| SOUTH AFRICA: THE WASTED LAND |
1990. 52 minutes. 16mm. Video. Channel 4, England.
Directed by Toni Strasburg. Distributed by Filmmakers Library.
TOPICS: Environment, Ecology, Politics, Apartheid, Health and South Africa
USES: S, U, G, A and V.
Screening to secondary school or tertiary students would be best preceded by a specific introduction explaining the geography of apartheid and of South Africa.
South Africa: the Wasted Land deals with the relationship between apartheid and environmental degradation. The film is structured in two parts. The first concentrates on rural conditions and erosion caused by overcrowding. The second part shifts emphasis to problems of industrial pollution and toxic waste.
White South African experts interviewed (economist Professor Francis Wilson, environmental journalist Eddie Koch, and rural development activist Richard Clacey) provide the social explanations for environmental decay, while ordinary black people describe their social experiences, and Dr Mamphele Ramphele the psycho-social implications of this condition
The inferior quality of land in the bantustans must be measured in terms of population densities, productivity, location, access to farming technology, as must the displacement of black laborers from white commercial farms.
South Africa: the Wasted Land lacks a geographical approach in its explanation of the extent and nature of chemical and toxic waste in South Africa's cities. Little indication is given of the extent and location of air pollution and toxic waste. The worst afflicted areas of the Southern and Eastern Transvaal are not examined. The film shows correctly that the effects of toxic waste are not confined to black areas, as indicated sensitively in interviews with white mothers regarding the health problems of their small children. Causation of the two different forms of environmental degradation -- overcrowding and industrial pollution - is attributed by the film to apartheid alone. In fact, degradation occurs in most countries and in South Africa as elsewhere, has more to do with inadequate state regulation and uncontrolled development strategies, than with political ideologies. That the problem of waste and environmental decay is a systemic problem is underlined by Ramphele who says at the end of the film that these problems will continue even after apartheid.
The most powerful images in the film are the devastating effects of raw asbestos and toxic waste on public health. Chilling shots of black children playing on mounds of untreated asbestos are shocking, as are interviews with miners who are dying from lung diseases. Neither the location of these shots is revealed and nor is the problem of raw asbestos dumps as widespread as suggested, although processed asbestos continues to be used widely in construction, furniture, motor and industrial products. The clandestinely filmed interview with a hostile white farmer shows his tenant farmers' houses being bulldozed, and portrays the brutality and contradictions of apartheid: "black people can't survive without white people", he says. Yet the whites continue with their destruction of black social fabrics.
Overall, the film offers an over-generalized review of the relationship between apartheid and environmental destruction. It lacks geographical, conceptual and statistical specificity. For the sake of brevity, and with crude cynical effect, the narrator aggregates bantustan governmental conservation strategies, implying that they are all the same, (mis)managed by a single unidentified `Trust'. This assertion is incorrect as the different bantustans had developed specific conservation policies, and some none at all. Differences in location, climate, soil quality and conservation strategies between the bantustans are also ignored. Misleading statements such as the one that South Africa is one of the world's biggest agricultural exporters, seriously mar the accuracy of the narration. The statement that black farmers are unpaid is incorrect. Their pay may be very low, but it seems that the film was referring to specific sharecroppers, who are the minority.
Despite the film's numerous over-generalizations, South Africa: the Wasted Land does offer a point of departure for discussion on a pressing problem. But viewers should be alerted to the fact that apartheid is not the sole cause of environmental destruction in South Africa.
(Written by Keyan G Tomaselli and MSU Evaluators, 1990). Published (With M Eke and V Khapoya): " South Africa: The Wasted Land SA Geographical Journal, 74(1) 1992. (Film review).