was his success, and how did he do what he did?

FIELD: He's really the figurehead. I mean, everybody knows this story and this movement through the face of Nelson Mandela, who, when you look at what happened, was in jail the majority of this time. And it was Oliver Tambo who was sent out of South Africa in 1960 when all the political organizations were banned in South Africa. The ANC shipped him off and said: You need to lead us from exile, which is what he did.

So he not only spoke to people all over the world, he's the one who actually kept that organization together. Most organizations like that, if they are in exile that long, they fall apart. So it was an extraordinary job that he did on that level.

He also was an amazing person. He would conduct a meeting so that by the end of the meeting people would think ideas that he had had at the beginning were their ideas at the end. And he was very much a diplomat, was quite successful in talking to people all over the world to get them to join in the struggle to isolate the Afrikaner regime.

MARTIN: So he had remarkable skills, remarkable leadership skills, remarkable diplomatic skills, organizing skills, just a remarkable figure.

FIELD: He was, and he built everything from nothing. I mean when he left the country, they had nothing. They didn't have any money. They didn't have places to stay. He built all of this, largely starting with organizations in countries like England that were early on in the '50s active around South Africa.

MARTIN: Connie, so you also spent a lot of time in the film talking about Stephen Biko, that's a name that another - another name that many Americans might remember. He was the subject of a feature film some years ago. He was a black South African intellectual. He had a huge influence, but he was killed in police custody. You know, his death even led the musician Peter Gabriel to write a song in his honor. Let me just play a short clip of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIKO")

PETER GABRIEL: (Singing) Oh Biko, Biko, because of Biko. Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja - the man is dead, the man is dead.

MARTIN: You know, it's almost cruel to ask you to encapsulate, you know, all this history into just a few short words. But just briefly as you can, could you just tell us a little bit more about what Stephen Biko's death meant to the movement?

FIELD: Steve Biko was the leader of the next generation of young South Africans who got brought in to fight for their liberation. And he was known all over the world, not just in South Africa. And there were lots of exchanges between him and the African-American movement here in the United States and the Black Power movement. And what he did for people in South Africa was to kind of break the shackles of racism, making you feel that you are a lesser person than you are, the psychological problems of oppression. And his death and the Soweto Uprising was so enormous and affected the world to the point that the United Nations, which actually is very hard to move - it certainly was on South Africa; you could get nothing passed by the Security Council - for the very first time passed arms embargos against South Africa. And that's directly related to the Soweto Uprising and the murder of Steve Biko.

MARTIN: We're speaking with producer, director, writer, Connie Field about her documentary series "Have You Heard from Johannesburg?" It describes the history of the anti-apartheid movement. In the second installment of the series, which is being shown on PBS tonight, and you'll want to check your local listings for exact times, this is where the U.S. side of the story comes into focus. You know, you describe how African-Americans staged protests outside the South African Embassy in Washington D.C. People in Washington may remember this because many figures, you know, major figures, went there to get arrested. Let's play a short clip from the film where we hear from some members of the group. This is Cecelie Counts and Sylvia Hill.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HAVE YOU HEARD FROM JOHANNESBURG?")

CECELIE COUNTS: Once we started to get a pattern of celebrity arrests at the embassy, it gave regular people more courage to participate.

DR. SYLVIA HILL: The vast majority of the people who got arrested were everyday working people, and tears still come to my eyes. And this woman came one day and she was in her 60s and she said to me, this so hard for me. I spent all my life trying to stay out of jail. But I just have to do this 'cause it's the right thing to do.

MARTIN: Now, you were telling us early that this phase of the story was actually news to you, which is interesting to me because you are a student of the civil rights movement in this country. As we've said, you've made films about it. So tell a little bit more about this.

FIELD: Well, this is one of the stories we discovered in the editing room. Oh my goodness, this is what's happening. It starts here. It's very significant for African-American history because it's really the first time in a significant way that they affected and changed U.S. foreign policy. And it's a phenomenal story because it's really the legacy of the civil rights movement that allowed this to happen.

One of the things the civil rights movement did, it ushered in black politicians and they were in city government and they were in state government and they were in the U.S. government. And you had U.S. congressmen sitting in and getting arrested. When do you see this today?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FIELD: And it really, you know, gave encouragement to people all over the country. And also during time the real movement for us in America in the '80s was the divestment movement. And this was to get your university - like here at UC Berkeley - to take their money out of corporations that were doing business in South Africa.

