Filmmaker tells why PBS Apartheid series is so inspiring

A DEATH IN SOWETO 1976 THAT SHOCKED THE WORLD.Starting Thursday January 12, PBS debuts “Have You Heard from Johannesburg,” a landmark documentary about the worldwide movement that finally defeated Apartheid.
Email a friend about the series—and our two stories this week—or post a note on your Facebook page.
You won’t want to miss this series, which includes a stirring account of how millions of grassroots anti-Apartheid activists in the U.S. and other countries—actually defeated this evil system.
On Monday:
We published an overview of this remarkable documentary series.
Remember: Even after the series airs on PBS, the online hub for these films is Clarity Films dot org.

Want to spark discussion in your group or congregation?
You’re free to use the following interview with Connie Field—the filmmaker with Clarity Films who spent a decade researching, filming and producing “Johannesburg.” Feel free to repost it, print it, share it, include it in your newsletter. Just include a link to our website, as well:


Documentary filmmaker Connie Field. Image courtesy of Clarity Films.DAVID: This film series is going to be great news for millions of church people, teachers and former students all across the United States. After all those years that people spent in classrooms, church basements, newsletter campaigns and public marches against Apartheid—hey, it actually worked! It mattered! This story  is a huge inspiration that builds as your series unfolds, right?

CONNIE:  Yes, that’s right! That’s the extraordinary nature of this story. For those of us who care about how we act as a world, this series is a portrait of how the world took our morality seriously and marched together toward the end of Apartheid. In this series, you see how this worked on so many levels—from global institutions like the United Nations and World Council of Churches right down to grassroots groups like people meeting in churches or schools. This was a historic grassroots effort.

This was the most globalized human-rights movement we’ve ever seen. This was a tremendous victory that we should understand—and learn from so that we can reuse what we’ve learned. A lot of the tactics used in this anti-Apartheid movement—like pressure on major corporations that would affect economic changes in South Africa—are powerful nonviolent tactics that work and should be reused in other causes.

Another big lesson we learn in this series is that violence, in this day and age, has become predominantly a useless political tactic. When you understand what really changed South Africa, it wasn’t violence.

DAVID: This series took you a decade to produce. These days, it feels like Ken Burns is pumping out another major documentary every time we turn around. Why did it take you 10 years?

CONNIE: There’s a big difference between what Ken and I do as filmmakers. I took on this project before the historians had really gotten to this subject. Ken tends to take on subjects that already have been researched extensively and then he uses historians to tell his stories in his documentaries. That works well for him. But, since I’ve been young, I’ve been influenced by the notion of a people’s history, and oral history, and letting people tell their own stories from their own perspectives.

So, that challenge made this project very difficult for me. I wasn’t rounding up historians and interviewing them about what happened. You won’t find any academics or historians talking about their books in “Johannesburg.” In this series, you see and hear from the people who actually made the history.

That was a huge job! It took me all around the world over and over again. I interviewed 140 people on five continents and then I gathered footage from archives around the world. Everything we collected was transcribed, time coded and entered into a database. I have more than 2,000 hours of footage and more than 15,000 photos.

My framework for assembling this giant story was to basically show the relationship of what was happening in South Africa with what was going on in the outside world, because these two movements inside and outside South Africa were crucial to each other. There were so many solidarity groups worldwide, but I focus mainly on three campaigns: cultural isolation, political isolation and economic isolation.

DAVID: Nostalgic fans of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are going to have a hard time with this series. Thatcher was just on the cover of Newsweek, as portrayed by Meryl Streep. But in this series, you’ll see them in a very negative light. One person in “Johannesburg” says that the Reagan-Thatcher partnership in opposing sanctions against South Africa “was a godsend for P.W. Botha. It would not have been possible to preserve Apartheid in South Africa without Reagan and Thatcher.” Of course, as you show in the series, Republicans in Congress finally rebelled against Reagan and staged an override on his veto to finally push the anti-Apartheid campaign over the top. But Reagan and Thatcher come away as, at best, sadly mistaken and, at worst—well, as partners in the South African oppression.

CONNIE: As we show in the series, they saw the South African struggle only through their own geopolitical and economic interests. We show how leaders in South Africa deliberately cast themselves as the bulwark of freedom against the Soviet Union in Africa. This was part of the whole Cold War as it was fought by proxy across Africa. That legacy of the Cold War is still horrific throughout Africa. The United States government was choosing the powers they would support in Africa mainly because they were not the powers backed by the Soviet Union.

On this question, Thatcher and Reagan also were listening to the ruling business class during their time in office. They were listening to that famous “1 percent” people are talking about today. They chose not to deal with what really was happening to the people of South Africa.

DAVID: As people watch this series, I know that countless men and women all across the U.S. are going to be thinking: Wow! We’ve got to discuss this in my small group. We’ve got to talk about this at my church. We’ve got to do a project on this in our classroom. So, right now in January 2011, the TV series comes and goes on PBS—but lots of viewers are going to want to do lots more with this. Where do they go? That’s an important question, because—as you point out—there’s not a lot of good post-Apartheid educational material out there. Your series is among the first.

CONNIE: People should be aware of our Clarity Films website and keep coming to that website even after this series airs. We’ve got a really huge timeline of these events online. You can pick out what different religious groups did. You can pick out what political movements did. I also have a great list of resources online so that people can learn more. I have a biographical resource online of more than 100 people and what they did in this struggle. The best place to find a major overview is our website—and, from there, you also can go to other related websites.

DAVID: Well, we’re hoping that millions view this series—and both find inspiration and take steps to carry what they’ve learned into other urgent causes.

CONNIE: We do, too. I know this series will move viewers. If you are concerned about people in other countries who are fighting to be free, this is very valuable to watch so that you can see how to harness the rest of the world to work with you in a nonviolent way.

Want to learn more about Connie Field and her production company? Visit Clarity Films website, which is Field’s company that conducted the worldwide research and production of this film. There are longer versions of the film available and other related documentaries as well.

Want to find peace in your reading—and group discussions—this winter? Consider learning about Daniel Buttry’s Blessed Are the Peacemakers. Click on the cover of Buttry’s book, at right.

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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