Film Review: Have You Heard from Johannesburg: From Selma to Soweto

How demonstrations in the United States contributed to the fall of apartheid in South Africa, from the documentary series <i>Have You Heard from Johannesburg</i>.

The fifth entry in Have You Heard from Johannesburg, Connie Field's seven-part history of apartheid, From Selma to Soweto examines how political action in the United States helped bring about the collapse of apartheid in South Africa. The title is a bit misleading, as the documentary concentrates on the 1980s, some 20 years after the Civil Rights movement reached a turning point at Selma, Alabama. However, the story From Selma to Soweto tells is a valuable one that bears repeating.

It may be surprising to remember that the United States government supported the apartheid regime in South Africa as late as 1986. From Selma to Soweto shows how that support changed, starting in the early 1980s as demonstrators called for an end to investment in South Africa. The divestment movement spread from schools and colleges to unions and local government agencies. Institutions like Columbia University resisted at first, but public opinion and the fundamental immorality of apartheid forced change to come about. Once divestment was underway, the next goal became federal government sanctions against South Africa.

Director Connie Field uses a similar approach here as she does in the other episodes of Have You Heard from Johannesburg. Interviews with key figures in the incidents alternate with a massive amount of archival footage assembled from broadcast television, cable, and independent cinematographers. Field and her principal editors Gregory Scharpen and Jeffrey Stephens not only meld several different film and video sources into a seamless record, they present a reasoned and extremely persuasive account of events that would be difficult for anyone to refute.

Field resists drawing conclusions, counting on the weight of evidence to make her points. But heroes and villains do emerge. Bishop Desmond Tutu, a vibrant presence in archival footage and a calming influence in present-day interviews, shows why he was one of the leading statesmen of his time. The chief villain in From Selma to Soweto is President Ronald Reagan, seen here repeatedly defending his administration's cooperation with the South African government. Members of P.W. Botha's cabinet describe how they manipulated Reagan with fears of a Communist takeover of South Africa, or with the loss of the raw materials necessary to make nuclear weapons. As the Republican Party continues its efforts to rehabilitate Reagan, it's useful to be reminded just how intransigent, wrongheaded and casually cruel he was. And as the past recedes, it becomes shockingly clear just how poor his judgment was.

One drawback to From Selma to Soweto, as opposed to the series as a whole,  lies in its very premise, that the United States helped defeat apartheid when it passed sanctions against South Africa. It's no doubt true that the tide of world opinion made it more difficult for the Botha government to enforce its policies. Still, the real struggle was within South Africa itself, as the footage from Soweto shows.

The final paragraph of this review was revised on April 21.