Posted on October 12, 2019
A film about the life and death of former University of Pretoria (UP) Professor Johan Heyns won the 2019 South African Short Documentary of the Year Award at the recent Jozi Film Festival. Prof Heyns taught theology at the University of Pretoria, and led the Dutch Reformed Church in its rejection of apartheid. He was assassinated in 1994.
‘Exorcist of Apartheid’ was directed by Heyns’s grandson, Adam Heyns, with Adam’s father, Christof Heyns, a professor in UP’s Faculty of Law, acting as executive producer. It is currently being screened at film festivals in The Hague, Rome, Vermont, Windhoek, and Cape Town. The film’s premiere was held in 2018 at the annual UP Johan Heyns Memorial Lecture, presented by Johan’s former student, prominent cleric and anti-apartheid activist Allan Boesak.
The film came into being two years ago when Adam, a 30-year-old filmmaker, asked his grandmother, Renée, to tell him more about his grandfather, who died when he was five. Renée then gave Adam a box of family videos. The viewer sees the story unfold through Adam’s eyes, as he slots one video after the other into the video machine and travels back in time.
Johan is seen delivering a sermon in front of the imposing Voortrekker Monument in 1988. He is on a stage draped in the old South African flag, during the Day of the Covenant commemorations, with thousands of Dutch Reformed Church faithful in attendance. Johan calls for a fundamental change of heart in Afrikaans society, and warns about not recognising other groups as equals. In cutaway shots, Johan talks about his own journey: from conservative roots, away from apartheid. This is contrasted with extracts from interviews from the same period, conducted with people in traditional Voortrekker dress, who blame Johan for a loss of Afrikaner identity.
Renée recounts how a right-wing group in similar dress came to their home in Pretoria and, once inside, laid a curse on Johan and his house. They dismissed this as childish acts.
Johan was assassinated in the same house on Saturday 5 November 1994, in all likelihood as right-wing revenge for his anti-apartheid stance, while playing with his grandchildren.
The movie shows how prominent South Africans reacted to the news. Then President Nelson Mandela visited the family on the day of the funeral; Archbishop Desmond Tutu attended; and Minister of Housing and Communist Party leader, at the time, Joe Slovo presented a moving tribute to Johan in Parliament. The young Adam is seen next to his grandfather’s grave, holding a white flower. Johan’s widow, Renée, calls not for revenge but for sympathy for the killer, whom she said must be deeply troubled.
Christoph, currently a professor of Human Rights Law in UP’s Law Faculty, says he has the greatest admiration for the way in which Adam tells his grandfather’s story. “He brought a crucial part of our history as a country – and our history as a family – to the fore, in a brilliant way, by using this long-lost footage. He takes us along with him as he goes back to his own roots. Watching the movie, I was reminded of how skilled my father was in telling stories.
“I was at the Voortrekker Monument on the day of the sermon, with little sympathy for how slow the pace of reform was. I was thinking, why doesn’t he just say ‘Go home and stop this apartheid nonsense’? I now realise how he was taking them, and himself, forward: He used the most conservative part of the Bible, the Old Testament, to connect with people who shared his background, and to nudge them on. He talked to them about the prophet Amos, whose calls for reform were resisted. But he also took on that role himself. Such a message, by a member of the community, connects on a much deeper level than someone simply telling people, from a dizzy height, that they are wrong. The film leaves me with a sense of hope; people who find themselves within a seemingly impossible situation can bring about change, also from the inside. The actions of individuals – and the stories they tell – matter.”
The film can be seen on YouTube.
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