The Guardian 9 November, 2005

TV Programs worth watching
Sun November 13 Sat November 19


In the US film, The American President, Michael Douglas (playing the President) is informed by a worried aide that the Press has obtained a photo of Douglas' girlfriend burning a US flag at an anti-apartheid rally in the 1970s.

Douglas exclaims: "You mean to say that 20 years ago, when I wasn't President, someone I didn't know then took part in a demonstration where no laws were broken protesting against something that so many people were against that it no longer exists?"

There is some of that sense of incredulity about the splendid documentary Political Football (ABC 8.30pm Thursday). Written and directed by James Middleton, it deals with the unprecedented political protests that broke out in Australia against the 1971 tour of the country by the South African Springboks Rugby team.

It was an extraordinary time: Apartheid was riding high in South Africa. In 1969, during the Australian Wallabies' rugby tour of South Africa, the Australians were taken for a tourist visit to Sharpeville, the scene a few years earlier of the notorious massacre of black South Africans by white police!

To the disgust of at least some of the Australian players, when they arrived in Sharpeville the white bus driver began throwing coins out of the bus so the tourists could enjoy the spectacle of watching the black children grubbing in the dust of the road for coins.

One of the Australian players went up to the driver and angrily told him "They're not animals, stop treating them like animals". But to the racist whites in South Africa, black Africans were little better than animals. (I have in my post-card collection a South African card showing women in a Zulu village, with the caption: "Zulu women in their native habitat".)

That 1969 Wallaby tour had a profound effect on at least six members of the team, opening their eyes to the racist nature of South Africa at the time. It also alerted them to the fact that for white South Africans sport and politics were integrally connected.

When the 1971 tour of Australia was announced, these six players, plus one other, declared that they were not available to play against a team that was selected on the basis of race.

All hell broke loose. They were denounced as "a disgrace to their country" by the patriotic clubmen who ran Rugby Union at the time.

While courageous players stumped the country talking about racism and the Springboks, the tour became a rallying point and a battleground for the anti-Apartheid movement in Australia.

The ACTU black-banned the tour, so Prime Minister Billy McMahon a stuffed shirt from the wealthy end of town promptly offered the RAAF to transport this bunch of racist footballers.

The heads of the Rugby Union tended to dismiss the protestors as unwashed students and hippies who had obviously been stirred up by communist agitators. But the reality was that all sorts of quite normal people had decided that the tour should not be taking place, that tolerating it meant giving comfort and support to the repugnant apartheid regime.

Neo-Nazis like the notorious thug "the Skull", together with hundreds of police, physically attacked protesters. The Premier of Victoria declared the protests to be "a rebellion against constituted authority".

The Queensland Premier, Joh Bjelke Petersen actually declared a State of Emergency (and then announced that he was not overreacting). It was the first time in any Western country (and probably in any country) that a state of emergency had been declared over three football matches!

The protests did not stop the series, but they ensured there were no more. Within a year the Libs were ousted from Canberra and the new Whitlam Government imposed a sport boycott of South Africa that lasted until the defeat of apartheid.

The seven young footballers who stood up for their beliefs and who in so doing sacrificed their careers (a miffed Rugby Union never selected them for a national team again), are interviewed today and it is clear that they regard sacrificing their rugby careers for a principle as something they are proud of.

As I have already indicated, this is an uncommonly good Australian documentary that is eminently worth watching.

Other programs of interest this week include The Last Flight Of The Columbia (SBS 8.30pm Sunday), which probed the causes of the explosion which destroyed the space shuttle Columbia in February 2003.

Made by the BBC's Horizon team, the program shows that NASA could have brought the crew back safely if only it had used a small telescope to examine damage to the shuttle's left wing. Instead, NASA chose to rely on a computer program for damage assessment and got it wrong.

I have not seen The Cult Of The Suicide Bomber (ABC 8.30pm Monday) but it is fronted by "a former CIA spy" which we are apparently meant to take as proof of its credibility. Surely a dubious proposition, at best?

Nevertheless, this "history" of the phenomenon of suicide bombers, after covering everything from Japanese Kamikaze pilots in WW2 to the child martyrs of the Iran/Iraq War, eventually gets to the present day suicide attacks by bunches of middle-class students in Hamburg or Leeds who spend months planning their own spectacular deaths in incidents like last July's London bombing.

Grange (ABC 9.25pm Saturday) is meant to be a comic tale about two lawyers from the wrong side of the tracks who for the best of motives decide to steal some bottles of Grange.

I found the film painful to watch. It has a top-class cast including Bruce Spence, John Bluthal and Nicholas Hope, but is directed with one of the heaviest hands I've ever seen. Everything is either overdone, obvious or laid on with a trowel: take your pick.

Basically, it is shockingly directed, and the narration just contributes to the effect of being bludgeoned about the head.

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