Revolutionary at a Crossroads

Reportage

 

This year marks the 20th anniversary since South Africa's first democratic elections, which in 1994 drove the final nail into the coffin of Apartheid. To commemorate this event and measure the depth of racial healing between blacks and whites in "The New South Africa," longtime Mantle correspondent Michael J. Jordan launched a documentary-film project, The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story. Below is Part 3 of his six-part travelogue from his recent production trip, on the making of this film.

 

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In 2009, Allan Jones, a successful sheep farmer and progressive town councilman, was elected President of the Ventersdorp Golf Club.

 

And as The Clubhouse describes, Allan is also the local mover-and-shaker who would soon play the pivotal role in steering the whites-only Club to finally admit Sam and Monte as their first black members. A mere 15 years after Apartheid.

 

Allan seems an unlikely revolutionary—until you learn his back-story. During Apartheid, though he enjoyed the privilege of white skin, he also felt “marginalized” amid the white reign over the black majority. Reared in this heartland of Afrikaans-speaking Boers, who trace their roots to the hardy voortrekker pioneers of the 19th century, Allan instead descends from “the English” who later settled in the region.

 

Meanwhile, unlike the conservative Boers, Allan belongs to the Methodist church: one of the few places during Apartheid where blacks and whites sat as equals.

 

Fortunately for me, Allan was one of the first people I met in Ventersdorp, during my initial visit in April 2013. I’d read that he was the only white on the black-dominated Town Council, so wanted to ask how life had been flipped upside-down. It was Allan who sparked my idea for this film, by casually noting, “So much has changed, that our Club now has not one, but even two, black members.”

 

He bought into The Clubhouse—and cleared with Club leaders our full access to the golf championship. So at this moment, with us reacting to a dramatic twist to our story, it’s Allan I seek out. Again, to grease the wheels of Club cooperation.

 

He emerges from the clubhouse, yet hasn’t heard about the fireworks of the final round. Danny and I fill him in—noting Sam’s demand for action.

 

Maybe it’s my imagination, but Allan’s face seems to drain of color. Like I can see him calculating the fall-out from friends and foes if blamed for yet another documentary (like this or this) to bash beleaguered Ventersdorp as pitifully racist.

 

Nevertheless, we mount our case. While we certainly didn’t anticipate this turn of events, we can’t turn a blind eye. Again, with our reputation at stake, we must address it somehow. Mercifully, Allan nods, as any reasonable man would.

 

But I also feel compelled to do something I’ve rarely done in 20 years of foreign reporting: I signal to him my readiness to be fair.

 

Not in so many words, because I’d never drape my arm around the shoulders of a source and say: We’re on the same team. That crosses the line between partial and impartial, between journalism and advocacy. Instead, I have my interest: to tell a good story. Each source has their interest. Personal. Professional. Financial. And so on. So to convince a source to talk, I always look for where our circles of self-interest intersect. Once identified, I highlight it: hoping to push the right button.

 

For Allan, our film offers him a platform to help rehabilitate the image of his town, and his Club. But here, I wrap my signal in a piece of unsolicited advice. “There’s a chance here to turn a negative into a positive,” I say, nudging.

 

Did I cross a line? Maybe. (This line sounds a lot like the strategies I also dispense around conference tables in Lesotho, one of the world’s sickliest countries, as a Communications Consultant helping to raise awareness of health issues.)

 

Yet this is no ordinary story to me. This was our documentary. It’s taken so much for me to organize, to prepare for—and even pay for – this entire production trip. Now, though, the word kaffir rings in my ears. I suddenly realize this whole “labor of love” of mine boils down to us telling a great story—and telling it well.

 

Which, at this very instant, means a story with real movement. Even tension. And drama. Not black and white, but shades of gray. This new twist shows the gray.

 

Have things really changed in Ventersdorp? For the better? Or not?

 

To answer the enormity of that question, I need to prod Club leaders, with my words, right now, to do more than simply react. Describe for our audience, please, how you plan to handle this crisis. On camera. And appear there willingly.

 

Let them confidently defend their stance—and cement our film’s credibility.

 

Allan locks eyes with me, grasps the weight of the moment, and replies: “Let me go talk to the Club President. We’ll give you a response.”

 

This has now become soap-operatic. Even I’m curious to see what comes next.

 

 

Follow Michael on Twitter @mjjordanink

 

 

South Africa, Apartheid