New Internationalist

Book Reviews

Issue 131

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GLOBAL REPORTING [image, unknown] Book reviews

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NEW BOOKS

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This month’s books include a case study illuminating inner city poverty, and another uncovering what it means to be a conscientious objector in South Africa.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Urban blues

Inside the Inner City
by Paul Harrison
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Pelican (pbk) UK: £3.95/Aus: $10.95! Can: $7.95
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Paul Harrison seems to specialise in making huge, indigestible subjects palatable. He did it before in his widely-read books on Third World poverty, Inside the Third World and The Third World Tomorrow. Now he has looked at inner city poverty and once more made the complex issues graspable by relating them to particular people in a particular place.

The place in question, in Inside the Inner City, is the London borough of Hackney. Harrison’s account is a combination of official statistics, personal observa tion, anecdote and interview material, showing a deep sympathy for the problems of Hackney’s people without losing sight of the facts that lie behind them.

Hackney, a working-class area ill-served by public transport, is well chosen as a case study to illustrate the factors that charactense inner city areas. First, they are areas of older industry which have declined through changing patterns of world trade, technology or transport, bringing unemployment and a relative decline in wage rates. Local firms have often been bought up by remote companies which have little subsequent concern for the local impact of closing unprofitable plants.

Second, they are areas of particularly bad housing, both of the older variety and of more modern construction. The general physical environment is derelict and dehumanised. Third, inner city areas have high concentrations of manual workers, often unskilled, often now unemployed, too poor to travel to work elsewhere, to afford private housing or to qualify for council housing elsewhere. These people are joined by other disadvantaged groups with little income or capital: immigrants, single parents, the handicapped. The decline of the area pushes out those with the money, skills or qualifications to move: despite some recent influx of middle-class professionals, the social balance becomes heavily weighted towards the disadvantaged. Other familiar problems become visible: overloaded health and social services, low educational attainment, high levels of crime, vandalism, family breakdown and, often, racial conflict. None of these problems, Harrison suggests are found only in the inner city, but it is here that they become denser and more apparent

The problems of the inner city are not new. Neither are the causes, but Harrison argues that it is present day recession and monetarism which have made the situation so acute. Because the problems of such areas exarcerbate each other at the local level, it is too easy to look at remedies in purely local terms. He calls for wide-ranging reform at a national level, with greater concern for matters such as equality in the distribution of work and its rewards and of public services, local accountability of public services, the direction of new industry to declining areas, better provision for industrial retraining and improvements in environment and housing.

Those who know Hackney will find much they recognise in this book. But they may also take issue with the almost totally bleak picture it paints. The author himself admits that the book concentrates on proW lems and does not try to do justice to local

self-help initiatives or other successes. Whatever the case for the provision of national level solutions to these problems, there must surely be a great deal to learn from the positive achievements of the people of Hackney, but we do not learn it from the present volume.

Peter Southgate

Peter Southgate is Senior Research Officer at the Home Office Research and Planning Unit, London, UK.

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Church v. State

War and Conscience in South Africa
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CIIR and Pax Christi (pbk) £2.95
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[image, unknown] Conscientious objection in South Africa is not just a matter of dividing people into pacifists and others. As the authorities use an increasing amount of military power against the nation’s non-black majority, it becomes an issue for all soldiers, white and black: is it in fact a civil war they are being asked to fight?

Armed soldiers and non-combatants alike have noticed that most of the insurgents against whom they fight are not ‘foreign’ enemies but fellow citizens. In War and Conscience in South Africa, the militarisation of the state and the reactions of the churches are carefully recorded and discussed.

In the 1960s, objectors would serve their compulsory period in an army prison and return home to find another set of call-up papers waiting for them. The process could be repeated four or five times, with objectors spending years behind bars. A Jehovah’s Witness who refused to wear military uniform in jail was left to get through the winter in his underclothes.

In 1974 South Africa’s Council of Churches (SACC) issued a statement which said: ‘The theological definition of a "just war" excludes war in defence of a basically unjust and discriminatory society ... it is hypocritical to deplore the violence of terrorists or freedom fighters while we ourselves prepare to defend our society with its primary, institutionalised violence by means of more violence.’

The South African media reacted vehemently. Blustered Die Oggendblad, ‘Refusal to do military service is a criminal offence. Does it become church leaders to encourage youths to do this?’

And Die Hoofstad, in a remarkable ex cathedra statement, proclaimed: ‘Obedience to the authorities is a biblical injunction. Therefore refusal to do military service is not reconcilable with the bible.’ Only the Rand Daily Mail conceded, sympathetically, that ‘It is correct that we should not ask anyone to die for a country unless he is granted the right to live for it too - in the fullest sense of the word.’

The book is a tightly-written review of the situation faced by conscientious objectors in South Africa in the last 20 years. It includes interviews and personal statements that bring to life their history of frustration.

