The Rising Tide
The anti-apartheid struggle

by Anne Lawrence

from Jump Cut, no. 21, Nov. 1979, pp. 10-11
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

THE RISING TIDE, completed in October 1977 by the Algerian filmmaker Boubaker Adjali, seeks to present a general introduction to the politics and history of Southern Africa in order to build support for the liberation movements now in progress there.

Many people active in Southern Africa solidarity work in this country eagerly looked forward to the films release, hoping that THE RISING TIDE would overcome the inadequacies of other films available for educational and fundraising work among English-speaking audiences.

The solidarity movement often shows LAST GRAVE AT DIMBAZA (1974). Antiapartheid activists produced LAST GRAVE during 1973, before the collapse of Portuguese colonialism and the outbreak of urban rebellion within South Africa. Coming at the end of a long period of defeat and repression, the film is pessimistic and despairing in tone. Although it remains a powerful and moving indictment of apartheid, LAST GRAVE is clearly dated as an introduction to the politics of Southern Africa.

Since 1973, various short documentary films, such as THERE IS NO CRISIS HERE (1976), MASSACRE AT NYAZONIA (1976), WHITE LAAGER (1977), and SIX DAYS IN SOWETO (1978) have treated isolated aspects of the Southern African situation. But none have attempted a comprehensive overview of the region for a general audience.

Frankly partisan to the liberation movements, regional in focus, and current in its information, THE RISING TIDE promised to overcome the deficiencies of earlier films. Unfortunately, the film does not fulfill its promises. It suffers from historical and political inaccuracies, confusing juxtaposition of words and images, and worst of all a heavily didactic presentation, which will likely offend all but the already convinced. As a result, THE RISING TIDE will not be able to meet the real needs of the solidarity movement.

The scene: we see schoolchildren fighting in the streets of Soweto, armed only with sticks and rocks. Cut to a group of white civilians lined up in a gun store purchasing weapons and then to a shooting range where they are practicing with their newly bought arms. The narrator asks sarcastically,

"Are these people threatened by a dangerous uprising of children armed only with rocks? (1) They can kill the young one at a time … [picture of a white shooting a handgun]… or all at once [picture of a white shooting a machine gun]."

The scene: white mercenaries have been taken prisoner in Angola and are now facing trial and almost certain punishment at the hands of the victorious MPLA. They shift nervously in front of their interrogators. "I was captured in...," one says. "I could have gone back. But I was following orders." "Only following orders!" the narrator interjects. And then he questions us rhetorically: "Another generation of war criminals?"

The scene: a reporter interviews a young African worker who has gone to work despite a strike in Soweto. The reporter asks if the worker fears retaliation from the students or other strikers. "Do you want police protection?" asks the reporter. The man looks startled at the question. As if to answer the reporter, the film shifts to a scene in which police mercilessly club African children. "In South Africa," asks the narrator, "who is protected by the police?"

The editorial message of THE RISING TIDE strikes the viewer like a bludgeon. Not content to let the images and juxtapositions speak for themselves, Adjali finds it necessary to draw political conclusions at every opportunity. This is particularly distressing because the images themselves are so compelling. We do not need a narrator's prompting to react to the sight of schoolchildren gunned down in the street. The overlay of editorial comment distracts and probably offends all but the few viewers schooled in the language of the anti-imperialist movement. For all its editorial bluff and bluster, THE RISING TIDE never really makes an emotional impact, perhaps because we never really see the human impact of racial oppression.

In LAST GRAVE AT DIMBAZA, we do. This is why the film, despite its faults, is a much better film. In LAST GRAVE, we meet an African domestic servant whose own child has died of malnutrition. We see the expression on her face as she coaxes the daughter of her white employers to eat her dinner. We see the faces of African children as they strain unsuccessfully to capture the attention of their teacher in a hopelessly overcrowded classroom. We enter a packed train with African workers who must commute daily to their jobs in the city from segregated townships outside the urban area. And we are moved to anger.

But in THE RISING TIDE, we meet categories rather than people. A picture of an elementary school for African children and an explanation of the racist character of education. A discussion of malnutrition and an interview with an African man who describes quite clinically what he eats every day. Students, always shown in a crowd and from a long distance away. We meet "liberation fighters" who are struggling with "new hope, new courage, and new determination" and "democratic whites" and "heroic students" who are "sacrificing their freedom and their lives for their ideals." But we don't meet them as individuals, and we are never quite sure why they are making the sacrifice.

