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Hero of 'Catch a Fire' tells church about apartheid era


"Catch a Fire" is based on the life of Patrick Chamusso and his struggle
to end apartheid in his home country of South Africa.
Photo illustration courtesy of Focus Features.













By Denise Johnson Stovall*

Oct. 25, 2006 | DALLAS (UMNS)

"I have learned to remember the words of my friend, Nelson Mandela, when he said, 'We can never be free unless we learn to forgive.'"

Those are the words of Patrick Chamusso, a former prisoner on South Africa's Robben Island with Mandela. He spoke and worshipped at Munger Place United Methodist Church while visiting Dallas as part of a promotional tour for the movie "Catch a Fire," which debuts in U.S. theaters Oct. 27. The movie tells the story of his life and his struggle as a freedom fighter in apartheid-era South Africa.


Deanna Stovall (left), Patrick Chamusso and Denise Stovall stand behind a poster promoting the movie,
"Catch a Fire." A UMNS Web-only photo by Judy Howard.

"Nelson Mandela told us to offer forgiveness," said Chamusso, a member of White River Methodist Church north of Johannesburg, South Africa. "He even forgave the person who held him prisoner all those years at Robben Island."

The Rev. L. Charles Stovall, pastor of Munger Place Church, invited Chamusso and the movie's cast and crew to the church after learning they would be promoting the film in Dallas. Stovall represented the United Methodist Church on the Ecumenical Monitoring Team for South African's first multiracial election, an election that made Mandela South Africa's first black president.

Stunned into action

In the film, Chamusso is portrayed by Derek Luke, who starred in "Antwone Fisher," "Friday Night Lights" and "Glory Road."

The movie depicts Chamusso's transformation from an oil refinery worker to a freedom fighter. He was a foreman at the centrally located Secunda oil refinery, which was a symbol of South Africa's self-sufficiency at a time when the world was instituting economic sanctions and protesting the country's apartheid system. It was also a symbol of the wealth and riches of South Africa, earned in part from the exploitation of cheap black labor.

In his spare time, Chamusso coached a local boys' soccer team. He was by no means a political man and would not have dreamed of becoming a member of Nelson Mandela's freedom party, the African National Congress.

That changed when Chamusso was arrested upon suspicion of sabotage of Secunda in 1980. He was beaten, tortured and mentally abused. When his wife, Precious - played by South African television actress Bonnie Henna - was beaten and arrested, Chamusso was stunned into action. He left his family and joined the African National Congress in Mozambique, where he met Joe Slovo, the head of the congress' military wing and later a cabinet member in Mandela's first post-apartheid government.

In 1981, Chamusso attacked the Secunda refinery in a mission designed by Slovo. After the bombing, he was captured and arrested, held for nine months without trial and brutally tortured.

"I became angry to my God," Chamusso said, as he recalled his detention. "I said, 'Where are you?' I am going to face the judge, and I know I'm going to die.' But I didn't. I was supposed to have the death sentence for what I did, but the judge gave me 24 years. … It was God."

Chamusso was imprisoned on Robben Island, where fellow Methodist layman Mandela was incarcerated. Chamusso said the only way he was able to survive prison was by praying. He served 10 years, received amnesty and was released in 1991.

'We must forgive'

During an Oct. 15 fellowship luncheon at Munger Place, Chamusso told the congregation he was glad the film was done while he was still alive.

"At first, I thought it wasn't a good story because I didn't value myself as a human being," Chamusso said. "The reason was the structure of apartheid in South Africa. It was directed at a black man. I couldn't open a bank account in South Africa because I must take a white man with me. I couldn't buy a car without a white man. If there was a road block, they would pull me out of the car, search me and beat me in front of my children. But we said, 'We forgive you people.' Through forgiveness, you let go of the anger and put it down. You forget it!"

Chamusso said he gets upset when people compare what he did in South Africa to current acts of terrorism.

"I think anyone who compares this to terrorism doesn't understand," he said. "There is not a comparison. We were trying to remove apartheid. Our policy was, 'No one must die.' We wanted to destroy apartheid, not kill.

"The people in South Africa are going to be surprised when they see this movie," he said. "… I was at the men's breakfast at the Methodist Church; there were whites there who wanted to know what was happening during apartheid. When people tell them about the people who have disappeared and were tortured, some say, 'Oh, this is exaggerated.' But that's why we want to tell them because they don't know the truth.

"We must tell the truth, but we must also forgive," he said.

Today Chamusso, his wife, Conney and their three children live in White River, a valley region north of Johannesburg. They have at least 80 orphans whom they have adopted and care for through their ministry called "Two Sisters."

"I wake up every morning and say, 'Lord, thank you. For my life," he said. "Thank you Lord for me still being alive.' "

Also attending the Munger Place United Methodist Church service was "Catch a Fire" screenwriter Shawn Slovo, daughter of the late Joe Slovo. "I thought it was a good time to tell the story because of the miracle of South Africa," she said, explaining why she wrote the film.

The movie "about reconciliation is timely because it has been a period of time that it seems like all hell has broken loose," Stovall said. "If you just browse the paper, you can see that violence has escalated. It all comes down to broken relationships. So as we make peace with God, it is possible for us to have peace."

*Stovall is a freelance writer in Dallas. The Rev. Charles L. Stovall is her husband.

News media contact: Linda Green or Tim Tanton, (615) 742-5470 or

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