The boycottistas didn’t end Apartheid

At long last, a TV documentary on how South Africans, not PC Western shoppers, ended Apartheid.

David Bowden

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Allegedly, when, in 1972, Richard Nixon asked Zhou Enlai about the impact of the French Revolution, the then Chinese premier quipped: ‘It’s too early to tell.’ He was referring to the 1968 unrest, rather than the 1789 one. Whether or not the attribution is accurate, it was a good line and it particularly came to mind this week as BBC4’s monumental, five-hour documentary The World Against Apartheid: Have You Heard From Johannesburg? quietly passed its mid-point.

Three hours into its total running time, it’s still too early to tell just how comprehensive the series will be. And, nearly 20 years after the end of apartheid, it’s still perhaps ‘too early’ to judge how significant its global impact has been. But it’s certainly good to see the topic being given the serious and lengthy treatment it deserves. From economic sanctions to sporting boycotts, so many of the tactics pioneered in the international campaign against the apartheid regime have become touchstones for other political movements in the past few years – from Palestinian solidarity and Chinese human rights campaigning, to environmentalism and the Occupy protests. It was helpful to return to them in their appropriate context.

Director Connie Field has even divided the series into films looking at specific aspects. The opening episode, The Road to Resistance, offered an overview of the official adoption of apartheid by the National Party government in 1948, its strengthening after South Africa gained official independence from the Commonwealth following a whites-only referendum in 1961, and the election of Nelson Mandela by universal suffrage in 1994.

Despite the title, The World Against Apartheid has largely eschewed Western self-congratulation in favour of meticulous research and a diverse canvas of opinion. Mandela himself seems strangely absent from the range of interviewees and political actors on display, until you remind yourself that he was imprisoned for virtually the entire span the film covers (Field began work on it back in 1996). Having been cut down for TV from an original eight and a half hours, the series feels impossibly brief given the vast overview of postwar history it covers: from the growing significance of the United Nations and the Soviet Union’s support for the ANC’s abandonment of non-violent direct action, to the South African exile movement’s absorption into a broader international human rights lobby and the fragmentation of the international Left. There is a lot to pack in.

As a crash course in the struggles inherent in building a serious and organised political movement to the backdrop of Cold War realpolitik, it is difficult to fault. Much of the strength of the documentary comes from how it emphasises campaigns by anti-apartheid activists outside of South Africa (often political exiles). It shows how they sought to support and complement the organised struggle of those inside the country. From the desperation of South African workers calling for consumer boycotts as part of a strategy to weaken the apartheid regime’s economic strength, to the deliberate targeting of rugby union on the world stage to humiliate and neuter the white elite’s cultural standing, these actions went beyond the kind of awareness-raising stunts we see today.

The third episode, The New Generation, encompassed the Soweto uprising and the growth of a militant Marxism within the townships. Rather than congratulating do-gooder Westerners for boycotting oranges, it gave a stirring account of the genuine struggle and everyday bravery of countless South Africans fighting for justice.

Yet the documentary’s fragmentary style, loosely narrated by journalist Zeinab Badawi, doesn’t always suit the complexity of the topic. Field herself has attempted to discuss the film as ‘a model of how people in a country in an oppressive political situation can work with people elsewhere to move from racism and colonialism to more democratic societies’. And so, the second episode, Fair Play, painstakingly traced how campaigners deliberately targeted rugby union as the sport of the white Afrikaner elite. It showed how badly this targeted campaign affected the apartheid regime’s sense of legitimacy on the world stage (highlighted by the occasionally farcical, but also chilling, attempts to silence the young Peter Hain). Yet, Fair Play then seemed to extrapolate that sporting and cultural boycotts in general are inherently a good thing, which is far from the inevitable conclusion. Jump forward to the increasing politicisation and instrumentalisation of sport and culture under New Labour in the UK (for which Hain served as a cabinet minister), for example, and such a conclusion becomes highly questionable.

It is too early to tell whether the forthcoming episode on economic sanctions will take a properly critical stance on the topic. The proud boast from one contributor, left unexamined so far, that the consumer goods boycott lasted 35 years seemed at least to imply that it was less significant to ending apartheid than, for example, the collapse of the Soviet Union and resultant restructuring of the political landscape. A more probing approach to how it is that the ANC government could so swiftly go from being the darling of the international human rights movement to being one of its pariahs, under Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, would also be welcome.

Still, while not effectively distancing itself from the associations of Western moral posturing typified by the likes of Live Aid, The World Against Apartheid is at least an attempt to go beyond platitudes and to pay tribute to those South Africans who fought so long and hard, often at considerable personal price, to achieve freedom and political equality. Given the initial ambivalence from some quarters of the liberal left that greeted the Arab Spring last year, it is a lesson worth serious consideration.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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