Why you must see PBS’s epic on the defeat of Apartheid

GRASSROOTS MOVEMENT THAT CHANGED THE WORLD! Images of the anti-Apartheid campaign from PBS’s new “Have You Heard from Johannesburg.” From left: Desmond Tutu in his first major anti-Apartheid campaign across the U.S. Then, a Baltimore Catholic protest for divestment, an Arab-American protest and a Hanukkah candle-lighting for an end to Apartheid.

The 5-hour documentary is called “Have You Heard from Johannesburg.”
It debuts nationally on Thursday, January 12, 2012.
And, here is the convenient PBS website for this epic series on the defeat of Apartheid, where you can check for airtimes wherever you live.

Why Everyone Should See ‘Johannesburg’ on PBS

One reason: This series proves that anyone can make a difference in the world’s biggest, toughest struggles for justice. In 5 hours, you will not only see shocking and stirring scenes from the long struggle within South Africa, but you also will circle the globe to see the men, women and youth who worked on campaigns in places like church basements, activists’ apartments and public parks. You’ll see examples of the ordinary people who marched in protests in their home towns, who signed petitions that finally pushed Congress to action—and who actually managed to change the world!

If you are part of a congregation—no matter what your faith tradition—see this series in a small group and discuss it with friends. This series will energize any lethargic folks who feel that they couldn’t possibly make a difference in overcoming the world’s entrenched injustices. As documented in “Johannesburg,” ordinary people ended Apartheid.

One longtime anti-Apartheid activist who lives in Europe tells us that, when the movement finally succeeded after decades of campaigning for justice—he wept in joy. The huge surprise, he tells us, was this: Finally, “You know your life has been very useful. You have not done it for nothing.”

No less than Nelson Mandela expresses this powerful truth: “It is not the kings and generals that make history but the masses of the people.” In 5 hours of “Johannesburg,” you will see step-by-step just how that happened through the force of millions of lives in small towns and big cities around the world.


Come back later this week for our in-depth interview with Connie Field, who spent 10 years circling the globe and coordinating the historical research, new interviews and archival footage that went into this final epic. Today, we are publishing this overview of the series, urging you to jump onto email—or spread the word on Facebook—and get friends ready to watch with you. The Connie Field interviews will enrich your experience—and provide thoughtful ways you can discuss “Johannesburg” with friends.

THE SERIES BEGINS just after World War II, when most global powers were forming the United Nations. The West, in particular, was setting up various post-war structures that would lead through the long struggle of the American civil rights movement—eventually toward greater freedom for diversity. But, as we see in “Johannesburg,” South Africa was moving 180 degrees in the opposite direction toward concepts that were popular in Nazi Germany. In fact, many of the Apartheid architects were fans of the Nazi regime. Soon, South Africa was enforcing a draconian policy of identity papers that minorities must carry everywhere on penalty of torture and imprisonment. Huge numbers of people were forced to live in impoverished ghettos. Strict police supervision controlled the movement and behavior of black people nationwide.

A white official currently serving in the South African government explains this tragic past: “We all became energized by a fellow who today has the reputation of Adolph Hitler, a guy by the name of Hendrik Verwoerd, who devised what he called separate development. It was another softer name for Apartheid.”

Then, the documentary takes us back in time to see black-and-white footage of Verwoerd in his prime, talking to an audience in a friendly soft-spoken way about the “truth” that every white South African should admit: “This is our country. There’s no doubt about it. If, in South Africa, the white man allows any form of partnership to develop, it will mean the gradual giving away of the country he settled for so many years.”


Most American viewers are likely to find this series so moving that they will come away with fresh energy for voluntarism in 2012. Especially members of Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim groups who have long campaigned for peace and justice—“Johannesburg” is a potent shot in the arm.

