Films and Documentaries

The following is a list of films and documentaries that I would strongly recommend on South Africa and the apartheid era:

Films:

The Bang Bang Club (2010) – Story of four photojournalists in South Africa documenting the brutal violence of the period 1990-1994, from when Mandela was released from prison to the 1994 elections.

Black Butterflies (2011) – A biopic on South African poet Ingrid Jonker, an Afrikaner woman who used her poetry in the 1960s to speak out against apartheid.  Her tragic yet courageous story gives an important insight into the white literary opposition in the 1960s.

Bopha! (1993) – Set in a black township in the 1980s, the film focuses on one black family, the father being a black policeman during South African apartheid and the son being a student activist in the anti-apartheid movement.

Catch a Fire (2006) – Based in the 1980s, an apolitical oil refinery worker is stunned into action against the apartheid regime after he and his wife are jailed. An interesting look at the sabotage campaign of the African National Congress (ANC).

The Color of Freedom (aka. Goodbye Bafana) (2007) – A true story about a white prison guard in South Africa, James Gregory, whose job it was to guard Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, Pollsmoor Prison, and Victor Vester Prison, during his time in prison. The film covers the years 1968 to 1990 as Gregory changes his feelings towards apartheid and Mandela. This film is based on the autobiography Goodbye Bafana: Nelson Mandela, My Prisoner, My Friend by James Gregory.

The Color of Friendship (2000) – A true story about an Afrikaner girl from South Africa being hosted as an exchange student in the US in 1977 by African American congressman Ron Dellums, an anti-apartheid activist.  The two teenagers – one black, one white – are forced to confront personal biases and institutional racism.  This is an excellent film for middle school and high school students to learn about apartheid and how people can overcome prejudice and racism.

Cry Freedom (1987) – The story of South African journalist Donald Woods who is forced to flee the country after attempting to investigate the death of black activist Steve Biko in the 1970s.

A Dry White Season (1989) – Set during the Soweto uprising of 1976 and the subsequent police crackdown in South Africa, this film follows an inquest into the death in detention of a black African at the urging of a white schoolteacher. The film is based upon André Brink’s 1979 novel of the same name.

Endgame (2009) – Set during the mid-1980s and early 1990s, this is a story based on the covert discussions in England between leaders of the ANC-in-exile and officials of the National Party that led to the freeing of Nelson Mandela, legalizing of the African National Congress (ANC), and the start of official negotiations that ended the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Gandhi (1982) – This classic biopic of Mohandas Gandhi starts off in South Africa with Gandhi’s arrival in 1893 and goes through his adoption of satyagraha and his resistance to the oppression that Indians faced in South Africa in the early 1900s.

Invictus (2009) – Invictus is about Nelson Mandela’s attempts to unite apartheid-torn South Africa between 1994-1995 through the national rugby team.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013) – An in-depth biopic that portrays Mandela from his rural childhood through his long imprisonment to his election as the country’s first black president.  This is a powerful film that introduces you to the personal side of Mandela as well as the political/activist side, and the film takes you through everything from the Sharpeville Massacre and the forming of Umkhonto weSizwe to the violence in the townships in the 1980s and the controversial relationship with Winnie Mandela.

Mandela and de Klerk (1997) – This film is about the negotiations of the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 in South Africa and the 1990-1994 negotiations between Mandela and South African President F.W. de Klerk.

The Power of One (1992) – Set in South Africa during the 1930s and ’40s, this film tells the story of a young English boy coming of age amidst inequality and racism as apartheid was beginning to take root.

Red Dust (2004) – Red Dust is set during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the mid-1990s in South Africa and deals with the search for truth about an apartheid-era death.

Sarafina! (1992) – Sarafina! depicts the 1976 student uprising in Soweto, focusing on the students and the government’s crackdown of the uprising.

Skin (2008) – The amazing true story of Sandra Laing, a South African woman born to white Afrikaner parents but classified as “coloured” during the apartheid era. The film follows Sandra’s story from the 1960s up through the 1990s.

Winnie Mandela (2011) – The story of Winnie Mandela and her role in the struggle, especially while her husband was in prison for 27 years when she played a central role in keeping the struggle alive, is important both because it is not nearly as well-known as the story of her husband, but also because it shows what women went through as their husbands were in prison under apartheid.  The film, an adaptation of Anne Marie du Preez Bezrob’s biography Winnie Mandela: A Life, follows Winnie’s life from birth up through her role in the anti-apartheid movement, concluding with the TRC hearings in 1997.  

A World Apart (1988) – Set during the 1960s, A World Apart tells the story of anti-apartheid activist Ruth First and her children, focusing on her 13-year-old daughter as she starts to see the inequalities of apartheid and her mother’s political activism.

Zulu Dawn (1979) – This is a classic film, from the British perspective, of the 1879 Battle of Isandlwana, where the Zulu famously defeated the British forces in one of the key battles in the struggle for control of South Africa in the 19th century.

