sun 21/07/2024

The World Against Apartheid, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

The World Against Apartheid, BBC Four

The World Against Apartheid, BBC Four

A five-part history of the road to resistance in South Africa

Oliver Tambo: 'the architect of South African transition'

When I opened my e-nvitation to write up last night’s The World Against Apartheid, I was not expecting it to come bedecked with GoogleAds for hen parties, roller discos, and custom-made birthday invitations (keyword: "part/y", one assumes). Only 20 years ago, any mail on this topic would’ve been stuffed with "End racism NOW!" leaflets, discount book offers by/about Basil D’Oliveira, and pop-up Peter Hains beseeching you to boycott your local fruiterers.

Twenty years ago "The World Against Apartheid" would have been a call to arms.

But now it is a history programme, and one a decade in the making, too. For apartheid is the sin that time very hurriedly forgot. At least, outside South Africa – and that, after all, is the ostensible remit of Connie Field’s five-hour doco on what the rest of the world did for the causes of righteousness and racial integration.

Having started at the end – the bit everyone cares to remember, with the immortal footage of Mandela walking out of Victor-Vester Prison, and Desmond Tutu alleluialating in the street – the opening instalment went out of its way to refresh our memories, at least 50 percent given over to historical recap and a re-introduction to as many of the key players as are still alive or preserved in celluloid.

Non-whites could buy a sandwich in a ‘white’ shop, but had to sit on the kerb to eat it

To wit. After the National Party’s victory in 1948, apartheid – as opposed to bog-standard racial prejudice – became law in South Africa. In a system riddled with its own self-evident hypocrisies, non-whites (non-voters) could, to take just one quotidian example, buy a sandwich in a "white" shop, but had to sit on the kerb to eat it, and Blacks (sic - please don’t write in) were forcibly relocated in "independent homelands", country-sized ghettoes of such poor soil that they were more or less forced to return to the cities to work.

For the next 40 years a government of creepy bigots beyond Chaucerian imagining averred routinely that this was for the good of all South Africans (cf abhorrent remarks about intelligence and civilisation, law and order and “morality”, voiced straight to camera without so much as a blush), presided over, at its most shameless/ful, by the grotesque parsings of Dr Hendrik Verwoerd: “‘Apartheid’ could be better translated as a policy of ‘good-neighbourliness’.” 

The structure was manifestly unacceptable and not even particularly self-serving in the long term; but it was grimly effective, and the developing ANC opposition (unofficial, obviously, and quickly banned) soon enough announced that their constitutional stance of Gandhian non-violence was getting them nowhere – at once tightening the noose around the necks of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki and other leading figures.

The "outside world", meanwhile, did very little to hinder a regime “hostile to every Western value”. A youngish Albert Lutuli asks why the British, who had only recently thought it essential to go to war in the name of democracy, now saw no reason to intervene once again in its defence. And not just the British. Watching even the venerable Walter Cronkite hold forth on the iniquities – and inequities – of South African society (and another correspondent refer to South African “Negroes”) from the midst of America’s own civil rights movement left at least one eyebrow raised.

With everything apparently locked down, it is more than somewhat ironic that the National Party’s chief error lay, perhaps, in being too good at purging their enemies, forcing the ANC to set up exile HQs outside South Africa – from which, in PR terms, anyway, almost all of the serious damage was done.


Chief among the exiles was "O R" Tambo, who left his home in 1960 and didn’t return for three decades. In that time, since most of his colleagues were incarcerated on Robben Island (their life-saving defences paid for by London subscribers), he more or less shouldered the entire burden of organising the resistance, becoming “the architect of South African transition”, and ambassador for a nation that would not exist for another 30 years. And he was incredibly good at it. He took his fight and its non-existent budget from Europe to Africa, where support, official and otherwise, was more easily found among South Africa’s “winds of change” continental neighbours.

We were shown footage of Rev Trevor Huddleston proclaiming that 'white supremacy is finished'. The footage was black-and-white

He also corralled a most unlikely congregation (so to speak) of "liberation" priests, both inside and outside South Africa (it is uncomfortable to think just how much pushing the Christians of the world should have needed to ally themselves against apartheid); and then won over the Swedes; and even the UN. But the going was slow: we were shown footage of Rev Trevor Huddleston proclaiming that “white supremacy is finished”. The footage was black-and-white. And the options were limited: finally, of course, Tambo courted Moscow to equip "the struggle" for war (Anglican priests make for good PR, but guns and money work better).  