Richard Steele, for example, was imprisoned in 1981 and found the harshness of South African society amplified in the detention centre: ‘It was far more difficult than I had anticipated. If I had known beforehand how difficult it was going to be, I probably would have opted for leaving the country. . . It was a place of systematic humiliation, with the intention to dehumanise, to strip the person of his uniqueness. In a military structure you cannot afford individuality. You must only have a unit - all reacting to orders without questions. The purpose of the prison is to eradicate that part of the person which has resulted in disobedience.’

In 1980 the churches’ conference challenged its member denominations to encourage non-violent civil disobedience. The Methodist church described apartheid as a ‘disease’ and committed itself to smashing race barriers.

The most exciting thing about this book is the evidence that a major confrontation between church and state in South Africa is on its way; the seeds of the conflict are already sprouting.

Gamini Peiris


CLASSICS

Venceremos!
...being the book that immortalised Che Guevara

POSTERS OF Che Guevara seemed to bloom on every other student’s wall in the sixties; the fierce, bereted silhouette soon became as familiar an image as Chaplin’s tramp or Monroe’s pout. Jean-Paul Sartre praised Guevara lavishly as ‘the most complete human being of our age’. And when Guevara died, even antiMarxists who disapproved of his politics expressed their regret at the death of such a man.

What was it about Ernesto Che Guevara that made him so irresistible? (‘Che’, incidentally, means ‘buddy’ - Guevara used to call everyone else ‘Che’ and his speech mannerism became his nickname.) Something of the answer can be found in Venceremos! partly in editor John Gerassi’s long and glowing introduction, and partly in the main body of the book: a plump collection of the articles and speeches written by Guevara in the hectic years between joining the Cuban revolutionaries in 1956 and his dramatic death in 1967.

How he found time to write is a mystery - but packing life to the hilt was one of Guevara’s characteristics. When his fellow medical students were burying themselves in studies for their final exams, Guevara trekked across the provinces of Santa Fé, Cordoba and Mendoza to find out more about how the other half lived - and passed the exams as well. Once he passed 16 major exams in six months while coping with 45 serious asthma attacks.

In a farewell letter to his family, he wrote: ‘My will, which I have perfected with an artist’s care, will now hold up my shaky legs and exhausted lungs. I will do it.’

This extraordinary degree of purposefulness under duress marked Guevara out as a remarkable man. Many men are willing to face bullets: but how many would volunteer for jungle warfare, knowing themselves to be severely allergic to mosquito bites? Fidel Castro was almost alarmed by Guevara’s ‘willingness to instantly volunteer for the most dangerous missions.

But tenacity and contempt for personal danger aren’t enough to turn one into a cult hero - there are dare-devils enough in the world. Guevara’s courage won admiration as one aspect of the sincerity of his commitment to a greater ideal: the liberation of the poor and the oppressed. Not once but twice he gave up comfort and prestige to fight in the jungle in the cause of equality.

He came from a middle-class Argentine family. He could have made his fortune as an urban doctor. Instead he joined Castro’s band ofrevolutionaries and spent two years fighting Batista in Cuba. And when that revolution - against all odds - was victorious, he gave up his position as a minister in Castro’s government to return to guerilla fighting.

No-one quite knows where he went: rumours say he was in Vietnam, in the Congo, Guatemala, Peru - anywhere a battle for liberation was brewing or bubbling. He surfaced finally in the Bolivian jungle where he was caught and shot.

It’s not surprising that idealistic students in the West, embarrassed by their affluence and their easy lives, should hero-worship Guevara. But Venceremos! shows there was far more to him than a passionate idealism. Guevara was a thinker, an intellectual; it was just that he hadn’t stopped at thinking.

His travels across Latin America, for instance, had shown him that the area could be seen not as a collection of separate countries but as a cultural and economic entity. Indeed, the whole of the Third World could be viewed as belonging to one side of a global confrontation. Patriotism, under Guevara, took on a new meaning, losing its restriction at the level of national boundaries: ‘Us’ came to include half the globe.

‘But only half. There was for Guevara, without doubt, a ‘Them’: the imperialist powers, and the United States in particular. The new dualism that was emerging in the latter half of the 20th century - rich world versus poor world, North versus South - had found an eloquent and active champion. ‘I believe,’ he wrote in his farewell letter, ‘in armed struggle as the only solution for people who are fighting for freedom, and I act according to this belief.’

If there is a case for ‘above the battle’ goodwill, Guevara didn’t believe in it. ‘The solidarity of all progressive forces in the world towards the people of Vietnam today,’ he wrote, ‘is similar to the bitter irony of the plebeians coaxing on the fighters in the Roman arena. It is not a matter of wishing success to the victim of aggression but of sharing his fate; one must accompany him to his death or to victory.’

Anuradha Vittachi

Venceremos! The speeches and writings of Che Guevara
ed by John Gerassi (1968)
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Panther Modern Society. Now out of print.
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