What’s the shocking stuff? In the middle of the series, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are shown as the chief roadblocks to successfully pushing Western pressure over the top of Apartheid. “Johannesburg” carefully details the long-running economic and political struggle to isolate and cripple the Apartheid regime. In fact, Americans who recall this history accurately won’t be shocked. We know that Reagan’s blindness on this issue became so embarrassing that even Republican leaders in Congress finally joined in overriding Reagan’s policies on South Africa.

Nevertheless, this documentary is likely to come as a jolt for many viewers. For example, in early 2012, millions have watched Meryl Streep revive interest in Mrs. Thatcher in the widely praised, The Iron Lady. Streep as Thatcher recently appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine. And, as the U.S. presidential campaign heats up, many Republican candidates still invoke Reagan’s regime as ideal.

In “Johannesburg,” we see multiple film clips of Reagan relentlessly pushing the U.S. to prop up the white rulers of South Africa. At one point, Reagan says: “The prime minister of Great Britain has denounced punitive sanctions as immoral and utterly repugnant. Well, let me tell you why we believe Mrs. Thatcher is right! We do not believe the way to help the people of South Africa is to cripple the economy on which they and their families depend.”

What “Johannesburg” goes on to document is that this strong economic backing of South Africa was quite the reverse of humanitarian support. This American economic support included importing the latest “shock batons” used by South African forces to savagely beat black protesters—plus other military hardware and high-tech gear used to control the population. A South African government official appears in the film, explaining that the white inner circle regarded Reagan and Thatcher as their bulwark against defeat. Together, they were “standing as strong as anyone could, trying to prevent sanctions.”

Desmond Tutu appears in the documentary stressing how ridiculous—and tragic—Reagan’s and Thatcher’s arguments were in that era of American and British stonewalling. Tutu calls the Reagan-Thatcher policies on South Africa “unChristian.” In the end, of course, even Republicans in Congress agreed with Tutu.


NELSON MANDELA, who spent 28 years in prison before emerging to become South Africa’s first black leader, and Oliver Tambo, who devoted his life to anti-Apartheid activism around the world, were reunited in Sweden in 1990. Photo courtesy of PBS and UWC Robben Island Mayibuye Archives.As the series unfolds—about the time that Desmond Tutu wins the Nobel Peace Prize and full-scale anti-Apartheid activism gets into high gear around the world—viewers will flat out celebrate what they are seeing. You’re likely to feel tears welling up when Tutu, just after the Nobel Prize, says that it proved, “The world had not forgotten us. And the world was saying your cause is just.”

Connie Field, who devoted a decade to this enormous project, pays painstaking attention to getting each sequence in the final film just right. For example, when she talks about grassroots activism across the U.S., she shows us the big stars of the movement, including Jesse Jackson and the Congressional Black Caucus. But, she also shows us a wide range of other scenes. We see a little Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony to protest Apartheid. We see Arab-American leaders protesting. We see Catholics from Baltimore. And that’s just in the American portions of this documentary. Field also details activism in several other nations.

When the documentary shows us the arrests outside the South African embassy in Washington D.C., Field shows us many of the big stars who joined in this “longest-running act of civil disobedience in U.S. history.” We see Paul Newman, Rosa Parks, Harry Belafonte, Stevie Wonder and others. But we also see the ordinary “unknown” activists and we hear some of their stories. This includes one elderly church woman who was arrested in the embassy protest and, as she prepared for the police to lead her away, brought tears to the eyes of longtime activists around her by quietly explaining to them, “This is so hard for me because I’ve spent all my life trying to stay out of jail. But I have to do this. It’s the right thing to do.”

And the “right thing to do” this week? Watch “Have You Heard from Johannesburg.”

Care to Learn More?

Remember: Come back later this week for our in-depth interview with Connie Field, who spent 10 years producing “Johannesburg.” The Connie Field interviews will enrich your experience watching the series—and provide thoughtful ways you can discuss “Johannesburg” with friends.

Want air times for this series where you live? The links at the top of today’s story take you to the PBS website, where it’s easy to check local air times wherever you live.

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 readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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