Certainly, lots of British viewers will remember the apartheid era as a time when they personally took a principled stance on not drinking KWV and a bit of a shine to the young Barbara Castle. But while the boycotting business is good publicity, and something every concerned citizen can get invested in (as it were), when one of Field’s talking heads says, proudly, “The boycotts went on for 35 years!” one struggles to perceive this as a measure of success. 

Not that anyone in this episode was wrongly credited with having done worthy and inspiring deeds. Far from it. And this is the sort of charged topic on which folk can have serious disagreements (perhaps why everyone was so keen to forgive and forget when it was all over), so I will not voice my ignoble suspicions about what might or might not be covered in the remaining four instalments of The World Against Apartheid or what conclusions may be reached and laurels handed round - except to say that I shall be less than impressed if it turns out that the entire edifice was brought crashing to the ground because a handful of right-on Labour authorities banned South African grapefruits in the works canteen.

Till then, though, I do have one or two procedural demurs. Four, actually.

  1. It is rather cheeky to attempt to rebrand Tambo and the other exiles as "The World..." rather than as the home side.
  2. Isn't it a little patronising and paternalistic (in the way we're not supposed to be towards African countries nowadays) to suggest that it was we who fixed their problem, rather than they?
  3. Five hours of this could become very self-congratulatory.
  4. Pace Mandela's views on the "masses" in history (and Field's, I take it), there are forces more immediate than people power. Like the entirely unforeseen collapse of the Soviet empire. As George Gershwin might have put it, "The things that you're liable/ to read in A Long Walk To Freedom,/ it ain't necessarily so."


Surely the world includes all south africans.

This is a stunning documentary series; really engrossing and jaw-dropping. Does anyone know if it is likely to be released on DVD? It would serve as excellent educational material.

I agree that it is an etremely important film. I have been waitng for it for so long! looked on the internet the company Clarity Films is selling it for $169/£107. This is rather a lot. I would love to own it, and to send it to my brother who is white and grew up in Apartheid South Africa, and thinks we all misunderstood the situation the so - called "complexities" I think that he was spun so very good propoganda that was easy enough to swallow becuase he benefitted from a glorious lifestyle that he wouldn't have had otherwise. DVD please at a more accessible cost.

Despite the self-serving and downright mendacious twaddle peddled by this series the fact remains that what brought down apartheid was the ending of the cold war. It was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent implosion of the USSR that gave De Klerk the space to come to an accommodation with the ANC. The fear of communism (exaggerated) kept the Nationalists from real dialogue and allowed them to frighten the electorate into repeatedly returning them to power. Millions of white South Africans were disgusted and ashamed of the vicious and evil system of apartheid, although looking at the cliched representations of whites in this series, you'd think they were all right-wing Afrikaans crackpots. No mention of Helen Suzman, not a peep about the white progressives who were didnt chose the ANC. What a disgrace this series is, but then again, it's pretty standard left-wing BBC stuff. What a pity. Truth? Truth se moer.

Very good documentary and I too am trying to get hold of a copy at a decent price. I grew up in apartheid South Africa, did my National Service in 1983 and left. The documentary is a good reminder of what went on. Many a white South African did not want to know what was going on and to this day still cannot face the truth and deny the facts. I want the DVD to be able to show my children when they are a little older as they question why I left and I think the documentary explains it a lot better than I ever could. I'd also love to send it back to SA to friends & family who to this day still refuse to acknowledge what really happened. They will no doubt refuse to watch it and react in a similar way to 'gaanvliegin joemoer'....very sad, still cannot face the truth.

I watched every minute of the series and was stunned and horrified. I grew up in apartheid south africa and was aware that things were unequal, unfair and that we were only told what the government wanted us to know. Things were banned and we had no free press to give a balanced view. Our history lessons were all slanted to make us feel that whites were superior in every way. I feel so ashamed of having been a part of it all and so very angry that I had the wool pulled over my eyes by that oppressive regeime. The bravery of the freedom fighters and the sacrifices they made to bring about the end of apartheid make me feel so humble. The series is such an eye opener and I am so thankful to the BBC for screening it. I, too, would so love to own it on dvd. I agree with some of the others that it would have been good to have mentioned Helen Suzman and the Progressives and their stand against the Nationalists but then it was not about the white stance after all. I would so love to be able to send it to south africa to show some of those old 'ostriches' a few home truths about their recent pasts. So many are still in denial.

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