How is justice possible if more than a century has passed since the injustice? That’s a deeply American question, considering our lingering scars over the slave trade and genocide against Native Americans. Most Americans alive today don’t envision that we have a personal responsibility to make reparations for those tragic chapters in our history.
In “Promised Land,” debuting tonight in PBS’ POV series, you’ll find that problem moved from idle historical speculation to the front burner in South Africa. Extreme emotions are rising there over the lack of land redistribution years after the black majority came to power. At the moment, Americans’ impressions of South Africa range from FIFA World Cup to the triumphant movie, “Invictus” (and you can read a Tutu family viewpoint on that popular movie here).
In fact, vast imbalances remain in South African life. The injustice of land ownership patterns actually are worse than in the 1960s, the film tells us. Back in the 1960s, 4 million whites owned 86 percent of the land leaving 14 percent for the 18 million blacks. For decades, white owners continued to force blacks into over-crowded, impoverished townships. Land ownership patterns became even more lopsided over the years.
Since black majority rule in South Africa, the reselling and redistribution of land through government-sponsored programs is moving very, very slowly. Currently, 87 percent of the land is still in white hands, according to the film.
In “Promised Land,” you’ll meet black families who have lived generations on land they were legally prevented from owning by white rulers. Many black families finally want to own their family land again. You’ll follow one black family’s quest. But that’s not all you’ll see. In this film, you’ll also meet white South Africans who have owned their farms since the early 1800s—for five and six generations in some cases.
Think about that time frame. Do you begin to see American connections here? South Africa is a nation trying to restore an injustice that dates back to the era when Americans in the U.S. still were pursuing slave auctions and Indian massacres. The problem in South Africa is as old as our own historical injustices.
What’s the difference in South Africa? Why are people in South Africa actually tackling this huge challenge? There’s one big difference between South Africa and the U.S.: The victims of the injustice there are the vast majority of that country’s population. The political power is in their hands.
You may be asking: Why should I watch such a film? Is it a downer? Isn’t this just another chance to make ourselves feel guilty?
On the contrary, you’ll see fascinating, hopeful stories here. One example is a courageous white landowner who decided to support black claimants and sell his land back under the new government program. His white neighbors were horrified. So, what drove this man to risk his life taking on his neighbors to pursue such a dramatic course toward justice?
Puffing on his pipe as he talks in the film, this heroic fellow says his spiritual turning point was reading an American book: “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” He says, “As I was reading that book, I couldn’t help but think about South Africa.” Reading about unresolved American injustices, he says, made him want to take a positive step in his own South African back yard.
You’ll see other connections, too. The film is terrific for small groups. You’ll have no shortage of discussion!
Here’s the PBS website where you can learn more about the film and check local listings. AND, don’t miss the “0nline” link in the center of that page, where from July 7 to October 5, you can watch the entire film for free online.
Care to see more free online documentaries?
Check out our resource page listing a wide range of films!
ENJOY OUR ENTIRE GREAT SUMMER READING AND VIEWING SERIES: (Our series so far: “Crown of Aleppo,” “Science Vs. Religion,” “Belief,” “Apparition,” “Burma VJ,” “Facets World Cup,” “Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth” “The Lonely Polygamist,” “Rise and Shine,” “Saints,” “Beaches of Agnes,” “Mystically Wired,” “Creative Aging” and “Twelve by Twelve.”)
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