Sunday, 22 November 2009

Cry Freedom - Processing Some Thoughts and Emotions

Recently, I watched Cry Freedom:

Did I enjoy the film? Well, to be honest, I felt more like I'd been hit by a fast moving freight train! It churned up a whole lot of responses in me, and I feel like I'm only just beginning to get a handle on them.

What follows, is not well thought out argument, just reactions and thoughts I'm trying to process/analyse. Please feel free to correct me, if some of my interpretations are wrong/unfair, it helps me hugely. I don't want to live in Cuckooland.

On a personal level, it hit me hard, because my parents were in South Africa for a large portion of the 70's. They spent nearly 6 years helping to pastor a church in Durban and my big sister was born out there.

We returned for a family holiday in the Dec of 1982 when I was 5yrs old. Whilst memories are hazy, I do recall, amongst other things, learning to swim and losing my first tooth. (I accidentally swallowed it whilst tucking into some corn on the cob, only noticing after it was all over. Those of you who know me, will not be surprised.)

It felt like (although I am probably romanticising it), the educated, white middle class Woods family of Cry Freedom, could so easily have been my family, with it's sun-bleached-blond-haired and blue-eyed kids, just like we three Walker sprogs were. Watching it gave me butterflies in my stomach as I felt I was connecting with something of my past (as it could have been) even though I wasn't even born then!!

Suddenly, I wanted to know what my parents experienced and how they view it in hindsight.

Dad said that there was a huge amount of passive acceptance of the status quo of Apartheid, including in the church. The most he ever got involved in challenging the injustice was when Albert, one of their church cleaners, had his residence raided at 4 in the morning by the police, for no apparent reason, other than the usual excuse - looking for drugs/alcohol/women.

When Albert went to see him the next morning, dad said he had never seen a black man look so ashen and frightened. He promptly went to complain to the police. It took him a while to locate exactly which branch of the SA Police was responsible. When he did, sharp words were exchanged on both sides, much heat and not a lot of light. In essence, Dad was told to keep his little do-gooder pastor's nose out of it!

So given that my dad had now been exposed to the true and ugly face of Apartheid, how had they managed to live with it peaceably up to that point?

Back in the late 60's, early 70's, the Cold War was still at its height. People were still recovering from the experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when, only a few years earlier, the human race almost brought about its own nuclear annihilation in that great stand off between the USA and the USSR, as the Soviets threw a hedgehog at Uncle Sam's pants.

No national consciousness recovers from traumas like that quickly. So it only added to Western alarm when in post colonial Africa, many of the new Black African leaders and "Freedom Fighters" were happy to embrace Communist ideology along with the Soviet made guns and bombs with which they could obtain/maintain power.

With the spectre of Communism still looming large in many parts of the world and indeed looking to spread in sub-Saharan Africa, dad took the view (before he got to SA) that it was OK not to raise too many questions with the South African government about Apartheid if it meant keeping South Africa as an ally in the fight against Communism. To coin the proverb: "My enemy's enemy is my friend."

Dad has since unreservedly renounced that point of view.

When you watch racism played out in glorious cinematic technicolour like in Cry Freedom, it's so obvious, how unjust it all was; so easy to think we knew what should have been going through their heads and to point the finger at our white forebears asking what were they doing?!!

But if, as my good friend Sitho pointed out, we were to turn that question back at ourselves and ask what systemic injustices and evils our children and grand children will look at us aghast over, wondering how on earth we slept at night knowing that ... was going on and we did nothing about it??!...

I wonder what those things that would shock them would be...


Wally Howe said...

That is a very interesting point, Richard. I saw Cry Freedom a couple of years back, and it is still in my memory. I know little about Steve Biko’s life from articles, but it is quite different when you watch it. It is gripping; it’s a moving tale of class distinction.[Wally Howe]

Richard Walker said...

Hi Wally, thanks for sharing. :-)