Book Reviews

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BIAS AND THE SOCIAL ORDER[image, unknown] Book reviews

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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

Imprisoning apartheid

Island in Chains: Ten years on Robben Island by Prisoner 885/63
by Indres Naidoo

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Penguin (pbk) UK: £1.95/Aus: $4.95/ Canada: $3.95
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Isolating Apartheid

by Baldwin Sjollema

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WCC (pbk) US: $6.95/UK: £3.75
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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.

Gamini Peiris

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Gandhi in action

Gandhi — a memoir
by William L. Shirer

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Abacus (pbk) UK: £1.75/Aus: $5.95
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A Technique for Loving: Non-violence in Indian and Christian traditions
by Peter D. Bishop

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SCM Press (pbk) £5.50
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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.

Paul Seed


To kill a mocking bird
...being the book that showed how stereotypes can kill

PARENTS AND TEACHERS who normally scrutinise books anxiously for traces of sexism or racism dissolve into rapturous relief when their children bring home To Kill a Mockingbird.

The novel’s values appear to chime faultlessly with those of the ‘progressive’ middle-classes: men should be non-macho; everyone should be non-violent; unpatronising to the Third World; tolerant and understanding towards the socially disadvantaged, especially black people, but also old people, children, the handicapped, the poor, the isolated, even drug addicts — the book provides a whole semester’s course in the liberal agenda rolled into one.

And it’s written so attractively — shrewd, generous, full of fun — that the children are likely to swallow it whole; the moral pills slip down almost unnoticed.

Set in a small Alabaman town in the 1940s, the novel’s strength lies in demonstrating how bigotry works through stereotyping. Slap a label on that’s a general condemnation and then you needn’t look at the unique human being behind it. The title of the book pinpoints this theme: ‘To kill a mockingbird,’ says one of the characters, ‘is a sin (because mockingbirds) don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.’ But a mockingbird is a bird, birds eat up crops, therefore mockingbirds are fair game. When the stereotype wins, justice loses — and the mockingbird, a victim, not a vandal, is dead.

That society is full of human mockingbirds, stereotyped and then unjustly punished, is the theme of the book. One ‘mockingbird’ is literally killed. The alternative is to find the individual behind the label. Before judging anybody, says the novel, you should ‘climb into his skin and walk around in it’ so that you see the world from his viewpoint.

Tolerance, therefore, is not a passive virtue. It involves a positive act of identification, always requiring sensitivity, and sometimes great courage. The children through whose eyes the action is seen demonstrate this repeatedly. Once, for example, they learn to overcome their horror of a dying neighbour (an ancient, dribbling, convulsing morphine addict). They eventually stop seeing her from the outside and came to admire her for her internal qualities, but it’s a tough lesson.

And if tolerance is an active virtue, the novel goes on to suggest, then punishment can be an active vice if it is motivated by negative emotions like ignorance or fear. Inappropriate punishment — like the racists’ injustices to the black community — create more problems than they pretend to solve.

What worries me about the novel — and it’s an unease rather than a full-blown criticism — is that it tends to have it both ways. The hero, Atticus Finch (a wonderful man, designed to bring out the Oedipus complex in us all) is a prophet of nonviolence. The only time he picks up a gun (very reluctantly) is to shoot a rabid dog — and then it turns out he’s the best shot in town, none other than One-Shot Finch.

Plainly, the incident is meant to impress upon the reader that Finch chooses nonviolence through strength, not weakness. But a much more interesting and genuine dilemma would have been posed had an antigun Finch been faced with a mad dog when he didn’t know one end of a gun from another.

Finch’s chief dislike, though, is racism — well, of a sort: ‘There’s nothing more sickening to me,’ he says, ‘than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance.’ Is he really talking about racial equality? Sounds to me more like noblesse oblige.

In the climactic courtroom scene. Finch is defence lawyer to a young black man unjustly accused of assaulting a white girl. The true assailant turns out to be her father. The defendant is the most chivalrous, submissive, clean-living young black that ever lived, and the girl’s father a thoroughly nasty piece of work. Perhaps, twenty-odd years ago when Harper Lee wrote the book, she couldn’t risk moral ambiguities. But it seems a pity that she replaces one set of stereotypes with another. Can’t a black man be innocent of assault without having to be perfect on all counts — including perfect servility?

However lofty the moral tone of the novel, it can’t quite be forgotten that it comes from the mouth of a privileged, white, charming, best-shot-in-town when-the-chips-are-down male. Gregory Peck (who played Atticus Finch in the movie version) was born for the part.

And Finch’s view (Harper Lee’s view?) of positive behaviour seems limited to the individual. Collective reactions in the book always seem to be negative — backlashes — whether from blacks or rednecks. Raising an anti-racist lobby, for example, to challenge the town’s collective racism isn’t an idea that occurs to Finch. Gandhian though his philosophy often seems to be, Finch forgets that Gandhi operated not just through personal saintliness but through a gift for publicity.

Anuradha Vittachi

To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee (1960)

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Pan (pbk) £1.50
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New Internationalist issue 115 magazine cover This article is from the September 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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