Andrew Feinsteins book explores the ugly world of the global arms trade but also has a common theme of love and compassion thread through. Picture: Michael Walker

As one of the world’s great anti-corruption activists, Andrew Feinstein, sees the film of his book, Shadow World, screen in Joburg this weekend, Janet Smith asks him what's come after the end of his political life with the ANC.

Janet Smith: How did you and Belgian director Johan Grimonprez find each other? He’s an unusual, but inspired choice, because he’s a film-maker but also a mind-altering multimedia artist. I’m thinking of his own descriptions of his work as “an attempt to make sense of the wreckage wrought by history” and “extreme poetry”.

AF: It was such a difficult process working on the book, and I started thinking it would be very useful for campaigning if a film could be made. I was actually in talks with a UK production company which wanted to make a bit of a drama series, but I wasn’t quite comfortable about that. I was thinking of a new kind of audience.

I was then in New York for something, and I met the film-maker Jocelyn Barnes, who is Danny Glover’s partner. They run a film production company, and when I met Jos, I felt she was a kindred spirit, so we started the process of meeting with directors immediately. We tried to find one in the States. Basically both my books, After the Party and Shadow World were sent to them, and pretty much all of the directors wanted to do a very conventional documentary, which would have been my story, investigating me in Parliament, and I really didn’t like that idea at all. The primary reason is that I hate hearing my own voice and seeing myself on screen didn’t excite me.

Since my experience in Parliament, it has been quite a battle. I was seriously inconvenienced. I had to change careers. So it really has been tough convincing people that this is not about me, but the issues, and so a documentary that focused on me felt like the worst way to go about it.

When I met Johan, to say that his copy of Shadow World wasn’t in good shape would be an understatement. It was full of Post-it notes and his own writing and other things stuck on. There was just a connection between us, and I found him intellectually astonishing, so enquiring. He never takes the obvious approach.

JS: Although you’ve got some astounding, fine minds in the film, it feels like you must have had even more on your slate, considering the breadth of the book.

AF: We did. We reached out to about 50 people, but we realised that if we included everybody, the film would have been about 18 hours long. There was so much we wanted to do.

For example, there’s a whole interview with Noam Chomsky, who takes about 45 minutes to answer a question, so even with Johan’s editing genius, we struggled to include all of that. In particular, he talks about the first 9/11 in Chile (on the same day in 1973 when president Salvador Allende was overthrown by Augusto Pinochet and the presidential palace bombarded on Pinochet’s orders). There was a brilliant Palestinian poet who didn’t make it into the final count.

We thought, let’s deal with what we’ve got and use everything else in a different way, so the Shadow World website will become a vehicle for that.

JS: Are you a changed man since the events in South Africa, when you were effectively isolated by some within your own party, the ANC, because of your inquiries into the arms deal? You were a young activist MP, you’d worked for Nelson Mandela.

AF: I think I’ve become more politically engaged. I feel more politically relevant in the work that I do than in my brief formal political career, but you never know how you're going to react when something like that happens to you. In my case, I felt very sad, and it was very inconvenient, but it opened up an exploration into this insane world.

My decision to leave South Africa was really temporary. My wife is Bangladeshi and London is home for her. She was also not that fond of the whole situation that was playing out for us at the time, here in South Africa. It was very stressful, and no one would give me a job here. So I thought we’d spend a couple of years in the UK, but once I’d written After the Party and started exploring the global trade, I started becoming really interested in those who do the corrupting.

And when After the Party came out internationally, people started approaching me from all over the place with their stories… whistle-blowers, investigative journalists, property people, people in the military, people in campaigning positions. There was such an array of people who were coming to me with information, so I almost felt an obligation and strong desire to start doing that kind of work because of all of them.

So we set up Corruption Watch UK, which is investigative in nature, but it’s just four of us (Feinstein’s closest collaborator, South African historian and researcher Paul Holden, is among them), so it’s very tiny, day to day, but the process of the film opened up so many new vistas.

JS: There’s a vitally unusual quality to Shadow World, the film, in that, even as you bring forward such tough and frightening people and subjects around the global arms trade, there’s a theme almost of love and compassion that threads through it.

AF: There is, in fact. I spend quite a lot of time now thinking about issues of war and peace, and love, especially love, so much more. This whole experience of meeting all of these campaigners and whistle-blowers and investigators has given me more breadth than I’ve ever had. To do these interviews was a fascinating learning experience.

I’m thinking particularly of Chris Hedges, the former war correspondent for the New York Times. He came to us about three hours late. He’d been speaking somewhere and had been ambushed by some right-wing person on the platform with him, so we were feeding him and giving him coffee and just calming him down. He was very emotional.

He has such a brilliant mind, such a humanity... we had two hours' film just on Hedges. Amazing that Iraq imprisoned him while he was there, working, and he goes back to New York when the US publicly opposes Saddam, and he is called a “traitor” and a Saddam lover for standing up against the war on terror, and he loses his job.

He talks about how incredibly difficult it is to establish relationships in this crazy world, and how he managed to get through it. He saw children die, it was very hard. Others like him killed themselves, but there he was, talking in this peaceful way about fundamental connections between two human beings.

Every single person who worked on this has remained completely absorbed by it. We’re constantly in touch, people want to know how they can remain involved in it.

It cost them all money, as it did me. Some people worked for free at times, but we were all personally enriched by it.

This kind of work doesn’t make you popular. There’s not a big community of people doing this work, so to now be part of that small community, to see what is possible, to see transformation, just seems like such a privilege.

The tragedy for me in terms of South Africa is not the state of the ANC, the awfulness of Zuma, the slippery slate Mbeki threw us down. The tragedy is how quickly we adopted the tawdry global political norm, not because we are worse, but because we had an opportunity to do it differently.

So when people say you’re just a naive idealist, I always say thank you.

How we can take action together

Feinstein's Corruption Watch UK, the World Peace Foundation and Tactical Tech have teamed up to develop Indefensible: 7 Myths About the Global Arms Trade, a book and website due for release later this year. They have identified five essential levers of change to address systemic corruption in the international market for weapons of war.

* EXPOSE THE MYTHS: GENERATE INFORMED PUBLIC DEBATE

How? See the movie. Encourage others to see the film.

Read The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.

* PROMOTE A SUSTAINABLE APPROACH TO SECURITY

Military spending is obscured from citizens, and politicians that question spending are accused of jeopardising national security. Letâ??s ask: What is the most effective use of public funds to increase sustainable human security?

* DEMAND TRANSPARENCY

Question how your government and private corporations engage in security sector assistance and arms deals with foreign countries. Expose the role of arms-dealing middlemen, what they are paid and for what work.

* DEMAND ACCOUNTABILITY

Advocate for stepped-up enforcement of existing laws. Support whistle-blowers.

Raise public awareness around the use of offsets, which are shrouded in secrecy and lead to corruption.

* ACT STRATEGICALLY, AND ACT IN SOLIDARITY

We must be strategic at the local level, specific about changes that can take place, and simultaneously act in solidarity to support a worldwide movement. - www.shadowworld.com

* Andrew Feinstein is one of the world’s leading experts on corruption and the global arms trade. A frequent commentator on BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and for The Guardian, his writing has been published by The New York Times, Der Spiegel, the Huffington Post, and many others. As the author of the book on which the film is based, he guided the production team on the contemporary issues and history addressed in the film. Feinstein is the founding director of Corruption Watch UK and a former ANC MP.

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