Mark Israel. South African Political Exile in the United Kingdom. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. x + 281 pp. $79.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-312-22025-9.
Reviewed by Barry Feinberg (freelance writer and producer)
Published on H-SAfrica (November, 2005)
Fourth Pillar of the Struggle
There has been no lack of literature documenting and probing the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Indeed, where shortfalls did exist in areas and issues that commercial publishers may have decided lacked academic or literary merit, they were made good by the partisan efforts of the liberation movements and their supporters. Much of that publicizing and expository work was done by South African exiles in London, which the author describes as "a major financial, diplomatic and intellectual centre for the African National Congress and its anti-apartheid allies" (p. 5), as well as the place "to seek support from foreign governments, link up with other liberation movements, and establish a centre for communications" (p.169). But the special circumstances and processes underpinning the activism of exiles which, for so many years, had been critical in raising awareness internationally about apartheid and the resistance to it, remained opaque, until now, with the notable exception of Hilda Bernstein's The Rift, a collection of interviews with South African exiles which according to Mark Israel provided "a broad if generally uncritical account of individual experience" (p. 159).
This book, focusing on the United Kingdom experience and produced principally for university readers, sets out to reveal and explore the South African exile phenomena for the first time, and in the process makes a major contribution to our understanding of an important component of the struggle against apartheid: "British people," the author suggests, "probably know more about South Africa than any other part of the continent.Yet, little is known of those South Africans who sustained the anti-apartheid struggle throughout those years in exile" (p. 235).
Since the defeat of apartheid there has been steadily diminishing interest in and recognition of the importance of the liberation struggle, which has been of increasing concern to all involved with national reconstruction. While politically motivated amnesia constraining especially the privileged generations who lived under apartheid had been expected, a more serious problem has developed with the post-apartheid youth who, while welcoming democracy and the increased opportunities it provides are, for the most part, frighteningly ignorant of recent national history. This in a context where knowledge and understanding of the social and individual traumas wrought by colonialism and apartheid is indispensable to the building of an equitable and just South Africa.
Born and raised in London as the son of two well-known South African exiles and currently lecturing and writing on issues of migration and exile, criminology and racism, Mark Israel has been strategically well placed to investigate and analyze the lives of the older generation of exiled South Africans who left the country during the first twenty years of the apartheid regime. A minority of those escapees from repression, who arrived in the United Kingdom prior to the South African Act of 1961, were entitled to claim dual citizenship and, in later years, those who came at the height of the South African regime's intensifying onslaught on activists, were granted asylum largely as a result of a politically astute and energetic anti-apartheid lobby.
Through interviews with a wide range of exiles and their children the author uncovers the daily problems of, on the one hand, establishing life in the United Kingdom: "people who came out of South Africa at different times felt obviously very alien in this country and depended on each other for some of them it was a wall of protection which then became a wall of enclosure" (p. 127). On the other hand, the author also presents the difficulties and dangers encountered in sustaining over decades commitment to the struggle: "The liberation movements needed to be able to assert their legitimacy and mobilize support internationally against the South African government, in the face of symbolic and physical violence deployed against them by Pretoria" (p. 237). It was the hope of many exiles that they would eventually return to rebuild South Africa as a democratic society. Indeed the condition of membership of, for example, the South African Communist Party was an undertaking to return as and when needed.
In addition to the interviews, Israel provides, among other fascinating contextual material, chapters on the history of South African migration to the United Kingdom with useful pie charts indicating the ebb and flow of migration since 1924; an analysis of the role of the apartheid secret service in its efforts to intimidate and even eliminate exiles--sometimes with the tacit support of British intelligence; and, finally, an interesting account of "The End of Exile" detailing, again through the first-hand experience of exiles, the dilemma faced by many of them when the prospect of returning to South Africa grew with the unbanning of the liberation movements.
For this reviewer one of the most interesting chapters, titled "The Opposition in Exile," details the efforts of the exile communities to win the support of the British people for the overthrow of apartheid. Organizations like the British Anti-Apartheid Movement and the International Defence and Aid Fund were outstanding expressions of the solidarity that was achieved. It was, after all, the solidarity organizations worldwide who successfully challenged the complicity of their own governments in helping to keep apartheid alive. The exiles, led by O. R. Tambo, were also instrumental in securing state-backed support from friendly governments in Africa and abroad including the major donors in Scandinavia, the USSR, and the German Democratic Republic. A beginning has been made to document that help. When taken together with this book a clearer perspective will be imparted on Tambo's characterization of international support for South African liberation as the "fourth pillar of the struggle."
. Hilda Bernstein, The Rift: The Exile Experience of South Africans (London: J. Cape, 1994).
. V. Shubin, ANC: A View from Moscow (Bellville: Mayibuye Books, University of the Western Cape, 1999); the three-volume Nordic Africa Institute series "National Liberation in Southern Africa: The Role of the Nordic Countries," published as Tor Sellstrom, Sweden and National Liberation in Southern Africa; Tore Linne Eriksen, ed., Norway and National Liberation in Southern Africa; and Christopher Munthe Mogenstierne, Denmark and National Liberation in Southern Africa: A Flexible Response (Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute's 1999); and H. G. and I. Schleicher, Special Flights: The GDR and Liberation Movements in Southern Africa (Harare: Sapes Books, 1998).
. The three other pillars are the underground struggle, the legal struggle, and the armed struggle.
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Barry Feinberg. Review of Israel, Mark, South African Political Exile in the United Kingdom.
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