CHILDREN OF APARTHEID
1987. 49 minutes video only. Produced by CBS, USA. Produced by Brian Ellis, CBS Reports. Narrated by Walter Cronkite.
TOPICS: Children, Apartheid
USES: UE, M, H, U, G, A.
An emotionally engaging film of young people's attitudes and responses to apartheid. Visually, the film suggests balance and objectivity. Shots and interviews of black resisters are balanced with scenes of whites either supporting or opposing apartheid. Rozanne Botha, daughter of State President PW Botha, is contrasted with Zinzi Mandela, daughter of the then imprisoned ANC leader. But as the camera sweeps through the country, this clear argument-through-contrast becomes obscured as these opposites are complicated by race, class and other variables.
The `two' sides of the story are initially identified as `black' vs `white'. But because many of the white children interviewed and imaged are anti-apartheid, the contrasts between black and white are diluted. The program does not develop contrasts within the separate communities, for example, anti-apartheid white schoolboys set against pro-apartheid white schoolboys, and similarly for black pupils. Furthermore, the interviewees are not representative of all shades of youth opinion within South Africa. Those interviewed, however, speak articulately for themselves, no matter their ages.
As with many other films made in South Africa, a degree of self-reflexivity is present in references to problems in the making of the program. These include working under states of emergency, the potential danger to interviewees, and the fact that Cronkite's contribution was constrained by his tourist visa. Many of the interviewees, especially those involved in violence against collaborators, disguised themselves to protect their identities, thus heightening their fear of possible state and violent recrimination against them. Among those introduced by Children of Apartheid is 17 year old Godfrey Dlomo. Already jailed four times and tortured, Godfrey was found murdered five days after being re-detained by the police following his interview with the film crew.
The film's image and narration tend to generalize inductively from the particular to the general. Images and people are not sufficiently located in terms of their contexts. The multiracial private school where the boys debate politics so freely is not identified, and the percentage of children attending this school in terms of the total white schoolgoing population is not provided. Viewers are told that it is an integrated school; however, there is no indication given about the percentage of black boys who attend the school.
Cronkite provides shots of young Xhosa men in the Transkei painted white and describes the attendant ceremony as an "ancient tribal circumcision rite". The metaphorical white skins signify for Cronkite an ironical medium of attaining the manhood denied them by the dominant white society. Cronkite, however, misses the social significance of the ceremony, and that it has been transformed into a way of coping with urban influences. This is indicated by the upturned bus wrapped in canvas used by the initiates as a temporary shelter. The radio on one of the initiates' shoulders, which blasts out African-American rock music, and the bits of clothes worn, meshed with traditional garb, are indicators of ritual adaptations. Cronkite does not state that, like many African traditions, both the form and content of these African social rituals have changed over time. Older forms are maintained, but the meanings are transformed into modern urban roles. In colonized societies, people participating in rituals often play roles denied them in the dominant social systems. These are reflected in the film in the role playing of military leadership, aggression, rebellion etc. Whereas the narration indicates that the smearing of the white chalk wards off "evil spirits", the "paint" is also a means of maintaining cleanliness as initiates are not permitted to bathe during the ceremony. This section thus slides myths about tribes into a broader argument, and inadvertently perpetuates `tribal' stereotypes which undermine the film's political statements about apartheid.
Contrasting the Xhosa initiates with shots of the Afrikaner Voortrekkers (boy scouts) climbing cliffs is symbolically and religiously inapposite. This form of opposing imagery could communicate the idea that blacks have not yet emerged from pre- modern times, even if the initiates themselves stated their preference for living in America, and in spite of the fact that Cronkite cynically extends the label `tribe' to white Afrikaners.
Cronkite is quite clear that apartheid is not `dead' as Rozanne Botha implies, having thoroughly internalized the reformist National Party discourse introduced by her father. The film's makers also understand apartheid in more than simply skin color terms, and accept it as a form of legislation ensuring cheap black labor. The narrator mentions the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) but does not elaborate on the key role it played in the politics of apartheid. Interviews with both young and old rural Afrikaners suggest a Biblically predicated race war, an opinion, however, which is not shared by the DRC as a whole. This sense of manifest destiny is contrasted with the young black "revolutionaries" who already consider themselves at war. Their targets are not whites in general, but black collaborators and individual policemen who have tortured them.
Cronkite's reference to `black-on-black' violence exonerates the government of complicity, and the simplistic way in which the media often frames the conflict. The pictorial and verbal references to `necklacing' in which township teenagers execute collaborators is not adequately set in context, and is not shown to be the exception made-the-rule by sensationally dramatic media coverage. Godfrey, however, explained this practice as "revolutionary justice" with reference to the Russian and French revolutions, but condemned it.
Children of Apartheid is a significant contribution in that Cronkite helped to legitimize anti-apartheid activity to ordinary viewers of commercial TV networks. The film unambiguously conveys its central message that despite Botha's reforms, blacks continue to live in poverty and oppressive circumstances, but that some whites are seriously questioning the system. The cryptic narration consistently questions the South African government's platitudes, but Cronkite's occasional flippancy also suppresses historical processes and causation. The film ignores the connections between apartheid and the American capitalist system that existed at the time, even though some of the white students courageously refer to the connection between apartheid and big business.
One gets the impression that Cronkite is on a moral crusade, while the black youth are waging a brutal war and progressive white youth are still debating the injustices of apartheid. Conservative white youth has a naive trust in government, and Rozanne Botha total faith in her father who "sometimes makes mistakes".