Documentaries:

21 Up South Africa: Mandela’s Children (2006) – This film explores how the lives of 14 different children from various backgrounds in South Africa, now at the age of 21, have changed along with the country since the fall of apartheid. A personal look into how political and economic changes affect young people in the country.

30 for 30: The 16th Man (2010) – A documentary on the 1995 Rugby World Cup that South Africa won and which showed the power of sports in rebuilding the nation.

Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony (2002) – An entertaining and fascinating look at the role that music played in the anti-apartheid movement.

Apartheid Did Not Die (1998) – This documentary focuses on the continuing injustices of the apartheid-era in post-apartheid South Africa, focusing on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the economic apartheid that still exists.

Behind the Rainbow (2008) – Behind the Rainbow explores the transition of the ANC from a liberation organization into South Africa’s ruling party. It chronicles problems that the ANC-led government has had since 1994 and focuses on Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma to paint a very interesting picture of present-day South Africa.

Between Joyce and Remembrance (2004) – This documentary is about truth and reconciliation in South Africa, focusing on the family of the tortured, poisoned and murdered student activist, Siphiwo Mtimkulu.  Siphiwo was murdered in 1982 by the Security Police.  The film culminates in a meeting between Siphiwo’s family and Siphiwo’s killer, Gideon Nieuwoudt, a former colonel in the Security Police.  This is a powerful documentary looking at the fragility of forgiveness and reconciliation that many South Africans are dealing with today in the aftermath of the TRC.

Bhambatha: War of the Heads 1906 (2008) – A documentary about the legendary Zulu leader Chief Bambatha, who led an armed uprising in 1906 against the British in what was one of the first acts of armed resistance in the 20th century in South Africa. It was one of the most brutal and bloody armed campaigns to challenge British colonial rule, and it served to inspire black African resistance in South Africa throughout the 20th century.

Countdown to Freedom: Ten Days that Changed South Africa (1994) – This documentary describes the behind-the-scenes challenges surrounding the April 1994 election in South Africa that saw Nelson Mandela elected president.

Cry for Reason: Beyers Naudé – An Afrikaner Speaks Out (1988) – Documentary about the dissident Afrikaner clergyman Beyers Naudé of South Africa, who was part of the powerful white elite before undergoing a dramatic conversion to cause of Black South Africans.

Cuba: An African Odyssey (2006) – Documentary about Cuba’s role in the 1970s and 1980s to fight against apartheid South Africa’s army in Angola, and how Castro’s intervention not only brought about freedom and peace in Angola, but also independence in Namibia and the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Facing the Truth with Bill Moyers (1999) – A PBS documentary about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa that looks at a number of different individual trials and stories. The stories involve murders and torture by the South African police and security forces, including that of the 1982 murder of Siphwilo Mtimkulu, the 1985 murders of the “Pebco 3”, the 1986 murders of the “Mamelodi 10”, and the 1977 murder of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko. The documentary also tells the story of the 1993 St. James Church massacre where 11 people were killed by the military wing of the Pan-African Congress. Individual stories of white anti-apartheid activist Albie Sachs and Brigadier Jack Cronje, leader of the infamous security force death squads that operated around Pretoria in the 1980s, are also included.

A Force More Powerful (2000) – A two-part documentary series showcasing six stories of countries effectively using non-violence to overcome oppression and authoritarian rule. One of the stories focuses on the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, specifically the role in the 1980s of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and Mkhuseli Jack’s use of consumer boycotts in the Eastern Cape province.

Have You Heard from Johannesburg? (2006) – An exhaustive seven-part documentary series telling seven stories chronicling the history of the global anti-apartheid movement that took on South Africa’s apartheid regime. The series includes:
Story One: Road To Resistance [1948 – 1964] – the ANC’s non-violent campaign of defiance begins to attract international attention to the plight of the majority of South Africans
Story Two: Hell Of A Job [1960 – 1977] – the story of Oliver Tambo leading the ANC in exile after the banning of the organization and the imprisonment of Mandela and others
Story Three: The New Generation [1960 – 1977] – the rising of the youth in anti-apartheid protests, including the rise of Black Consciousness and the Soweto uprising in 1976, and the role of foreign governments and the UN in the anti-apartheid movement
Story Four: Fair Play [1958 – 1981] – the international sports protests, bans, and boycotts of South African sports, focusing on the Olympics and rugby
Story Five: From Selma To Soweto [1977 – 1986] – the role of the U.S. in the anti-apartheid movement
Story Six: The Bottom Line [1965 – 1988] – the international movement to use economic pressure to bring about change in South Africa, including boycotts, divestment, and economic sanctions
Story Seven: Free At Last [1979 – 1990] – the role of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the internal mass movement

Last Grave at Dimbaza (1974) – A powerful look into the realities of the policies of apartheid in the early 1970s, with a focus on the appalling conditions in the “homelands” and the townships, as well as a look into the role of black labor in the economy.

