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Interview with Thomas Allen Harris

Director of "Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela"

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When South African policemen shot down student protesters during the Soweto uprising of 1976, the charismatic leader of the African National Congress (ANC), Nelson Mandela, had been imprisoned for more than a decade. But because his followers, ANC freedom fighters, had continued his work outside the country after the ANC was outlawed in 1960, the groundwork was in place for an international war against apartheid.

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In his award-winning film Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela: A Son’s Tribute to Unsung Heroes, which makes its PBS debut on September 19, 2006, director Thomas Allen Harris pays homage to a dozen such foot soldiers from the city of Bloemfontein, including his stepfather, B. Pule Leinaeng, known as Lee, who devoted their lives to freeing South Africa.

Q: What did the "twelve disciples" contribute, and how did they go about their mission?

A: They left Bloemfontein in 1960, after the ANC was outlawed. The ANC was aware that it would be outlawed, so they began getting young people to create a resistance outside the country. And the 12 from Bloemfontein are among the first wave of exiles. They helped create structures all over the world that would keep this organization alive. Some of them became soldiers in the [ANC's] army, others started economic institutes, others worked for the ANC exclusively. Lee was the only one of the 12 who decided to try to use media as his weapon of choice.

Q: What inspired you to create this film at this time?

A: The film was inspired by my going to South Africa in 2000 for the funeral of my stepfather, Lee, who had raised me. And during the funeral I heard all these testimonials from the people that left with Lee. These guys were heroes and their stories had not been told and they were old and they were dying. And so I needed to create a eulogy, not only to him but to all the unsung heroes.

Q. I understand they had to trek about 1,300 miles to get to safety?

A. It was very difficult because they had to leave home, and the ANC had no money. Initially, they went to Botswana and were awaiting a plane that would take them to Ghana, which was to be their headquarters. But a war broke out in the Congo, and there was nowhere that small planes in Africa could stop to refuel. So these guys were stranded, and they had to find a way to get outside the purview of the South African authorities who were looking for them. So they went to Tanzania, but it was a harrowing experience. Sometimes they didn't eat for days.

They created pathways that thousands of freedom fighters would follow from Botswana to Tanzania. And from there they went all over the world, both trying to get an education and also to tell people what was going on in South Africa. So when Soweto occurred, there was a structure in place for the anti-apartheid movement.

Q: Soweto students in 1976 were protesting, in part, against the limited education afforded blacks. Weren't some of the limitations enacted while the disciples were still attending school?

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