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Africa Today 48.3 (2001) 164-166

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Frankel, Glen. 1999. Rivonia's Children: Three Families and the Cost of Conscience in White South Africa. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 381 pp.

Glen Frankel's Rivonia's Children raises difficult and emotional questions for political activists. To what extent should political, collective choices take precedence over protecting one's own family? To what extent should protecting one's own family be a priority when horrific things are happening to human beings around you? How can activists reconcile to their families, friends, and themselves, their lost time, careers, and material comforts in a world where political issues change so quickly and most citizens have such little historic memory that most sacrifices go not only unrewarded (unsuccessful) but are also unnoticed. Is violence ever justified? If so, under what conditions? Can the contributions of one individual have such an effect on those in power, or those who come to power, that the possibility of success is worth tremendous pain and sacrifice even when it appears such sacrifice is in vain?

Glen Frankel portrays the white South African resistance activists of Rivonia and the political choices they made as they tried to maintain some semblance of a normal life and as they sought to protect their families from state retaliation. Rivonia, just outside Johannesburg, South Africa, was a secret headquarters for resistance activities. It was here that the collaboration for carrying out sabotage against the apartheid state took place among whites and blacks who reluctantly had come to embrace violence as a necessary component of the struggle to end apartheid. When their headquarters at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia was raided in 1963, it decapitated the white and black armed resistance leadership in South Africa. It also had harrowing and difficult consequences for the families of the white activists about whom Frankel writes.

This book does not attempt to foreground the role of white activists in anti-apartheid history. Rather, the book recognizes the incredible moral choices of a few brave individuals who possessed, but refused to use, the privileged option not to get involved. The choices of these white activists to collaborate in armed resistance against the state ended in ruined careers, torn families, imprisonment, and, in Ruth First's case, death (murder). Other white South Africans turned away. These white South Africans chose to try [End Page 164] to right the wrongs of their government. Eventually, they came to believe that their methods for resistance had to include violent resistance in collaboration with the underground wing of the African National Congress (ANC) led by Nelson Mandela. These white activists fled into exile only after they had already been jailed, subjected to solitary confinement, and in some cases tortured. When it became clear that they certainly would lose their lives if they remained in South Africa and continued their resistance, they eventually fled. Ruth First, who continued to write in exile to tell the world about the evils of apartheid, was tracked down by South African security agents and killed by a letter bomb. Bram Fischer, an Afrikaner lawyer, activist, and Communist leader refused to flee South Africa despite the cost. When the state finally caught him, he was incarcerated for years in a horrifying prison experience that ultimately cost him his life. According to Frankel, Bram Fischer's personal choices and sacrifice helped future leaders like Nelson Mandela reaffirm their faith in the possibilities of multicultural democracy.

Frankel's telling of the stories of these white activists carries important lessons for anyone of any ethnic or racial background facing difficult political choices. Frankel is a former Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and an editor at the Washington Post. He is a skilled writer who keeps the narrative moving while broaching his numerous themes. The book poses important questions concerning political ethics and family responsibility.

The white activists whom Frankel writes about are all members of the South African Communist Party with a worldview that makes race a most salient concern in their lives. However, it is puzzling...


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