In 1963, when apartheid South Africa was being convulsed by a nation-wide wave of terrorism, the police raided a farm house in Rivonia, near Johannesburg, and arrested several leaders of the African National Congress, including Nelson Mandela.
As he and his shackled black and white colleagues were being led away to vans, one of the police officers said, “The Jews stink as much as the niggers.” He was referring to two of the prisoners, Lionel Bernstein and Denis Goldberg, who had rebelled against the racist political system and joined the ANC, the organization responsible for the bombing campaign.
Bernstein and Goldberg were among a small group of South African Jews who fought apartheid tooth and nail. They paid a price for their commitment to this uphill struggle. When the Rivonia plotters were put on trial, Bernstein and Goldberg were among the accused. Their trial, lasting from October 1963 to June 1964, resulted in the imprisonment of Mandela and his associates.
These events are distilled in Jean van de Velde’s absorbing movie, An Act of Defiance, which will be screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on May 7 and 11.
The central characters are Bram Fischer (Peter Paul Muller), the Afrikaner lawyer who defended the ANCers, and Percy Yutar (Jose Domingos), the Jewish prosecutor who branded the Jewish defendants as “troublemakers” and members of the Communist Party.
Rather than accusing them of treason, Yutar charged them with sabotage, which did not necessarily carry a death penalty. Speaking for his fellow prisoners, Mandela insisted they were not guilty. “Let us be defiant and put the state on trial,” he declared in court.
Fischer, superbly portrayed by Muller, is the most developed and complex character in the film. An idealist from a distinguished pioneering family, he turned against apartheid after having firmly embraced it. Fischer joined the Communist Party and was true to its platform even after the state banned it. His wife, Molly (Antoinette Louw), stood by him and was his emotional rock.
Yutar, an Orthodox Jew of Lithuanian descent, was Fischer’s polar opposite, a conservative who accepted the inequities and racial segregation of apartheid.
An Act of Defiance is mainly a courtroom drama pitting Fischer against Yutar. But in a pivotal scene, Mandela (Sello Lotloung) briefly outlines the objectives of the ANC — a free and democratic society free of racial discrimination — and says he’s prepared to die for the cause.
Fischer, driven by the pursuit of justice, explains that the ANC turned to violence only after peaceful protests to change the system had failed. He adds that apartheid is “deeply damaging” to South Africa.
Fischer’s unwavering beliefs convinced the South African government that he was an apostate and a traitor. To the staunch supporters of apartheid, he was more reviled than even Mandela. Shortly after the Rivonia trial, he was arrested.
His courageous and defiant stance is at the core of An Act of Defiance.