Long Night’s Journey Into Day: South Africa’s Search for Truth and Reconciliation (2000) – An in-depth look into South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that dealt with the unique way of confronting apartheid-era crimes and moving forward in a new South Africa. This documentary tells four stories from the trials of the TRC: the 1993 murder of American Fulbright scholar Amy Biehl, the 1985 murder of the “Craddock 4” where four young black activists were murdered, the 1985 Magoo’s Bar car bombing by MK member Robert McBride that led to the death of three white women, and the 1986 murder of the “Guguletu 7” where the security forces murdered seven young black men.

Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba (2011) – A powerful documentary about the life and career of South Africa’s most beloved musician, Miriam Makeba.  Tracing her career from her banning and exile from the country in the early 1960s to her political activism in the anti-apartheid movement, this film explores her influence throughout the continent of Africa as well as her amazing music.

Mandela: Son of Africa, Father of a Nation (1996) – An Academy Award-nominated documentary that serves as the definitive chronicle of Africa’s greatest freedom fighter. It goes beyond the milestone events that have characterized the life of a man who, after a 27-year imprisonment, won the Nobel Peace Prize and became president of South Africa; it sheds light on the little-known early period of Mandela’s life, including his childhood, adolescence, career in law, and marriages.  An excellent film for understanding who Mandela is, and why his presidency is such a watershed moment in world history.

Miracle Rising: South Africa (2013) – A documentary about the miracle that was the downfall of apartheid in South Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s, featuring a wide array of excellent interviews, with everyone from FW de Klerk and Neil Barnard to Cyril Ramaphosa and Mac Maharaj, as well as excellent video footage from the events as they happened.  This documentary also sheds light onto just how unique and unparalleled South Africa’s transition to democracy truly was.

The Other Man: F.W. de Klerk and the End of Apartheid (2015) – Documentary about the role that South African president F.W. de Klerk played in bringing about the end of apartheid.  While Mandela got the world’s attention for his role, de Klerk played an influential role, which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 along with Mandela.

Nelson Mandela: The Life and Times (2004) – An in-depth and detailed documentary on the life and times of Mandela, including historical reenactments, interviews with Mandela himself, Winnie Mandela, Anthony Sampson, and Mac Maharaj, among others, and a detailed history of apartheid and the resistance against it.

RFK in the Land of Apartheid: A Ripple of Hope (2010) – A PBS documentary about U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy’s June 1966 visit to South Africa, connecting the situation there to the situation in America during the Civil Rights Movement.

South Africa: The White Laager (1977) – A history of the the Afrikaners in South Africa, from the arrival of the Dutch in the 1600s through the apartheid era in the 1970s. This interesting film looks at this group of people to get a better understanding of how apartheid came to be and why it was supported by most Afrikaners.

Stopping the Music (2002) – A documentary about South African musician Roger Lucey and the apartheid government’s attempts at silencing him and his music due to its political themes.  Roger Lucey dared to challenge the injustices of the system through the songs he wrote. When his music became quite popular the Security Police intervened.  This is an important film that reveals the lengths the government took to censor music in the country.

Under African Skies: Paul Simon’s Graceland Journey (2012) – This documentary tracks the controversial recording of Paul Simon’s Graceland album and its subsequent impact–and enduring influence–on world music and pop culture.  It also traces his artistic decision to collaborate with African musicians, creating a new world musical fusion, and discusses the intense political crossfire Simon entered by playing in South Africa, despite the UN cultural boycott of South Africa designed to end the Apartheid regime.  A great film that shows the power that music can have in uniting people and bringing about peace and love.

Voëlvry: The Movie (2006) – This documentary follows the legendary 1989 Voëlvry tour around South Africa by rebellious young Afrikaner musicians including Koos Kombuis, Johannes Kerkorrel, and others. This fascinating film looks at the power of these musicians in their musical protests against Afrikaner Nationalism through their bold lyrics, refreshing live shows, and the eclectic personalities. Known as the “Boer Beatlemania” of the late 1980s in South Africa, this tour showed the opposition of young Afrikaners to apartheid.

Witness to Apartheid (1986) – This documentary showcases the brutal realities of apartheid in the mid-1980s in South Africa, featuring interviews with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and showing several cases of police brutality.

Please let me know of any films and documentaries that you would recommend on South Africa and the apartheid era as I am always looking for for new suggestions.

4 thoughts on “Films and Documentaries

  1. A country imagined by Johnny Clegg is a great documentary series (2010) , where musician and anthropologist Johnny Clegg goes on a journey through South Africa, exploring the landscapes that have inspired artists, writers, musicians and dancers for centuries. A number of them, including Nadine Gordimer, Olive Schreiner, Hugh Masekela, Gerard Sekoto, William Kentridge and David Goldblatt are known around the world. Not on Apartheid, although that’s always a theme in the background, a must see if you are interested in South Africa.

    • Pauline,

      Thank you very much for the recommendation. I’ll definitely check out A Country Imagined by Johnny Clegg. I was lucky enough to see Johnny Clegg live when I was in Durban in 2012, and I have used his music in my history classes when I teach about apartheid, so I look forward to see this documentary series.

      Thanks,
      Craig

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