This month’s books include two views of apartheid — a Robben Island victim’s first-hand experiences, and the World Council of Churches’ ideas on isolating it plus two studies of Gandhian non-violence in action.
Editor: Anuradha Vittachi
Island in Chains: Ten years on Robben Island by Prisoner 885/63
by Indres Naidoo
Penguin (pbk) UK: £1.95/Aus: $4.95/ Canada: $3.95
by Baldwin Sjollema
WCC (pbk) US: $6.95/UK: £3.75
Picture Indres Naidoo, a vegetarian from infancy, sitting in a cell staring at his meal — a hairy pig’s ear ‘full of dirt and bristles’. The inhuman conditions on Robben Island prison have left their mark on Naidoo — he signs his work simply as Prisoner 885/63.
But although he was arrested as a member of the African National Congress following his part in an attempt to sabotage a military signal box in 1963, Island in Chains is not an overtly political, or even a particularly passionate, work.
There is no marshalling of political argument, no outcry over social injustice, no attempt to delve into the jungle of political growth which strangles freedom and free speech in South Africa.
Instead, Naidoo gives a straightforward and largely unemotional series of descriptions of aspects of prison life, the notorious island thus becoming a microcosm of South Africa. The power of the book lies in the nightmarish quality of many of these scenes.
The reader won’t forget the irony of the prisoners’ chosen form of protest against impossible workloads on a meagre diet — a hunger strike. Or the horror of the scuffle over food in which one prisoner loses an eye; and how, since he is refused treatment until the next day, he spends the night holding the eyeball in a cup.
It is not difficult to find fault with this book — it is too episodic, sometimes sketchy and shallow, and too fragmented to develop any sort of literary flow. Yet these features give Island in Chains a quality of authenticity and immediacy that would never be achieved by literary sophistication.
But Island in Chains is not just a catalogue of atrocities. It is a moving and uplifting record of the courage and resourcefulness of the prisoners. They learn to share their few possessions, to organise games and entertainments, to keep each others’ spirits high.
They steal tiny amounts of cement and over many months eventually build up a flat games area on part of the island — a ‘tennis court’. They make a tennis net from old fishing nets washed up on the shore. And naturally, ‘whenever visitors came to the island, the authorities would be sure to show them the fine tennis court which they had provided for the prisoners’.
A large part of Isolative Apartheid shows how the Western world does not isolate apartheid, but aids and abets it. It is a thorough and detailed study; throughout, figures are quoted and names are named. Under Sjollema’ s spotlight comes a long list of areas where people collaborate with apartheid, including the dealings of transnational companies, traders who sell oil, arms and uranium to South Africa, and banks that provide her with loans.
The rest of Isolating Apartheid documents the actions and the policies of the World Council of Churches as they take their stand against apartheid. Sjollema’s guidelines include suggestions for clarifying the moral issues — ‘listen to the racially oppressed, support their organizations, encourage research programmes’ — as well as listing urgent practical steps which need to be taken, such as disinvesting with banks that make loans to South Africa, enacting legislation to implement the UN’ s mandatory arms embargo (UN Security Council Resolution No. 418, 1977), and urging governments to bring about an oil boycott.
Gandhi in action
Gandhi — a memoir
by William L. Shirer
Abacus (pbk) UK: £1.75/Aus: $5.95
A Technique for Loving: Non-violence in Indian and Christian traditions
by Peter D. Bishop
SCM Press (pbk) £5.50
William Shirer’s memoir of Gandhi draws on his experiences as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune in India in the 1 930s. He offers us a taste of what it was like to be close to the centre of the dramatic Civil Disobedience campaign for Independence. Mahatma Gandhi’s personality dominates the descriptions: his immense and paradoxical humility; his parleying at the highest levels of government while dressed in the rags of the poorest outcast; his power to stir emotions and inspire a mass movement to follow him; his despair at the outbreaks of violence he was unable to prevent.
The eye-witness accounts cover eight months of the campaign, from February to October 1981, culminating in the first roundtable talks in London.
For all its descriptive strength, is it far from the complete story, and more than once the author confesses himself baffled by the philosophy behind the facts.
Peter Bishop, by contrast, has produced a careful and systematic study of what non-violence is in A Technique for Loving. He takes us through the religious and philosophic bases of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, looking at Christian and Indian religious texts and at the rejections of violence that these have inspired in practice in South Africa, India and the US. His central message is that non-violence can work.
The term ‘nonviolence’ can seem, misleadingly, negative. Gandhi’s preferred term was satyagraha — ‘truth force’ — carrying with it connotations of a positive power, of a struggle to establish a just society by actions that are an inspiration to the activists and a rebuke to the violence of the oppressor. By transferring the struggle to the moral level, both Gandhi and King believed that it was possible to meet and overcome the oppressor’s overwhelming armed superiority, leaving them with no option but the face-saving concessions for which the satyagraha campaign had prepared.
It is ironic that at a time when the peace movement internationally emphasises the advantages of decentralised campaigns in which all activists — men, women and children — are encouraged to take part and make decisions by consensus, these two books (both written by men) should concentrate entirely on the words and actions of a few charismatic (male) leaders. The books have value as historical and philosophic surveys but are not in touch with how non-violence is being used in the world today.