WITNESS TO APARTHEID
1987. 58 minutes - Color 16mm, Video. A 70 minute version is also available. Produced by Sharon Sopher and Kevin Harris.
TOPICS: Resistance, Apartheid, South Africa, Civil Rights, Politics, Social Movements, Health, Children, Women.
USES: S,U,G,A and V.
An introduction to apartheid and the contextualization of the history of the changing nature of state repression would provide a good foundation from which to view the film. It should also be explained that state repression in 1985 occurred as a response to increasingly successful organized
Coverage of black juvenile victims of institutionalized torture in South Africa, and black and white `witnesses' to the effects of apartheid on dissidents is the subject of this film. Comments made by Bishop Desmond Tutu on the pragmatic limitations of peaceful change occurring in South Africa thread the film's story about torture, resistance and white attitudes. However, an insufficient identification of dates and locations within an ahistorical reportage interrupts a clear sense of process. The producer tries to correct this with an addendum at the end of the film with details on the fate and/or ideas of the `witnesses' (doctors, a psychologist, a businessman, a white rugby player member of a black club) interviewed a year later. One was assassinated; another left the country, the rugby player was charged with arson for burning his own house down, and so on.
The overall statement made by Witness to Apartheid is that working for justice in itself justifies non-peaceful means. The dialectic between justice and violence, the best exposition of which is the Kairos Document, is not mentioned. Not mentioned either is the theological argument of the SA Council of Churches (SACC) that peace cannot precede the attainment of justice. Tutu's empathy with users of violence, though he does not condone this, is thus not contextualized within its institutional and theological origins.
Although many `witnesses' are interviewed, they are not shown to be representative of wider organizations or constituencies. `Witness' Johan Fourie's activism, for example, is couched within the discourse of humanitarianism, not his membership of a detainees' support group. His shuffling of detainees back and forth thus appears to occur in a quite unorganized vacuum. The only clue that a broader structure exists is heard in the addendum when he refers to "our meeting". He, and other white `experts' interviewed, like the doctor, businessman, psychologist, and the rugby player, are included as exceptions to white opinion.
The black victims are shown as belonging to popular ant-apartheid organizations. White activists are portrayed as guilt-stricken liberals floundering in their own sense of irrelevance. Their linkages to the mass action of black children through medical, legal and other organizations opposing the state are suppressed. Sopher also forgets the contribution of her South African crew which was able to obtain access to people through the network of organizations of which their members were part.
Highly articulate organizationally based black spokespeople are intercut with a repetitive vox pop in the street of a single articulate white of inconsequence, a Mrs Botha, whose bigotry is made to speak `for' all unexceptional whites, as is a white `madam' commenting on `her' maid. Where the black interviewees had the benefit of preparation and structured situations, the white vox pop respondents found themselves off-balance when intercut with the structured interviews. In this way, the film conceals any sense of the System being larger than individuals. This is identified in the false question asked of ignorant or right-wing whites in the street - `have you been to a black township?' Permits, states of emergency, and violence precluded whites from going into townships as individuals in 1985, though most whites would not have ever visited a black area. A lot of the conservative whites interviewed had British accents -but no comment is offered on this contradiction, or why British immigrants should be thought to stand for all born and bred white South Africans.
No explanation is offered of why children are at the forefront of struggle, rather than adults. Situations are presented rather than explained. A static view of peoples attitudes and methods of repression is the result. A repeated criticism is that the film depicts the children as passive victims of a sick society, not as actors in their own right, pursuing methods of resistance which resulted in police action against them. Even though they were identified as members of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) etc., some stated that no change would result. These pessimistic statements did not reflect the general feeling of hope by people opposing apartheid that fundamental change would occur at the time the film was made.
On the positive side, the film graphically exposes viewers to the horrors of the effects of torture on its victims. It shows blacks resisting and being harassed. An especially important scene relates to the retail boycott of Port Elizabeth where peaceful action gained tremendous ground for the democratic movement. The white-black political linkages that developed from the ensuing cooperation between that city's Chamber of Commerce and the black resistance were again individualized into an interview with another `witness', the chairman of the Chamber and his `opposite', Mr M Jack of the black community. This was a crucial development in blacks empowering themselves through the organization of grassroots democratic networks. Yet the significance of this was entirely missed in the film.
A degree of reflexivity is included in the sketches of the crew being arrested, and Sopher's chilled apprehension as the visual flashes back to the methods of torture previously described by Tutu, the psychologist and others. These arrests interrupted an interview of a family on the loss of a son. In this scene the camera is not just recording, it and the film crew is part of the target by the Police, providing an acute feeling of immediacy.
A similar creative use of `raw' material was the audio of the undertaker as he described the nature of the wounds sustained by black children in protests. The undertaker's voice was complemented by a blank screen as he was detained following his informal off-camera talk to the crew. The ethical question of a producer's responsibility to one's subjects arises out of this consequence, as it seems that other interviewees were similarly harassed after they had been filmed. Were the interviewees made aware of the likely consequences? Were they prepared to face them? What support could they expect from the film's producer and her lawyers in such an event?
The `Witnesses' comments are not put into perspective. Tutu, for example, is asked why the government thinks one camera team is a threat. His reply is visually supported with a riot policeman yelling at the camera crew ... no sense of process is given.
Witness to Apartheid is an American liberal humanist view of struggle which suppresses the complexities of political organization to make it less threatening to US liberal audiences which see the world comprising individuals rather than collectivities.
Though an extremely powerful film with vivid images of police action, of wounds and the wounded, and of doctors and psychologists discussing the physical and emotional scars of the victims, this strength is also the film's weakness. School audiences to which the film has been shown are left with an incredible sense of hopelessness. But the conditions under which blacks were suffering at the time were not considered hopeless within the democratic movement to which most of the people interviewed belonged. This contradiction is intensified by the addendum.
(Reviewed by Keyan G Tomaselli and MSU Evaluators, 1990)