THE RISING TIDE was not made from original footage. Adjali drew his material from a variety of sources, including LAST GRAVE, television film, and recent documentaries about particular aspects of the situation in Southern Africa. Unfortunately, the filmmaker has not always been scrupulous about matching the political points he wished to make with the film that was available. As a result, the images don't always match the words. In a documentary film, this carelessness is at best misleading and, at worst, downright dishonest.

The narrator tells us about the passbook system in South Africa. A man's entire life, from birth to death, he says, is governed by his passbook number. Then we see a row of graves marked by numbers. This juxtaposition of narration and image clearly suggests that the graves are marked with passbook numbers. But this is not the case: the graves are numbered sequentially. We see footage of men working in the gold mines and then are told that they must live in single sex barracks. This is true, but an image of family accommodations in an urban township accompanies this statement.

We see white settlers of German descent in Namibia, and there are vague references to Nazism. The implication is unclear, but we are left with the impression that the Nazis colonized Namibia. In fact, German colonialism in South West Africa (later Namibia) came to an end with World War I, well before the rise of the National Socialists in Germany. The narrator mispronounces several African names. Zimbabwe is "Zim-babe-wee"; Soweto is "So-wee-tow.' These are all small errors and, although they confuse the viewer, do not seriously distort the facts. Some of the inaccuracies of the film, however, have more serious political consequences.

In its treatment of South Africa, the overwhelming message of this film is optimistic: onward and upward to victory over the apartheid regime. Unfortunately, this approach prevents the film from dealing forthrightly with some of the very real and serious problems which confront those in South Africa and elsewhere who seek to build a movement to overthrow the white supremacist regime. There are many scenes of struggle in this film: of the nonviolent pass campaign of the 1950s, of the Sharpeville demonstration and massacre of 1960, of the urban uprisings in the Johannesburg and Cape Town townships of 1976.

Because the only South African liberation organization the film mentions is the African National Congress, the film implies that the ANC led these movements. In fact, this is not the case. The Sharpeville demonstration, for instance, was organized by the Pan African Congress, the other major liberation group in South Africa. The ANC was only one of several organizations, including student groups and the Black Peoples' Convention, which figured in the 1976 uprisings. In fact, in South Africa no liberation organization has clear hegemony or an unambiguous claim to the leadership of the movement. This is a serious obstacle to the success of the liberation struggle in South Africa and one of which we need to be fully aware.

The film also clearly implies that the urban rebellions of 1976 greatly increased the unity among those who oppose the regime. In some respects, this is true. Workers joined in the student protests, and the traditionally moderate Coloureds of the Cape Town area joined in the militant antiapartheid demonstrations there. The victories won by the students and their allies during these days will help build and inspire further efforts to challenge apartheid. But the protests were also the occasion for the government to foment antagonisms between migrant and non-migrant workers in the townships — a serious division in the African working class. Many, many people lost their lives, and virtually an entire generation of young leaders was destroyed. The Soweto events marked the beginning of a wave of the most severe and debilitating repression faced by the liberation movement in South Africa since the early 1960s.

The film does not mention these less encouraging results of the uprisings, and as a result we come away from THE RISING TIDE with a very skewed impression. The film also suggests that there may yet be a possibility of building a multi-racial movement against apartheid in South Africa. We are told that "democratic whites" have a real contribution to make to the struggle. Under the present circumstances, however, it is doubtful that any whites, no matter how committed, will be able to play a significant role in the coming struggles in South Africa. In the absence of any substantial support for black majority rule from the white population, especially from the white working class, the opposition of a few white intellectuals to the regime will remain necessarily isolated and ineffective. It is misleading to suggest that substantial white opposition to the present regime is a real possibility for the future.

It is always reassuring to hear that change in oppressive conditions is imminent. But this film does a disservice by failing to deal honestly with the all-too-real problems which the anti-apartheid movement faces in South Africa. However, for all its shortcomings, THE RISING TIDE is still worth seeing. The film includes fascinating footage of the Soweto uprising, the war in Zimbabwe, and other events in Southern Africa, much of it not previously widely shown. The inclusion of this material allows the film to demonstrate convincingly, in a way that LAST GRAVE did not, that imperialism and white supremacy in Southern Africa are not immovable and that they have been and can be challenged.

But for the politically sophisticated person seeking information on which to base a thoughtful analysis of the possibilities for change in Southern Africa, this film is too riddled with historical and political errors to be useful. For everyone else, it is so heavily editorialized that the general viewer will more likely be drowned in the rhetoric than carried along by THE RISING TIDE.


1. The author did not record the soundtrack. All quotations were reconstructed from her notes and therefore may be subject to minor errors.

THE RISTNG TIDE is available from California Newsreel's Southern Africa Media Center, 630 Natoma St., San Francisco, CA 94103.