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By Phil Hall | July 8, 2007

Can a grassroots political movement make a significant difference in steering American foreign policy? During the 1980s, such a movement achieved the impossible by redirecting how the nation dealt with the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Connie Fields’ excellent new documentary traces the rise of the anti-apartheid movement through the extraordinary work of TransAfrica, a small and somewhat poorly financed policy center that made the racist apartheid practices a front-and-center issue in American politics. In a way, the film offers a great historic service since the anti-apartheid movement has been curiously forgotten by those who revere the excesses and eccentricities of the 1980s. Yet the film is hardly a mere history lesson.

This film should be required viewing to show that the average person can make a profound impact on the world. (Today’s largely impotent anti-war movement can learn a lot from this movie!)

Apartheid became South African law in 1948, but in the United States the revulsion to such laws was very late in coming. It was not until the 1970s, when the number of African-American elected officials began to increase, that apartheid was openly questioned in Washington. But the coming of Ronald Reagan’s administration nearly squashed the discussion. Reagan, guided in no small way by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, opposed all efforts to place economic sanctions on South Africa. Reagan’s logic: such sanctions would hurt the poorest people in South Africa. The truth: most major American corporations had sizeable investments in South Africa and the status quo profited their bottomline.

TransAfrica, under the leadership of Randall Robinson, began to openly challenge that policy. Protests outside of the South African Embassy in Washington and subsequent arrests of those trying to enter the diplomatic compound became a major media event – to the point that the leaders of the civil rights movement (including Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King) and Hollywood stars (including Paul Newman, Stevie Wonder and Tony Randall) turned up to be arrested in acts of civil disobedience.

Simultaneously, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize, which gave the anti-apartheid movement additional clout. American television news began to focus more intensely on the escalating violence in South Africa, with white troops and police officers terrorizing and killing black citizens (the South African government eventually banned TV news camera crews from doing their jobs in a vain attempt to hide the truth).

The anti-apartheid movement then spread to colleges and universities, where student protestors demanded the divestment of their schools’ funds from companies doing business in South Africa. Incredibly, the students were able to gain leverage and succeed, which emboldened many unions to do the same with their pension investments. Municipal and state governments joined in, adding fuel to the divestment fire. The national wave of anti-apartheid antagonism boomeranged back to the Congress, which took the unprecedented step of overriding a Reagan veto of legislation designed to impose official economic sanctions on South Africa.

“Have You Heard From Johannesburg?” provides a fascinating glimpse into the strategies, concerns and indefatigable spirit that pushed this remarkable effort forward. The filmmaking style is straightforward and intelligent, and the rich mix of national and local TV news coverage of these events (most of the footage has been unseen for more than 20 years) is a testament to Fields’ masterful research and planning skills.

This production is actually the first of a proposed six-part series on the history of apartheid. If this is any indication of things to come, the series should be a masterwork. As a standalone production, however, this film is an invaluable tool for students of political science and activism. As a non-fiction film, it is among the year’s finest offerings.

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  1. Caroline Primer says:

    I’m very interesting in ordering this. How can I do so? How much is it. Will this series premiere on public television?

    Thank you,


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