Harry Potter and the prisoner of apartheid
27 February, 2020 — By Dan Carrier
Daniel Webber and Daniel Radcliffe in Escape from Pretoria
ESCAPE FROM PRETORIA
Directed by Francis Annan
THE stories of the struggle against South African apartheid are still emerging: books chronicling the lives of those who risked everything for what they knew was right are a rich and inspiring genre of literature.
Recently, Ken Keable’s book The London Recruits revealed how people from Camden travelled to South Africa posing as tourists – and then let off explosive devices that showered streets with political leaflets to show that the ANC was very much there and fighting underground.
Keable’s protests come to mind at the start of this excellent film about two South African political activists, as his story dovetails in with what they did.
It also reminds of The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs – a completely inspirational story of a white South African lawyer locked up under the brutal 90-day detention laws for his politics and one of the greatest stories of the period.
This film, Escape From Pretoria, tells of the next generation after Sachs and Keable, those in the 1970s who were not going to sit back, but were going to do all they could to fight apartheid.
Tim Jenkins (Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) were young white South Africans who saw the evil regime running their country. They began working for the ANC, letting off similar leaflet bombs to Keable – until they were arrested in 1978 and charged with treason.
This film tells their story, of what their motivations were – and how they faced more than a decade in the brutal conditions of the Pretoria’s maximum security prison.
It was in here they decided they could not quietly sit back and see out their sentence – but had to try their best to escape and carry on the fight from abroad.
Other characters add flavour to tensions of the plot: long-term prisoner Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter) was arrested trying to smuggle arms into the country for the ANC and has already been inside for seven years when the pair arrive. He has been allowed just one half-hour visit a year to see his young son – and when Lee and Jenkins arrive and say they aren’t prepared to sit in their cells for years, he wants in.
They also meet elder ANC statesman Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart), who was imprisoned alongside Nelson Mandela at the Rivoli trial: he has three life sentences to serve and is prepared to sit them out as an act of solidarity with his black comrades imprisoned on Robben Island. But for Jenkins and Lee, it’s not an act of solidarity to do such a thing – it is better they try to escape and continue their fight from outside the prison walls.
This is a superbly told film; add to this, it is by far Radcliffe’s best on-screen performance so far. The tension of the situation Jenkins and Lee finds themselves in, the brutality of the racist guards, and the concept that they are locked up for being morally right is brilliantly portrayed.
These are men who knew they could not passively stand by, that they could not morally live in South Africa without doing what ever they could to bring down the government.
We can only be reminded from this story that you can never let your guard down, never give up – and always fight racism with all your might, at every turn, wherever it rears its ugly head. Bravo to director Francis Annan for such a moving and timely film.