If you only have time to watch one documentary…

…make it this one. Or rather, this entire series.

I’m pretty sure there’s more episodes to come – consider this advanced warning.
(FYI it’s non-downloadable, so you will only get a week once the last one’s aired.) 

There are few TV programmes who’s arrival each week I actually look forward to (one of the bonuses of not having a real TV and relying upon the internet is suddenly realising that that show you like is now available to watch), but this is currently one of them. Airing on Tuesday evenings on BBC4, this series covers the history of the struggle against apartheid.
It’s simply brilliant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s an in-depth look at an issue that often just features in programmes about Mandela. Now, I’m in awe of Mandela (in fact, I deeply regret that I will now – almost certainly – never see him in the flesh), but he is not the beginning and end of the apartheid movement. 
It covers issues thematically, rather than being a linear explanation of how things evolved. So, for example, there’s an episode about the sports boycotts, and another on the economic boycotts. It’s a brilliant idea, as it meant that particularly aspects could be linked together in meaningful ways. Last week’s episode was primarily about the imposition of the Afrikaans language in township schools and the resulting uprising in Soweto, but was juxtaposed with the Dutch anti-apartheid movement – a fascinating connection given the Afrikaaners’ Dutch origins.

It also manages to show a range of opinions, rather than simply the anti-apartheid movement’s voice. The people who were there, who were involved in the campaign are included – ANC members, church leaders, campaigners from all over the world and students from Soweto. But so are those who fought to preserve apartheid – members of the South African government and key businessmen. It’s important to hear both voices to understand why it was such a protracted battle. 

It’s not comfortable viewing, and I’m not just talking about the images of battered or dead bodies. Having grown up knowing why we didn’t fill our car up at the nearest petrol station to our home (because it was Shell and we were boycotting them because of their presence in South Africa), I’d naively assumed that most intelligent, sensible people were also anti-apartheid. I was very wrong – UN resolutions asking for economic sanctions to be imposed upon SA were rejected partly thanks to Britain voting against them in the UN Security Council. I was also shocked to discover how massively divided New Zealand had become over the issue of the Springboks touring the country in the late 70s/early 80s. Their Prime Minister, quite frankly, was nothing but an idiot, insisting that sport had nothing to do with politics and even suggesting he’d run over protestors in his car in order to ensure matches could take place. It made for shocking television. 
Recommending it to my students the other week, I was slightly distressed to realise that all of them had been born since Mandela’s release, and most of them weren’t old enough to remember the ANC’s victory in the 1994 elections – events that I remember vividly. In my life-time, we gone from a country being in the grip of a terrible regime that stripped the majority of its population of its human rights, to it holding free elections. True, things are by no means perfect in South Africa, but who would have thought that things would change so dramatically this time thirty years ago? 
This programme is crucial viewing for two reasons. Firstly, we need to not forget what happened in South Africa – both the terrible atrocities and the great way in which many nations of the world fought together against injustice. Secondly, we need to have hope that similar changes can happen in other places where oppression exists. 
When I visited Israel/Palestine in 2007, I met an Ecumenical Accompanier in Hebron who was from Johannesburg. Hebron is one of the worst places in the Occupied Palestine Territories (OPT) for violence between the Jewish settlers and Palestinians and the Accompaniers have a difficult job (a Palestinian in our group was arrested while we were there). But when I talked to this woman about what hope there was for peace, she mentioned that thirty years previously she hoped for, but didn’t expect, change in South Africa. She felt that if it could happen there, surely there was hope for Israel/Palestine. 
So do watch it, and ask yourselves a question: how come this series was made in 2010 and it’s taken this long for it to be shown in the UK?? Scandalous.