Uncovering the Truth

Freedom Rising By James North Macmillan Publishing Co.; 352 pp.; $19.95

"WHAT ARE they so worked up about? I mean it's not as if Harvard's divesting from companies in South Africa is going to do anything." An acquaintance of mine made these remarks after the recent spate of campus protests about university investments in firms doing business in South Africa. His tone was less hostile than incredulous; why are so many students willing to strike for divestment while remaining silent or inactive during, say, the recent Presidential election?

Taken by itself, the fervor of the divestment and disinvestment movements is somewhat incredible; the sight of college students agitating over stock policy might seem some sort of yuppie nightmare. The im- sort of yuppie nightmare. The impassioned tenor of these disputes makes sense only in the context of the broader anti-apartheid movement--which makes sense only in the context of apartheid.

So just what is apartheid? American writer James North (a.k.a. Daniel A. Swanson '74) has an answer, especially for those who think they already know Real apartheid, Swanson reminds us, is not the almost comical institution of separate shop doorways for Black and white customers, but Black unemployment rates that virtually preclude a Black consumer class altogether. Not the lack of swimming pools in the Black ghetto of Soweto, but a "homelands" policy that ensures a mass migratory labor system ripe for exploitation. Real apartheid is the Black miner who works hundreds of miles from his family, the "Coloured" woman who is forcibly evicted from neighborhood by the so-called Department of Community Development, the white farmer who is harassed by white vigilantes for sharing his earnings with his Black farmhands.

Swanson drives this point home in example after vivid example, and his careful depiction of the human effects of apartheid is the real contribution of his recently released book, Freedom Rising. Amid the campus and national debate about the ethics of divestment vs. engagement vs. apathy, Swanson provides a reminder of just what the fuss is all about.

Freedom Rising is the journalistic culmination of four years of reporting within southern Africa. The 1974 graduate arrived in South Africa. The 1974 graduate arrived in South Africa intending to stay several months, but quickly became professionally and emotionally entangled with the region. During his four years there, Swanson hitchhiked through the South African countryside, lived in the impoverished bantustans, and ate at the tables of white Afrikaners. Before leaving, he would witness the death and imprisonment of many friends and would himself become actively involved in the resistance movement. What results is a compelling portrait of daily life under apartheid. And while Swanson is more than capable of painting with a broad geopolitical brush, it is his painstaking illustration of the South African people themselves that proves most powerful.

MOST OF these portraits are of the regime's opponents, a diverse and determined constituency who can legitimately bear the mantle of "freedom fighters." One such anti-apartheid activist is Black photojournalist Peter Magubane, whose work includes photographs of police brutality during Black ghetto uprisings.

Magubane was arrested on political charges and spent a total of 586 days in solitary confinement. He was subsequently "banned," a restriction forbidding him to meet with more than one other person at a time, effectively forcing him out of journalism. Yet while he remains bitter toward the white ruling elite. Magubane has no plans of leaving; "Even when I was banned, I was still able to eat, to feed my children. South Africa is my country. Only if I could not support myself here would I consider leaving."

Another passage describes Margaret Mpanza, a 46-year-old Black woman who has worked as a maid since the age of 16. Mpanza lives with her white employers, 20 miles from the bantustan where her disabled husband and two grandchildren live. She is lucky to make it home twice a month.

Through dozens of such interviews, Swanson evokes tensions apartheid produces both within and among South Africans, regardless of race. Irrational prejudices form the fabric of daily life, creating a host of often debilitating psychological and social distortions. According to one Afrikaner, one of the first lessons white South Africans receive in their military service is to expect Blacks guerillas to return their fire; many whites would otherwise have considered Blacks incapable of such a feat.

Contradictory attitudes toward race have played a particularly divisive role within the South African churches. Although Afrikaner nationalists place their brand of fundamentalist Protestantism at the heart of the civil theology of apartheid, increasing numbers of churchmen have been hard pressed to come to terms with the very un-Christian effects of that policy. Consequently, Black and white clergymen alike have often been outspoken opponents of apartheid. One white anti-apartheid activist notes, "We have a very sound saying here in South Africa. We say a Christian here is either going to jail, or going to hell."

Perhaps more significantly, Swanson's reporting belies many of the South African government's claims about alleged reforms. He shows, for example, how government intimidation thwarts the growth of purportedly legal trade unions and the exercise of alleged journalistic freedoms.

FROM THE BOOK'S many anecdotes--some rouching, other terrifying--Swanson constructs a fairly grim mosaic of South African reality. He provides ample illustration of the humiliating laws of separation, or "petty apartheid," but is concerned foremost with stressing the broader significance of apartheid; how the minority white regime has used a theory of racial separation to maintain class domination, transforming the color line into a poverty line as well. And despite superficial reforms aimed at placating international opinion, the captains of apartheid are standing firm behind these policies.

In the face of this intransigence, regime opponents are increasingly abandoning peaceful attempts at change. Not only is the resistance movement turning to increasingly strident tactics, but white progressives say Black bitterness threatens interracial cooperation against apartheid. At the same time, Prime Minister Botha's efforts at even token reforms have unleashed a substantial backlash among white South Africans, with a substantial portion of the Afrikaner electorate backing a splinter far right party formed in 1982.

By exposing both the structural significance of apartheid and the increasing polarization of South African politics, Swanson is able to challenge many of the assumptions of current U.S. policy toward that country. The economic significance of apartheid, white resistance to substantive reform and rising nonwhite militancy do not bode well for the prospects of a gradual erosion of apartheid. As a result, U.S. policies designed to nudge South Africa toward democratic rule through gentle persuasion are destined to fail, no matter how earnestly pursued.

Weighing U.S. links to South Africa, Swanson instead concludes that the withdrawal of Western capital provides the best means of undermining apartheid. He argues convincingly that time has disproved arguments that foreign investment can play a positive role in South Africa; far from improving the position of South African Blacks, it has provided the white regime with much-needed technology and a much-craved international respectability.