The Man Behind Catch a Fire

Patrick Chamusso's life inspired the apartheid struggle movie.

Phillip Noyce’s Catch a Fire tells the true-life story of Patrick Chamusso, a little known hero of the South African liberation struggle. Set in the violent final decade of apartheid, the film examines Chamusso’s radicalization. Working at the country’s largest oil refinery, Chamusso climbed to the rank of foreman by staying out of politics and appeasing his racist supervisors. When the African National Congress, then an outlawed political organization fighting to end apartheid, bombs the refinery, Chamusso is falsely implicated and held without charge.

Tim Robbins plays Nic Vos, a morally conflicted yet ruthless colonel who oversees Chamusso’s interrogation. The Janus-faced Vos pretends to befriend Chamusso one minute while ordering his torture the next. In the film’s most heart-wrenching scene, Vos watches through one-way glass as Chamusso is placed in a room where his wife waits gagged and ruffed-up. Chamusso breaks down, offering to confess to anything. As Chamusso desperately admits to the wrong details of the crime, Vos’ conscience is shaken enough to let him go. Once free, Chamusso joins an armed resistance in Mozambique. He returns for another encounter with Vos, this time as the mastermind of an even more ambitious attack on the oil refinery where he used to work.

Catch a Fire—written by Shawn Slovo, daughter of ANC leader Joe Slovo—concludes by trying to emphasize the importance of forgiveness rather then revenge, echoing the country’s transition to post-apartheid democracy. However, the film’s pacing dulls its message, treating Chamusso’s struggle with reconciliation far too abruptly. Chamusso’s story is equally interesting at the point where the film leaves off. After ten years incarcerated on Robben Island (South Africa’s Alcatraz for political prisoners), Chamusso found new purpose by building a rural orphanage. We talked with him about having his life-story made into a film and his belief in the power of forgiveness.

MotherJones.com: When did you first learn that a movie was going to be made about your life?

Patrick Chamusso: I learned when I was released from Robben Island. Joe Slovo told me that his daughter was to write something about me. He did not say that it would be a movie. Even she did not tell me that she was going to make a movie. He arranged for me to meet his daughter, Shawn Slovo, and I spent three days with her. She wrote everything about me and told me that she would get in contact with me, but she disappeared for ten years. I didn’t think that a movie or a documentary was going to be made. Her father also died in 1995, so all my hopes were gone. Then on the eleventh year, she phoned me and said, “I found a director and an actor.” I said, “For what?” She said, “For your story. We are going to make a movie about your story.” I said, “No man, get away.” Movies are made for famous people but not for an ordinary man like me. We live here on a farm and no one had ever heard of a movie being made here. Movies are made in town but not here.

MJ.com: Was it hard for you to watch a movie about your life?

PC: It was very hard actually. It is still very painful even now. I only watch the movie from the beginning until the wedding, and then when I see the capture, I can’t watch it anymore. I don’t enjoy watching it. Even during the filming, when I used to go to the set, it was painful for me to watch the places I went through: the torture, the capture, the part when I meet my wife in prison.

MJ.com: When the real people who tortured you took part in the hearings held by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, did you attend?

PC: No, I wasn’t there. I didn’t want to listen to it. As I said, even to watch this movie or go to the places where I was tortured was not easy. I didn’t want to attend the proceedings, but whatever position our leaders have taken binds me because we are a collective. They were given amnesty, which was quite a good thing in South Africa. We say that we have forgiven them and they can stay. Even now, they are still in South Africa.

MJ.com: In the film, you choose not to pursue personal revenge on Nic Vos. Why not?

PC: Remember that I am part and parcel of the dismantling of apartheid. When I reached Robben Island, Nelson Mandela had created a structure where everyone who was new could come and begin to transform their angers. I went into that structure, and I think it gave me strength. I also saw that revenge was not a useful thing. See, if I were to pay revenge, then their children would come to me, and my children would go back, and it would go on and on through generations. The main point is: who will start forgiving? I am a victim, but let me just forgive them. We are victims of apartheid, but we forgave them without them asking us to forgive. That was our position and part of that was my decision not to kill him.

MJ.com: Once you were free, did you ever see the man who had overseen your torture?

PC: Yes I saw him again, like in the movie, at a dam where he was drinking and fishing. I saw him before that at a petrol station. But when you forgive you must also learn to forget. I have forgiven them and forgotten about them. So let them live, and I will be able to live also. If I had taken revenge, I would not be speaking with you. I would have gone to prison again and maybe I would be killed by his children. So revenge is not a good thing.

MJ.com: What happened when you were let out of prison in 1990?

PC: When I came out, I was forty years old. No company was going to take a forty year-old man. Immediately I got a pension. I had spent ten years on Robben Island. During all those years, I thought what can I do to give back to the people? I didn’t want to just come back and say I am free. I said let me continue what I started, let me build something for them. So when I got my special pension money, I used it to build an orphanage for the victims of apartheid, the victims of HIV/AIDS, cancer, and TB.

MJ.com: Despite the fact that the economy of South Africa has grown after apartheid, your orphanage is still without running water. Why do you think that is?

PC: Remember the apartheid structure lasted three hundred years, and there have only been ten years since it ended. We cannot fix everything: giving a house to everybody, giving water to everybody, providing access to hospitals in only these ten years. I don’t think that is fair. Joe Slovo said, “It is going to take five generations to dismantle the total structure of apartheid.”

MJ.com: So from your perspective as a rural South African, are people seeing progress towards economic equality or are they frustrated?

PC: People can say what they want. They can want things to move faster than they are. That’s why we say, “Wishes are not horses. If they were horse we could ride them.” We want to move faster, but things must go according to the structure. People, black and white, are still afraid of one another. That is another process we are going through, and then we might get equal jobs. Whites in South Africa used to be the only bosses. They were the managers and directors, but now you get black directors and black managers. There is still tension in both of us, but we are working on that.

MJ.com: When you bombed the Secunda oil refinery, you made a special effort to ensure no lives were lost.

PC: Precisely, the ANC was not a violent organization. It was forced to take arms to fight apartheid. My instructions were that no one must die. The policy of the ANC was that no innocent people should die. We were destroying the economy, the power of apartheid.

MJ.com: What do you hope people in South Africa will take from this the movie?

PC: To take the message of forgiveness, learning to help one another, and helping those who are poor. Learning to forgive and forget. Because if you are only willing to forgive but not willing to forget, you still have a grudge in your heart. So if you forgive and forget, you are taking the grudge from your heart and putting it down so that you can focus on a new life. This is what we are doing in South Africa. This is what I am doing. I have forgotten about Nic Vos. Now, I can continue with my orphanage. I can carry on with life. Life is continuing with me, but if I were only thinking about what happened to me and what I went through, really it would kill me.