What’s the word?
Tell me brother, have you heard
I know that their strugglin’ over there
Ain’t gonna free me,
But we all need to be strugglin’
If we’re gonna be free.
Don’t you wanna be free?
- from Johannesburg by Gil Scot Heron
Predicting what will spark a social movement is nearly impossible, but once a movement has taken off, signs that were there all along suddenly emerge. The movement to end apartheid was one of the most powerful international movements of the late 20th century. In her award-winning documentary film series, “Have You Heard from Johannesburg?” Connie Field illuminates the many threads that came together to support the people of South Africa in their decades long battle for freedom, democracy and human rights. (Check local listings on the website of ITVS.)
Perhaps most remarkable about the series is the footage of so many people who had never been to South Africa, but felt compelled to act. Traveling between England, Holland, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, the series explores the protests that took hold and spread. Whether it was the sports boycott that focused on excluding South Africa from the Olympics and the International Rugby Association or the workers at Polaroid who exposed the company’s complicity in producing the dreaded “Pass” that every Black South African over the age of 16 was required to carry, these movements began small and multiplied as others joined in the fight.
Similar to the Occupy Wall Street movement, anti-apartheid activists that sought to block the roll-over of loans to the apartheid regime occupied the space outside bank headquarters. They eventually won, and with the foresight of sympathetic investment managers, gave rise to a movement for socially responsible investing. A concept that is mainstream today, but grew out of the anti-apartheid movement as managers encouraged their clients to divest from companies doing business with South Africa. College students across the United States and Europe pressed their administrations to follow suit and divest their holdings. Activists and celebrities marched outside the South African Embassy in Washington, DC and were arrested day after day.
Each movement giving rise to the next until it could no longer be contained. As Robert Kennedy said, “Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, these ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” Connie Field has done a remarkable job of documenting and preserving the mighty current that helped end apartheid. Its lessons are not simply historic, however. They are relevant to the here and now, and certainly well into the future.