Catch a Fire: Film’s History and Politics

The historical and political contexts in which the movie “Catch a Fire” takes place.

History of Apartheid and South Africa

While apartheid was only ended in South Africa 15 years ago, the roots of the system date back several centuries.

The country we know as South Africa was originally home to the San, hunter-gatherers who had migrated through the territory following game. Archaeological records of their ancestors date back 10,000 years. Subsequently, records of the habitation of the Bantu tribes go back 1,500 years. The Bantu migrated south from central Africa, bringing to their new region skills as iron-mongers, cattle ranchers, and produce farmers. By the mid-17th century, there were large tribes spread throughout South Africa, with different languages and cultures.

The country was first settled by white people, in 1652, once Dutch East India Company ships sailed to the Cape of Good Hope to create a way-station. Waves of immigrants from Holland, France, Germany, and England arrived over the next two centuries.

By the turn of the 19th century, the Cape was a British colony, a fact deeply resented by the descendants of the original Dutch settlers, the Afrikaners, who had become a distinct tribe with their own language and religion. Fiercely independent and deeply pious, they resented British efforts to end slavery. In 1834, a community of Afrikaners set out on an epic journey towards the countrys interior, to free themselves from British rule. Known as the Great Trek, the journey brought the Afrikaners into conflict with black tribes resisting their advance. One of the Afrikaners decisive battles was with the Zulu army, at a place now known as Blood River. An astonishing victory not one Afrikaner life was lost, while Zulu fatalities numbered over 3,000 contributed to the Afrikaners belief that they were chosen by God to civilize what they saw as barbarian races.

In 1910, South Africas four provinces merged into a national entity, placing millions of blacks under white rule. The central focus of government immediately became how to deal with what was referred to as the native problem. The resulting Natives Land Act of 1913 reserved 87% of the land for whites, dispossessing millions of blacks of their homes and farms. Blacks resistance to their dispossession evolved to become the driving political dynamic in the country for the next 80 years.

Afrikaner identity had long been characterized by the frontier/pioneering spirit of the Great Trekkers and their mostly farming descendants, who had been brutalized and oppressed by the British during the Boer Wars. By the mid-20th century, though, this identity had hardened into a conviction that their survival depended on self-reliance and isolation. It found expression in a form of nationalism that was inward-looking, defensive, and profoundly conservative. At its heart was a fear that their survival in South Africa would always be precarious, given that blacks outnumbered whites so dramatically.

Thanks to a campaign which exploited white fears of swart gevaar, the black menace, the right-wing Afrikaner National Party rose to power in 1948. The partys agenda consolidated and vastly extended existing racial segregation into an ideological and legal system that regulated every aspect of South African life, from birth to death, according to race. This system was known as apartheid. The goals were to shield the Afrikaner race from miscegenation; to entrench white power; and to force blacks into wage labor. As a direct result, hundreds of black communities were forcibly removed and dumped into the increasingly impoverished tribal areas. Blacks were subjected to the notorious Pass Laws, forced to carry a document that had to be produced on demand under threat of imprisonment and that allowed authorities to further curtail their freedom.

Vociferous black resistance to apartheid came to a head on March 21st, 1960 in Sharpeville, a small township south of Johannesburg. Police fired on protesters rallying against the Pass Laws, killing 69 people and wounding 180; all of the protesters were unarmed, and most shot in the back. The government instituted a state of emergency in response to the outcry that followed. The African National Congress (ANC) and other left-wing political organizations were banned. Within a couple of years, most black leaders were either in exile or in prison, including anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela. The United Nations declared apartheid a crime against humanity.

A new generation became radicalized when student demonstrations in Soweto in 1976 led to more deaths. As a direct result, many youths joined the ANC military wing.

By the 1980s, South Africa was in a state of virtual civil war. The army occupied the townships. Any protest was met with maximum force, resulting in thousands of deaths. The whole country was almost completely isolated from the world. South Africa had been expelled from all international sporting bodies; its consumer goods were being boycotted; and international disinvestment and oil sanctions were destroying the economy.

With daily reports of atrocities fueling worldwide pressure on South Africa, President F.W. de Klerk bowed to the inevitable. In February 1990, he lifted the ban on the ANC and other political parties. Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years. Exiles were finally able to return home. Apartheid was dismantled.

In 1994, South Africas first free elections brought the ANC to power, with Nelson Mandela as President, and marked the end of Afrikaner rule in the country.

History of ANC and ANC Military Wing

The African National Congress (ANC) was formed by a caucus of tribal, political, and religious groups in 1912, in response to the increasingly oppressive laws of the South African government that were depriving blacks of their rights, land and freedom.

The organization was radicalized in 1949, by its Youth League, headed by Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. In June 1952, they launched the Defiance Campaign, a non-violent campaign of civil disobedience against apartheid. The government (now controlled by the right-wing Afrikaner National Party) responded with mass arrests. As a result, ANC membership swelled.

In 1961, following the Sharpeville massacre and the brutal state of emergency that followed, the ANC abandoned its policy of peaceful resistance for one of armed struggle, founding its military wing (MK) Mkhonto we Sizwe [translation, Spear of the Nation]. Mandela was named MKs commander-in-chief. After an MK campaign of sabotage against government installations, Mandela was arrested in 1962. Along with other ANC leaders, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. Within South Africa, the ANC had been, for the moment, defeated.

But the movement was kept alive by exiles and activists who waged an international campaign to politically isolate South Africa, and an underground military campaign within the countrys borders. In 1978 (following a trip to Vietnam), MKs chief of staff Joe Slovo set up Special Ops, a unit dedicated to armed propaganda. Special Ops engineered dramatic acts of sabotage, with the dual purpose of demoralizing whites and enhancing the ANCs prestige among blacks.

Slovos hand-picked elite operatives were based in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. Special Ops targeted the countys government-owned oil refineries; as manufacturers of oil refined from coal, these refineries were allowing the country to survive U.N.-imposed oil sanctions and were symbols of the National Partys intransigence.

After several attempts, Special Ops member Motso Obadi Mokgabudi commanded an operation that succeeded in bombing several oil installations on the night of May 31, 1980 Republic Day. No lives were lost, but one of the targets hit was a huge refinery in Secunda, a town in the northeast. The explosions and subsequent fires and reportage of same were a major propaganda coup for MK, and marked the most effective act of sabotage in MKs history. In retaliation, South African security forces staged an illegal, cross-border raid against ANC members living in Matola, a suburb of Maputo. Twelve ANC members were killed, including Obadi.

MKs campaign continued, with increasing ferocity, within South Africa over the next decade. It was formally disbanded in August 1990, after the ban on the ANC was lifted. Many of the MK rank-and-file now serve in the South African National Defence Force, which encompasses the countrys Army, Navy, Air Force, and Medical Service.