Finding a way past apartheid: Documentary revisits program that brought Black South African students to Smith College during civil rights struggle

Thilo Simadari, left, and Thembekile Mazibuko celebrate their graduation from Smith College in 1989 in a scene from the documentary “Where I Became.” They were the first two South African scholarship students to come to Smith.

Thilo Simadari, left, and Thembekile Mazibuko celebrate their graduation from Smith College in 1989 in a scene from the documentary “Where I Became.” They were the first two South African scholarship students to come to Smith. Image courtesy Council Brandon

At left, Tandiwe Njobe, back to camera, and Heather Sonn during filming in South Africa for “Where I Became.” At right are film director Kate Geis and, looking at paperwork, co-producer Jane Shang. Andile Khanyile holds the mic in place.

At left, Tandiwe Njobe, back to camera, and Heather Sonn during filming in South Africa for “Where I Became.” At right are film director Kate Geis and, looking at paperwork, co-producer Jane Shang. Andile Khanyile holds the mic in place. Image courtesy Council Brandon

South African students Nolwandle Mgoqi, far left, and Tandiwe Njobe, at right, at their 1994 graduation from Smith College. Njobe is the co-producer of the documentary “Where I Became.”

South African students Nolwandle Mgoqi, far left, and Tandiwe Njobe, at right, at their 1994 graduation from Smith College. Njobe is the co-producer of the documentary “Where I Became.” Image courtesy Council Brandon

Tandiwe Njobe and her son, Nkosana, examine a memorial in South Africa to victims of apartheid in a scene from “Where I Became.” They’re looking for the name of Tandiwe Njobe’s brother.

Tandiwe Njobe and her son, Nkosana, examine a memorial in South Africa to victims of apartheid in a scene from “Where I Became.” They’re looking for the name of Tandiwe Njobe’s brother. Image courtesy Council Brandon

At the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa are “Where I Became” film crew members including, second from left, co-producer Jane Shang; director Kate Geis; and co-producer Tandiwe Njobe with her son, Nkosana.

At the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa are “Where I Became” film crew members including, second from left, co-producer Jane Shang; director Kate Geis; and co-producer Tandiwe Njobe with her son, Nkosana. Image courtesy Council Brandon

Bryn Francis films at a Smith College reunion in 2019 for “Where I Became.”

Bryn Francis films at a Smith College reunion in 2019 for “Where I Became.” Image courtesy Council Brandon

Filming for “Where I Became.” From left, Elizabeth Westley, Tandiwe Njobe, Nikki Bramley, and Bryn Francis.

Filming for “Where I Became.” From left, Elizabeth Westley, Tandiwe Njobe, Nikki Bramley, and Bryn Francis. Image courtesy Council Brandon

A sign from South Africa during the apartheid era that announces in English, Afrikaans and Zulu that a beach area is reserved for whites only.

A sign from South Africa during the apartheid era that announces in English, Afrikaans and Zulu that a beach area is reserved for whites only. Image from Wikipedia/public domain

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 12-08-2023 4:58 PM

The 1980s were a brutal time in South Africa. Decades of apartheid, the ironbound racial segregation system that relegated a majority Black population to second-class citizenship under white rule, led to increasing Black resistance, followed by severe government backlash: sweeping powers for police and the military, media censorship, detention without trial, and shootings and torture.

At Smith College, meantime, students and faculty were calling for the school to divest from companies that did business in South Africa. College trustees were hesitant, worrying how such a move would affect Smith’s endowment.

So then-president Jill Ker Conway, working with Smith psychology professor Peter de Villiers, a native of South Africa, came up with another plan: use money from the college’s investments in South Africa to bring Black students from there to Smith on full scholarship.

Nearly 40 years later, a new documentary film, “Where I Became,” revisits that story, profiling 14 of 16 South African students who came to Smith between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. The film is scheduled to air on PBS in February during Black History Month.

It’s an engrossing and moving story in which the former students, now mostly in their 50s, look back at their younger selves and a journey that changed the trajectories of their lives, giving them a shot at higher education when Black South Africans were barred from attending their country’s universities.

Using personal photos, archival film footage, and present-day interviews, “Where I Became” is also a portrait of young women, apprehensive in some cases about coming to a strange country, discovering new personal strengths and forging stronger identities at Smith — qualities that would have been harder to realize in a homeland that denied them educational opportunities.

As Thembekile Mazibuko, Smith Class of 1989, recalls, her father contacted her after she’d been at the college for about year and a half and suggested she could come home and get “a very good job” as a domestic worker.

“Am I actually going to walk out of Smith College, take my bags and go and work for some white family, taking care of their babies and cleaning up their house?” she says in the film, with a rueful smile.

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“Um, no,” she says. “My own voice was getting a little stronger then, and I said … ‘I’m not falling for that.’”

Fittingly enough, “Where I Began” has been put together in good part by Smith alumnae themselves, including one of the former South African students, Tandiwe Njobe, Class of 1994. Njobe and Jane Dawson Shang, Class of 1982, developed the idea and produced and financed the film, and two more recent graduates, Council Brandon (2020) and Zoë Dong (2018), have served in varied production capacities.

