A World Apart study notes and questions

A World Apart, 1988
Director: Chris Menges
Writer: Shawn Slovo

Some historical context for a film “based on a true story.”
Shawn Slovo is the daughter of Ruth First and Joe Slovo, white anti-Apartheid activists, members of the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP). Both First and Slovo contributed to drafting the 1955 Freedom Charter were among the 156 accused in the 1956 Treason Trial. Slovo left South Africa in 1963, a month before the police raid on the ANC planning meeting at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg—the arrests that resulted in life prison sentences for Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Govan Mbeki. While in exile, Slovo continued to work for both the ANC and SACP. He was chief of staff of the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, until 1987; he became the first white member of the ANC’s national executive committee in 1985; he became general secretary of the Communist Party in 1986. Slovo was the Minister of Housing for the first post-Apartheid government until his death in 1995.

Shortly after the Rivonia arrests, First was detained under the notorious 90-Day Act. She served nearly four months in jail, held without charges. The spouses of other activists who had escaped South Africa, including Anne-Marie Wolpe (Harold Wolpe), were also briefly detained, but First’s work with the ANC and SACP put her under direct suspicion.   First and her three daughters (Shawn, Gillian, and Robyn), joined Slovo in Britain soon after her release.  She published extensively on the history and politics of southern Africa. In 1977 the family moved to Mozambique, where First was the director of research at the Centre for African Studies at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo. In 1982 she was killed by a letter bomb sent by the South African government.

Ruth First published her account of incarceration, 117 Days, in 1965. We will read excerpts of the 1989 edition.

Principal characters in the film
Diana Roth (a fictional characterization of Ruth First)
Molly Roth, her daughter
Yvonne, Molly’s friend
Elsie, the Roth’s maid
Solomon, Elsie’s brother and a political activist
Muller, Diana’s main interrogator

Symbolic role of music in the film
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica (God Bless Africa)
Die Stem van Suid-Afrika (The Call of South Africa)
Amazing Grace

South African vocabulary
Amandla ngawethu: power to the people
Mayibuye iAfrica: Africa will return
Voetsek: get lost (crude, originally used for animals)

Discussion Questions
How does the film represent class differences? Why would these differences be important to the story-telling? To your understanding of South Africa in 1963?

What is the symbolism of the names of Elsie’s children? (Nelson, Walter, Albertina, Lillian)?

What were some of the consequences of Apartheid on family life in South Africa? Think through the many family relationships portrayed in this film. Consider specific aspects of gender (Different effects for men and women? Different roles for fathers and mothers?), generation (the consequences for Jude [the grandmother], Diana, and Molly), class, and race.

What was the cost of opposing Apartheid regulations:

  • For Diana?
  • For Molly?
  • For Solomon?

In two different scenes, Muller says to Diana, “We have respect for women in this country.” In what ways can Muller justify his claim to respect women? In what ways do you think this statement is not true? What is the effect of the filmmakers’ decision to repeat this claim?