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
Inside the Inner City
by Paul Harrison
Pelican (pbk) UK: £3.95/Aus: $10.95! Can: $7.95
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 is Senior Research Officer at the Home Office Research and Planning Unit, London, UK.
Church v. State
War and Conscience in South Africa
CIIR and Pax Christi (pbk) £2.95
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.