The new film Catch a Fire centers on a campaign to blow up a South African oil refinery. Key to the operation is Patrick Chamusso, who joins the anti-apartheid fighters of the African National Congress (ANC) after being falsely accused of another attack, arrested and tortured. Patrick also has some family difficulties but things work out for him and his country. As the action fades, viewers see these words: For Joe Slovo, 1926-1995. The other credits indicate that Catch a Fire was produced by Robyn Slovo, Joe's daughter, and was written by Shawn Slovo, another of Joe's daughters. And Joe Slovo himself is in the film too, played by Malcolm Purkey an actor who looks so much like Joe Cocker one expects him to burst into “Feelin’ Alright.” (The real Joe Slovo actually looked more like Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove.) For someone so important, Joe gets scant screen time, and not much to say. The Slovo character, in fact, has about five lines of dialogue, and at first appearance a subtitle explains that he is "Head of Special Operations" for the ANC. An accurate subtitle would have described him as a Stalinist and Soviet colonial official. But there's a bit more to it than that.
Joe Slovo did not come from South Africa or anywhere else on that continent. He was born in Lithuania and came to South Africa as a child with his parents, fleeing anti-Semitism in the Baltic. Supposedly inspired by Soviet gallantry in World War II, Joe became a Moscow loyalist during the Stalin era, when the regime was sinking into its own anti-Semitism, not to mention other mass atrocities. None of that bothered Slovo, who married the daughter of a South African Communist official and rose through the ranks to become General Secretary of the South African Communist Party.
The SACP, like the CPUSA, was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Soviet Union. According to recently revealed files from Soviet intelligence, the USSR sustained the SACP through the KGB. As those files have it, Joe Slovo commanded Umkhonto we Sizwe, a special operations force which, in June 1980, launched four simultaneous attacks on oil storage tanks and a refinery at Secunda. Slovo didn't carry out the attacks. He sent black Africans to do the heavy lifting and take the risks.
According to the KGB files, the leader of the squad that carried out the attack was not Patrick Chamusso, the hero of this film, but Motso Mokgabudi, also known as Obadi. He had been trained in the USSR and ran an ANC sabotage camp in Angola. But was bombing a refinery the best way to fight the apartheid regime? After all, many blacks worked there, and those jobs – high-paying by African standards – enabled them to own houses and cars, just like Patrick Chamusso. What were the feelings of some blacks about a Communist movement symbolized by dead white totalitarians? Did any South African blacks have misgivings about actual Marxist-Leninist regimes in Ethiopia, Angola, and Mozambique?
Catch a Fire conveys a kind of “massa Slovo knows best” attitude from Africans, who come across as uncritical followers of a non-African white leader. There is no mention, much less dissent, in the film, though screenwriter Shawn Slovo gives Africans a few clanky lines about liberating their land. She has also explained that they chose Chamusso who “wasn't one of the icons” but a family man and worker, an ideal image for the ANC. The film takes care to have a character say “we don't want anybody killed” in the refinery attack. Joe Slovo is shown as exulting, however, when told that a bomb will take out the refinery's water system, making it impossible to put out the fires, which indeed raged for a week.
At the time, there were more than 20 million blacks in South Africa. Viewers will get the impression that everyone totally supported the ANC and its militant campaigns. One catches fleeing glimpses of blacks in the police and military but viewers don't learn much about South Africa, which classified people as blacks, whites, coloreds and Indians. In the ANC training camps, recruits chant they want to murder “the Boers."”
This is a movie with villains from central casting. Nic Vos, the police official played by Tim Robbins, at times seems ready to hiss: “Ve vant zuh names. You have zem, yes?” Other times he struggles to show he is human, instructing his daughters on the pistol range, playing the guitar, or conceding to Chamusso that apartheid can't last.
It couldn't and didn't, but viewers don't see how it ended and aren't told that the Africans who run South Africa now have no use for Marxism-Leninism and have even privatized state-owned operations in the style of Margaret Thatcher. Toward the end, Catch a Fire cuts to the actual Patrick Chamusso, then to Nelson Mandela, who decided, apparently with Joe Slovo's support, to negotiate with president F.W. de Klerk. De Klerk called for a non-racist South Africa, lifted the ban on the ANC, and released Mandela from prison. He is not in this movie.
Neither is the practice, indulged by some ANC members, of “necklacing,” the torching of black dissenters with gasoline-soaked tires. Winnie Mandela, Nelson's ex-wife, was a fan of necklacing but she's neither shown nor mentioned.
Catch a Fire is a brand of cinematic apartheid that ignores important events, bans key players, and whitewashes others. It gets authentic only at then end, when it says: For Joe Slovo.
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