I do not know much about South Africa, except that my most favorite friend is from there (you know who you are!). I talked to an older lady, white, once, in Paris at a café. She was born in Zambia but lived most of her life in South Africa. Her biggest concerns were the rising political tensions: threatening the democratic stability that has never lasted long in Africa. Some might say that there are exceptions, such as Ghana. My critique of the argument is that we said the same of Kenya seven years ago. But their safety bubble burst, too.
The history of modern South Africa, though, has little comparison with the rest of Sub Sahara, making its case quite different. I hope I need not explain it, but the country has been dominated by the minority white population up until the last twenty years. Before that, the 9% Afrikaner minority, descendants of European colonists, owned all the wealth, political power, and social control. The forced segregation and discrimination is known as apartheid, the word referring uniquely to South Africa. This ended entirely in 1994, with the election of Nelson Mandela as the first black president of the nation in the first free elections. Things are still pretty nasty there from what I hear, but I could be hearing wrong.
That is a horrible summary of South African racial relations, but this is a movie review, and you should know the rest anyway.
One thing that makes this movie so profound is that it was released in 1987, years before the end of apartheid. The protagonist of the movie is a proud “liberal” white newspaper editor. He has a family and a number of kids. He isn’t all that racist, and his family is pretty liberal for the time and place too. He sooner or later meets a man named Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid activist that really did exist. Being the liberal intellectual he was, Donald Woods was against racism on any color of skin. He wanted to fix the apartheid problem and bring equality to everyone, but such a transition had to happen “smoothly”. An idealist with no real experience of his country, he has never really seen the treatment of blacks outside of the place he works, and he’s never seen or experienced the conditions the majority of them live in. Living in his rich white liberal Afrikaner shell, he assumed that the blacks were just as racist, just as supremacist, and even more violent.
He starts to grow out of his shell; I’ll spare you the details. Biko shows him the townships most blacks live in, and the horrid conditions of that lifestyle. Woods becomes more and more comfortable with Biko, as he realizes he’s not all that bad and not all that violent as most Afrikaners assume he is. Apparently, hardly any of the blacks in South Africa are violent or racist. They want “to build a South Africa worth living in – a South Africa for equals, black or white, a South Africa as beautiful as this land is, as beautiful as we are”, to quote Biko.
Things go on, the movie progresses. Without telling you what happens, Donald Woods takes on an important role in the anti-Apartheid movement. The government hates him, and he hates them too. He has a number of friends that are willing to help his cause, but there also some who are taking advantage of the relationship to maintain white power and privilege. His family, though, is entirely supportive. Woods eventually decides to write a book about a certain something that happens, and he resolves to escape the country to do so (South Africa won’t have it).
The movie is great and sheds a lot of the problems of the nation. It had some fantastic quotes, which I’ll share at the bottom. I enjoyed Donald Woods’ transformation from Afrikaner liberal to a real, good ‘ol western liberal. Biko was interesting, and so were his many black associates and friends. The movie was basically fantastic.
I have a few withdrawals, though. The movie quite honestly gave a picture that almost all of the blacks, especially all of Biko’s friends, were fun loving guys that just wanted some good for everybody. They didn’t judge no white man nowhere, and they always seemed happy. I don’t think I need to check the facts, that simply can’t be realistic. I am certain there’s more to it: certain that there was a good number of black people that hated the Afrikaner just as much as vice versa. If not more, I daresay.
Judge: Why do you people call yourselves black? You look more brown than black.
Steve Biko: Why do you call yourselves white? You look more pink than white.
State Prosecutor: But your own words demand for DIRECT CONFRONTATION!
Steve Biko: That’s right, we demand confrontation.
State Prosecutor: Isn’t that a demand for violence?
Steve Biko: Well, you and I are now in confrontation, but I see no violence.
Miscellaneous quotes from Biko in the movie. For some reason, he’s the only person who has good quotes:
What we’ve got to decide is the best way to do that. And as angry as we have the right to be, let us remember that we are in the struggle to kill the idea that one kind of man is superior to another kind of man.
You can beat or jail me or even kill me, but I am not going to be what you want me to be!
I just expect to be treated like you expect to be treated. Come on, what are you so afraid of? Once you try you see there’s nothing to fear. We’re just as weak and human as you are.
My lord, blacks are not unaware of the hardships they endure or what the government is doing to them. we want them to stop accepting these hardships – to confront them. People must not just give in to the hardship of life, they must find a way, even in these environments, to – to develop hope – hope for themselves, hope for this country. Now I think that is what black consciousness is all about. Not without any reference to the white man. To try to build up a sense of our own humanity – our legitimate place in the world.