Tough voices of past

2012-02-18 10:43

Rivonia’s Children is a story about three white families who were involved in the struggle against apartheid: Hilda and Rusty Bernstein, Ruth First and Joe Slovo, and AnnMarie and Harold Wolpe.

Written by American journalist Glenn Frankel, this was one of few books at the time that looked at the vulnerabilities that faced these families during a time in which white support for anti-apartheid movements was rare. The book, first published in 2000, delves into their private and public lives that were so political it was hard to draw a line between the two.

Frankel worked for The Washington Post for 27 years until 2006, thereafter he taught journalism at Stanford University, before taking over as director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas in 2010.

Via a rather cumbersome Google Video chat, I spoke with him and asked about the timing of this edition to coincide with the ANC’s centenary.
“The first edition is out of print and various museums and archives have requested copies of it. I also find that South Africans are still interested in the story, especially considering that it was written by an American journalist and a lot of that history is lost,” he said.

“I think it’s a good time to also think about what the ANC has accomplished. I know the ANC is in crisis but I’m not worried because for me, the book is about one crucial moment in South African history, when a government moved from a regime to become a police state. My book focuses on that moment and I hope it provides that.”

History has many stories to tell and people’s contribution is highly contested. The place of white families who were part of the struggle in history as it is told today is also disputed. Though Frankel writes about figures we all know, like Joe Slovo, he also includes others whom he wrote about as symbols, representative of the larger movement.

“People of various races, rare people, got together to build a multiracial SA and the anti-apartheid movement that led to the country we see today. I’m not seeking credit for them as icons but to tell the story of how people got together and how challenging that regime was an effort that people from different backgrounds had to make.”

Frankel believes the history of the white struggle has gone unrecorded for a number of reasons, among them the censorship processes of the apartheid regime, as well as the country’s desire to look forward rather than back, and internal struggles that have led to the distortion of history.

Though many high-profile white activists were Jewish in origin, Frankel says they were ambivalent about it.

“Being a bit outside the white regime may have helped. Afrikaners identified Jews with the British descendents?.?.?. Communism (rather than Judaism) became their faith, a common faith that their struggle would succeed.”

The book mainly centres on three women, AnnMarie Wolpe, Ruth First and Hilda Bernstein, and how they dealt with the multiple demands placed on them by their positions in the struggle against apartheid, and the needs of their families and society.

“I love these three women,” says Frankel. “They are the central aspect of the book. They had to deal with competing claims on their lives – mothers, wives, small children, political activists in a period in the world when subjugation of women was a feature.

“Ruth First was always a rebel and always independent. Hilda Bernstein was more inclined to go along and help out; she became the closest to me as author?.?.?. She chose to follow things on her own terms instead of the path laid down by her husband and the movement.

“AnnMarie was apolitical though against apartheid but she was a good housewife. She eventually blossomed, got her doctorate and became known as a professional and strong thinker.

“So to see them emerge as role models helps us to understand how the movement needed to change and they led the way. I’ve received some criticism for writing about their personal lives, but we need to see the pressures they were under so we can draw connections and see how we could act under similar circumstances.

“Their human failings were crucial elements of who they are and they were great to write about. Each emerged from the crucible of Rivonia era with sense of their own autonomy.”

Another character Frankel touches on is Bram Fischer. “I was struck by what a powerful character he was and what happened to him after the Rivonia trial because he became the next target for the state. He came from apartheid aristocracy but he had different set of assumptions and values.

“I see him as the moral equivalent of Mandela. There was almost a Christian aspect to his becoming a martyr like that. If any story needs to be told about SA, one that needs to be invoked is Bram Fischer’s.”

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