MARTIN: Why did it work? What's your analysis at the end of the day about why that strategy worked?

FIELD: There's two things about that strategy. One, it's a great strategy for building a movement because everybody can do it. When you're trying to do something, if you can come up with a tactic like that - people did it in their churches, they did it in their unions, they did it in their cities, they did it at their colleges, anywhere because of the fact we're pretty privatized in this country and everybody's pensions are in the stock market - you have leverage. So that's one thing that was really significant about it.

The other thing was this happened in the '80s because there was a mass unstoppable movement in South Africa. That's what really caused things to move. I mean people started pushing to get corporations to leave South Africa starting in the mid-'60s. It didn't really happen till the mid-'80s, and it's because of what was happening in South Africa. That's the story I'm telling. You can see that it's the interplay with what they were doing in South Africa with then what the world could do also about that.

MARTIN: Well, and the other thing about the film that I think is important to note is that you also talk to people who are on - what many people might say now were on the wrong side of history. You talk with members of the South African government. You talk with U.S. senators who were voting to, you know, not to put sanctions on South Africa, and you talked to corporate executives who didn't want to pull their business out of the country. Tell me about some of the insights that you gleaned from these interviews.

FIELD: They were - I mean I did it because you need to do that to tell the story, and these people were part of history - they were on the other side. It was an incredibly fascinating story with Barclays Bank. I think they were some of my favorites to interview, though I think the CEO of Shell was really my favorite.

MARTIN: Well, was it hard to get them to talk to you? I mean obviously when people are on the winning side, you know, obviously everybody wants to take a victory lap. But was it hard to get these folks to talk?

FIELD: Well, no. I started this fairly early. And I think most people always thought, you know, they were against apartheid, they weren't for apartheid. What I got out of the interviews, though, was what really made them leave. And for those who didn't leave, like Shell, what they felt about it. And things affected each of these different corporations differently. Barclays pulled out largely because they were so successful in Britain, of students leaving Barclays banks and their accounts that Barclays was actually losing too much money.

MARTIN: Hmm. And finally, before we let you go, some people listening to our conversation may be wondering about Nelson Mandela. And it's not that he's an afterthought, that's not the case, but there is not a whole lot about him in the film. I'm just curious about that. Some people say that it was an ANC strategy to kind of make him the face of the ANC, and I'm just interested in what you're reporting says about that and...

FIELD: It was. In 1978, as I said before, Mandela was in jail this whole time. In 1978, they decided that it's more effective if you can have a face, a person who can be symbolic of your whole movement, and they chose to make that Mandela. And the first thing they did was celebrate his 60th birthday in a big, big, huge celebration. And they named stadiums after him. They named rooms after him at universities. They named a scientific discovery after him. I mean there's this long list of things people did all over world that eventually made Nelson Mandela a household name. And that's why when he came out of jail in 1990, everybody knew who he was.

MARTIN: Yeah. That is one of the most amazing scenes in the film, where you just talk about just the - it was like a worldwide moment. You know, people crying. It was just an amazing moment which your film captures. So Connie Field, before we let you go, what do you hope people will draw from the film?

FIELD: Courage. That - not sound too bland, but that they can change the world. This was a great victory that we won, to bring the world closer, to be a more equitable place. We have a big agenda in front of us. Those who are active like in Occupy Wall Street and other places all over the world that are acting now to try to bring economic equality to the way we live with each other in countries, that's a very big agenda. It seems almost impossible, but I hope watching this, where it seemed to many people active in the anti-apartheid movement that they would never see this change in their lifetime.

You know, even though people were against the notion of apartheid, this country had the strongest army and it had the support of two of the strongest nations in the world, the United States and Britain. It was a lot to bring this regime down. And people did it. And they fundamentally did it non-violently.

MARTIN: Connie Field is the producer, writer and director of "Have You Heard from Johannesburg?" It's being shown for the first time in the U.S. this month. It comes in three installments on PBS. Tonight brings the second chapter. You'll want to check your local listings for exact times. And Connie Field was kind enough to join us from Berkeley, California.

Connie Field, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FIELD: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And let's listen to more of Peter Gabriel's song "Biko," honoring anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIKO")

GABRIEL: (Singing) Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko. Oh-oh, Biko, Biko, because Biko. Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja - the man is dead...

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.