Rhodesia

I went to the NFT to see the screening of Cold Case Hammarskjöld (2019). About 100 people were in the audience.

A “discussion” was advertised but in the event not all the potential panel members could attend. Instead we had an introduction and later Q&A with David Wardrop of the Westminster United Nations Association. His opening comments drew attention to the UN vote 1 month ago on the Ukraine invasion, in which a significant number of member states abstained. Wardrop said that the West needed to understand the extent of the distrust and detachment felt towards its moralistic poses, and how this is based in the legacy of misadventures and exploitation soon after independence. Two events in particular, related to the Congo: the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, and the death in an air crash of US Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, the latter also long suspected of being an assassination.

Here’s the hand-out:

My reactions:

  1. Brugger follows what is now the conventional model of documentary-making, in which the director/narrator puts as much of the mechanics on display and adds a sceptical self-commentary to defuse any criticisms of the ethics and justification of various inferences being made or suggested. Since we end up switching off the camera when necessary anyway, and plenty of “impromptu” moments are clearly prepared, it all seems a bit tiresome and unnecessary. The big statement at the start, that he had discovered either a huge crime or a ridiculous conspiracy theory, posed a false antithesis as there were really 2 different stories mixed in here, and an older style of director would have simply cut the dubious half, just as this one ended up editing or slurring over many of the other dead ends encountered. The entire strand about the alcoholic Belgian mercenary who supposedly shot down the plane (but his relatives say he couldn’t fly) could be cut since at the end we get an ID on a different Belgian mercenary as the pilot.
  2. The business of having him pose as a White Man In A White Suit dictating his ideas to 2 different African stenographers did not add or detract from the impact of anything, though it did make me wonder if there was some yearning to be Francis Ford Coppola, perhaps having another attempt at Heart Of Darkness but sticking to the original book.
  3. One lacuna in all the discussion of Hammarskjöld’s possible assassination is how well the perpetrators benefited from his replacement. JFK conspiracists have a lot to say about why LBJ and later Nixon were preferred for the top job. Did the CIA/MI6 also contrive U Thant to become Secretary General, and in what ways did Thant’s African policy aid the West better? This film was rather vague about what Hammarskjöld was actually achieving in his policy on the Congo/Katanga situation, and as one audience member asked later: why didn’t the West simply let him fail politically and be seen as discredited?
  4. The film is good at exploring the area around the airfield in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) that the UN plane crashed on approach to, although the farcical performance of Brugger attempting to dig for the wreckage and being halted by officials doesn’t look so good if you wonder why he didn’t make proper inquiries about permission with the relevant authorities first. As far as we can see there was no attempt to see if current Zambia authorities have any useful records of the incident that haven’t already been reviewed. It was good that he spoke to some local witnesses however, and noted that nobody asked them previously.
  5. We lose track of the main story once we move to South Africa and start unravelling the world of “Dr” Keith Maxwell and the SAIMR organisation. As this saga expanded, and we seemed to go for ever longer stretches without any mention of this film’s main subject, I started making my own theory that Maxwell was simply a fantasist and/or sociopath who liked to make up self-aggrandising stories and roles for himself in recent history, and type it up as the spurious internal memos of a secret society that was really operating at the level of Jack London/G.K.Chesterton fanfic. The later encounters with tough-looking guys who had been involved with SAIMR only got as far as proving that it had functioned as some sort of Brotherhood Of Tough White Guys, who maybe talked big talk about fighting to save apartheid but stayed at home when it fell anyway. Maybe it was meant to be a pyramid scheme or racket, claiming fees off the sad sacks who actually turned up for the (entirely classroom based) “paramilitary training”. The former Green Beret who provided the tuition sounds like he regarded it as a bogus assignment. The Military Intelligence guy made a fair point that secret agencies do not put all their details in operational documents. Perhaps it would have been helpful if Brugger challenged his main witness to the reality of SAIMR to actually name some of the coups it was supposed to have been involved with across Africa – I don’t think there were too many of them after 1980, contrary to Western assumptions about African “political instability” (no worse than that of Western, Central and South-Eastern Europe 1919-1939).

In the talk afterwards David Wardrop politely distanced himself from most of the material in the film, saying he regarded Maxwell as probably a fantasist and simply irrelevant to the real story about Hammarskjöld, which had in any case moved on since 2019. He related the various inquiries that had been made into the crash and the progress of the current investigation. He noted that Britain and the US continue to hold back their documents and records relating to the incident, and the word from the FCO insiders is that there are matters of State that mean HMG won’t be being honest about this subject any time soon. The latest UN inquiry is expected to give some sort of conclusion around September this year.

Mentioned briefly in all this is that the USSR did benefit in “soft power” from Western mischief-making, and a generation of African leaders were encouraged to study at the People’s Friendship University. I remember seeing a copy of a history magazine from the 70s that included an article about the Congo; one of the illustrations was a cartoon from the Russian satirical magazine Krokodil, which showed a black pawn armed with a machine gun and marked “Katanga”, saluting the big jewelled white hand moving it on the map. I can’t find a copy of that image on-line, which is just as well.

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