In addition, the director, Kate Geis, lives near Smith and has some previous connections to the school, including speaking to students in the college’s Film Studies Department and working on projects with staff from the Smith Sophia Collection.

In an email, Njobe said having mostly Smith College graduates develop the film “was not deliberate — it just worked out that way. It was great to have Kate because while she is not an alum, she is very familiar with Smith and the area.”

From friendship to film

The full story of how the documentary came together likely requires a separate article. But it was born from a chance meeting in 2012 at a Johannesburg bank between Njobe, who works in finance, and Shang’s husband, Paul Shang, who works in international banking.

Discovering Njobe was a Smith graduate, Shang put her in touch with his wife, and Jane Shang and Njobe were soon bonding via email over their Smith experiences. They met some months later in person, in London, and their friendship grew.

In succeeding years they hit on the idea of documenting Njobe’s experience as well as that of Njobe’s parents, career educators who had taken their family to live in Tanzania and Zambia to protest apartheid. Eventually, after weathering some ups and downs, they decided to interview many of the South African Smithies, who Njobe was still in touch with.

The South African scholarship program “started a few years after I graduated, but I didn’t know anything about it,” Shang said in a recent phone call from her home in Connecticut. “When we dug into the archives about this … I was just blown away about how it came about, and I thought, ‘This is a story that needs to be told.’”

One of her key sources was de Villiers, the South African professor (now retired from Smith) who helped introduce the scholarship program and helped the new students find their footing at the college. The students speak warmly about him in the film, remembering visits to his home with his wife, Jill (also a former Smith professor), and their then-young children.

“I met Peter for coffee, thinking we’d have a half-hour conversation, and we talked for four hours,” Shang recalls.

Geis was brought in to direct at the recommendation of faculty from Smith’s Film Studies Department, and filming was done (with help from a South African media company) in South Africa, at Smith, near Boston, and a few other locales.

Geis, a documentary producer and director who’s worked independently and for TV stations, said in a phone and email interview that she sees “Where I Began” as a timeless story: one that shows young women finding their voices, but which also looks specifically at how Black South African women experienced apartheid and fought back against it.

“Listening to the stories of the scholars, their strength, the strength they had to discover and cultivate, and their connections to each other is inspiring,” Geis said.

‘People know that is wrong’

“Where I Became” includes a good number of grim photos and film clips from the apartheid era, such as huge armored personnel carriers barreling through Black communities, soldiers firing from the sides, and a famous photo of a young Black man carrying the body of a schoolboy, shot dead during a student uprising in Soweto in 1976.

The Smith South African students came from varied backgrounds; some families were active in protests against apartheid, while others tried to stay out of the spotlight. “Our parents were absolutely adamant that you don’t stick your neck out,” says Mazibuko.

Others found getting accepted at Smith seemed unreal, almost like a dream. “I was surprised to learn I had been accepted,” says Chuma Mbalu Keswa, Class of 1991, who recalls filling out some “paperwork” — presumably a Smith application — that her school headmaster had given her, then forgetting about it afterward.

Even after students were welcomed at the school, the ground could feel uncertain. But unexpected signs gave them courage, like the day Desirée Lalbeharie, class of 1990, looked out the window of a PVTA bus she was riding on and saw a car with an “End Apartheid” bumper sticker.

“I felt something lift off my shoulders, and I thought ‘Oh, people know that is wrong — I’m in a safe place,’” she says.

There’s humor, too, like hearing Heather Sonn, class of 1995, describe putting on what she felt was appropriate clothing for crossing campus on a winter day — South Africa generally has mild, mostly snow-free winters — only to have other students ask her “Are you going skiing?”

Above all, the women talk of gaining confidence in themselves and feeling they’re working for the betterment of their people, as well as coming to believe they could make a difference in the world. Mazibuko was encouraged by how Smith students generally expressed themselves: “They felt so free to speak their mind. It would impress me and astonish me.”

The portraits of the women are enhanced by many photos of them as teens in South Africa — supplied by the women themselves — and as students in Northampton. Geis said she and others on the film team “scoured” old Smith yearbooks to find some informal shots of the women.

One interesting footnote to “Where I Became” is that a number of students ended up staying in the U.S. and pursuing higher education. Lalbeharie earned a doctorate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in education and now lives in Amherst. Her sister Verna, Smith class of 1993, lives in North Carolina, while Mazibuko lives outside of Boston and Keswa makes her home in Atlanta.

The scholarship program ended in the mid-1990s after apartheid was phased out in the early 1990s in South Africa; democratic elections were held in the country for the first time in 1994. Those scholarships were eventually rolled into an expanded program at Smith for international students in general.

“Where I Became” has been screened at film festivals in the U.S., Canada, and overseas, earning a number of honors. Njobe and Shang say they hope to air the documentary in South Africa, too; more exposure could hopefully lead to some outside funding for the film, they note.

Looking back, sayd Njobe, the project had its challenges, “not quite to a point of despair — but many a moment of feeling like there was a lot going on. The post production has probably been the most challenging and Jane has been instrumental in keeping that going.”

Says Shang: “It’s been quite a journey, but it’s been worth making.”

A trailer for the documentary can be viewed at whereibecame.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.