Masterful retelling of how apartheid fell
South Africa in the mid-1980s was a land of relentless violence and conflict. As a foreign correspondent based in Johannesburg in those years, I moved from one burning black township to the next, and then on to the huge, tense funeral marches to bury the fallen.
Amid states of emergency, crackdowns by the white-minority rulers, and battles among black factions, it often felt like no outcome was possible other than all-out war between whites and the exiled African National Congress.
What we didn’t realize at the time was that, in utmost secrecy, a few people were trying to get the two entrenched enemies to meet and talk. And given the emotions and anger of those days, it certainly took more courage and skill to talk than to keep fighting.
“Endgame,’’ the season premiere of Masterpiece Contemporary on PBS (Channel 2) tomorrow night, tells the gripping story of one of those courageous initiatives - how a bespectacled, soft-spoken Englishman got talks going between rival teams led by the ANC’s deputy leader in exile, Thabo Mbeki, and a white Afrikaner academic, Willie Esterhuyse, at a manor house in the English countryside.
The challenge for director Pete Travis (“Vantage Point’’) and screenwriter Paula Milne was to keep the drama compelling while staying true to the facts of the slowly unfolding negotiations set in motion by Michael Young, who was public affairs director for the Consolidated Goldfields mining conglomerate.
They pull it off masterfully. The characters and settings are true to that recent past, gritty and ripping with tension. It helps to have William Hurt as the enigmatic Esterhuyse, who grapples with his own conflicted suspicions of the ANC and its tactics, colored by his growing awareness that whites were surrendering their humanity to suppress the black majority. Having heard many actors embarrass themselves with the unique English accent of Afrikaners, I was impressed at how well Hurt caught the inflections of their language.
The movie opens with scenes that capture what’s at stake: In one township street battle in 1985, rioters are stoning armored vehicles near a police roadblock. That’s where we meet Michael Young, played with persuasive understatement by Jonny Lee Miller (“Trainspotting’’). Young is being smuggled into Soweto to try to launch one of his company’s community-building projects. He is rebuffed. It’s quickly obvious to him that such efforts are pointless without much bigger changes.
As several books have subsequently recorded, including Robert Harvey’s “The Fall of Apartheid: The Inside Story From Smuts to Mbeki,’’ on which “Endgame’’ is based, Young persuaded the chairman of Consolidated Goldfields, Rudolf Agnew, to let him try to bring the ANC and the white government together to talk.
In London, Young approaches Mbeki, the suave pipe-smoking number two to ANC leader-in-exile Oliver Tambo, and asks how he can help. Mbeki, played convincingly by Chiwetel Ejiofor (“American Gangster’’), looks at Young skeptically - but hints that talking is the only way forward.
Young makes a series of frustrating overtures to credible whites, most of whom decline - as does Esterhuyse, at first. But he finally agrees to participate. Most of the movie unfolds from 1988 to 1990, in the talks at the elegant Mells Park House in Somerset, England, exploring the trust that grows between Mbeki and Esterhuyse, with Young’s cautious, low-key but critical facilitation.
Both Mbeki and Esterhuyse understand that they are part of larger casts. Esterhuyse is being watched, and manipulated, by South Africa’s wily national intelligence chief, Niel Barnard (Mark Strong), who in turn has to cajole intransigent president P.W. Botha, and his successor, F.W. de Klerk, to move forward. Mbeki, for his part, has to negotiate a halt to ANC terror attacks to keep the process going. The backdrop is the white government’s parallel secret talks with Nelson Mandela (Clarke Peters), who is imprisoned outside Cape Town.
The story ends with the ban on the ANC being lifted and Mandela’s release in February 1990, which opened the door to a peaceful settlement and Mandela’s election as president in 1994. If the movie overreaches in suggesting this was the only such black-white initiative (there were others involving business leaders and opposition politicians), it is utterly effective in documenting the role that relationships play in determining why some conflicts slide further into chaos and bloodshed - and others pull back at the brink.