During the 1980s, a grassroots movement achieved a political impossibility by forcing the Congress to change the direction of American foreign policy. At issue was the involvement of American corporations in apartheid-ruled South Africa. Despite heavy pressure from Ronald Reagan’s White House, the divestment movement successfully swayed the Congress to impose economic sanctions on South Africa. Simultaneously, universities and state and local governments divested themselves of investments doing business in South Africa.
This remarkable political achievement is the subject of Connie Field’s brilliant documentary “Have You Heard from Johannesburg: Apartheid and the Club of the West.” The film is actually the fourth in a series of six films on the history of apartheid’s rise and fall, and the latest bravura achievement for a filmmaker who is a is a two-time Oscar nominee (for “Forever Activists” in 1990 and “Freedom on My Mind” in 1994) and part of the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry (for her 1981 documentary “The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter.”
Film Threat caught up with Field at her Los Angeles office to discuss her film and the story behind its creation.
What inspired you to make this film?
I was interested because the struggle to overcome apartheid in South Africa is one of the greatest examples of world political action, that spans the spectrum from citizen action to governmental action. And as one scholar puts it: “The international struggle against apartheid was the most important international social justice movement of the 20th century.” And in our globalized world, I thought it was a very important story to tell.
The apartheid laws were enacted in 1948, but Americans didn’t seem to get concerned until the 1980s. What took Americans so long to notice apartheid?
Actually, Americans have been involved since the 1940’s. Paul Robeson was one of the first. And the American Committee on Africa was formed in the 1950’s.
How active Americans were depended on the activity inside South Africa. The divesture movement was very active in the mid-1970s (especially on college campuses), because of the uprising in Soweto, and the activity and murder of Steve Biko. African Liberation support groups began in the early 70’s and remained active , but those were small groups of people scattered across the country. In the 1980’s the rise in the liberation struggle in South Africa (the UDF) caused the entire world to take notice, and thus we had the more public platforms for groups like TransAfrica which was actually formed in 1977.
And the political campaign for the US government to sanction South Africa was begun in Congress by Ron Dellums and John Conyers in 1972. This happened because at that time, employees at Polaroid were working to get Polaroid to leave South Africa because it was Polaroid film that took the photos for the pass books that black Africans had to carry in South Africa. Carolyn Hunter was one of those workers and she met with Dellums then. And that contact is what started the legislative effort to sanction South Africa which culminated in 1986 with the finally successful passage of the Congressional Anti-apartheid Act.
And by the way, Polaroid was the very first American company to pull out of South Africa. So there was anti-apartheid activity in the US for a long time before the 1980’s.
Your film consists of a vast tapestry of historic footage, including films and videos not seen in over 20 years. Was there any footage you were unable to obtain for the production?
No, not yet!
In viewing this film, it is difficult not to compare the success of the divestment movement with today’s anti-war movement. In your opinion, do you see a parallel in tactics from the 1980s with today’s political activitsm?
I actually consider our anti-war movement today as quite successful. We wouldn’t have the activity going on in Congress now without it. Also, the apartheid issue was actually simpler. No one supported apartheid! It then became a matter of what you would do about it.
I think the tactics that were used most successfully in the anti-apartheid movement where those used to isolate the South Africa regime (the sports boycott and the economic boycott). And the use of our power as shareholders in companies and old fashioned agitprop pressure on multinational corporations, which was pioneered by the anti-apartheid movement, is now in the political lexicon. They also pioneered “act locally, think globally”. And the came up with strategies, like divestment, which was one unified tactic that could be used by numerous kind of groups, from churches, to universities to unions to cities and states. Very smart.
What are the next installments in this series and when can we see them?
We are hoping to release the whole series in the fall of 2008.