Washington, D.C.



Washington, D.C.

It’s encouraging to read a serious analysis of my new book, Rivonia’s Children: Three Families and the Cost of Conscience in White South Africa, even when the result is as flamboyantly critical as Susie Linfield’s review [“Why, the Beloved Country,” Dec. 13]. Nonetheless, I must take exception to several of her key points.

Linfield is intrigued by my theme of “the cost of conscience,” the price that antiapartheid activists paid for sticking with their principles and their comrades in the face of police-state repression. But she doesn’t like the fact that I applaud the moral stance of Helen Suzman, an antiapartheid liberal, as much as I do that of Rusty Bernstein, a dedicated Communist. She doesn’t care for the fact that my book focuses on the contribution of white radicals to the antiapartheid cause. And she’s particularly unhappy with my portrayal of the women at the heart of my book as dedicated mothers as well as activists.

Linfield’s moral measuring stick is more finely calibrated than mine. I wasn’t judging the political success of either Bernstein or Suzman, but rather their moral stance. Surely Suzman showed moral courage by standing as the sole progressive for thirteen years in the South African Parliament, by being the only parliamentary voice opposing police-state measures such as the Ninety-Day Detention Act and by making visits to and supplying moral support for political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela. Must I devalue these acts to satisfy Linfield’s scorn of liberal activism? In the spectrum of principled resistance to apartheid, wasn’t there room for both Suzman and Bernstein?

As for whites, by focusing on their largely forgotten contributions, I was in no way diminishing the humanity of their black counterparts. The fact that middle-class white professionals, with good jobs, nice houses and an economic stake in the maintenance of white privilege, chose to oppose the regime and kept on resisting even when such opposition became fraught with danger is an intriguing subject worthy of exploration. And Linfield ignores Mandela’s often-stated invocation of these people and their sacrifices in justifying his policy of racial reconciliation. Mandela argues that because even a handful of whites made such sacrifices, all whites must be given an opportunity to participate in the new South Africa.

But I think Linfield is most off-base in her scorn of the domestic pulls that radical activists like Hilda Bernstein and Ruth First felt. Both have eloquently and painfully described those tugs and pulls in their own writings from the period. Among her comrades, First’s book about her time in detention was criticized for its emphasis on her personal crisis, including her despair over the fate of her elderly mother and three young daughters. Her efforts to steel herself against these feelings makes her predicament only more poignant. Linfield dismisses my depiction as an attempt to render these dedicated women as “June Cleavers.” Not at all. I sought to portray them as they portrayed themselves: as three-dimensional people, with deep concerns and passions not only for the antiapartheid movement but for their own families. These personal concerns make their crisis of conscience all the more poignant and recognizable. Had they been ideological automatons, capable of dismissing all human feeling, would they be more worthy of our admiration?



New York City

I liked Glenn Frankel’s book and hope lots of people read it. I have no quarrel with the subject he chose, just with his philosophical explanation of it. Briefly, I believe that Nelson Mandela made choices for which he is fully accountable just as surely as Joe Slovo did.

First’s “personal crisis” was indeed deeply moving. But that crisis had little to do with her children or her elderly mother. While in jail, First attempted suicide because she feared her comrades would believe she had betrayed them. This does not, at least in my view, make her an “ideological automaton.”

Frankel’s point about “liberal activism” raises important questions to which I have no definitive answers. Political principle is clearly not synonymous with success; history is full of principled people who failed. But I would argue that political principle must be rooted in realism–not realism about one’s chances of winning but, rather, in a realistic assessment of one’s enemy. You can’t, for instance, destroy concentration camps by signing petitions–though signing petitions might make you feel good and might even require courage. Events in places like Bosnia, Rwanda and, indeed, South Africa have shown that moral suasion, and even parliamentary opposition, are often highly ineffective, indeed sometimes disastrous, which makes one wonder how “moral” they are. How can one remain a good person while effectively fighting evil, which tries, precisely, to destroy the goodness in each of us? I do not know, but I believe that the ANC and the SACP–despite the crimes they undoubtedly committed (some of which are documented in the Truth and Reconciliation Report)–found a far better answer to this question than many others have.



Lauderdale, Minn.

Reading James North’s valuable review of Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom [“Sen’s Sensibility,” Dec. 6], I was troubled by North’s characterization of “‘population explosion’ alarmists” as “motivated by…fear, guilt and…Western elitism.”

There are those of us (or am I alone?) who understand that famines stem from economic injustice, not food shortages, but who still advocate noncoercive efforts to reduce the human population. The space we use to support ourselves leaves diminishing habitat for all the other life forms who share our planet. And even in the relatively sparsely populated United States, it is ever more difficult to find the natural solitude some require for the nourishment of spirit and even a sense of freedom.



New York City

With immense gratitude, I devoured your comprehensive coverage of issues surrounding the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle [Dec. 6]. It clarified and elaborated this event of world-shaking importance better than anything I’ve read–and, thanks to e-mail listservs, that has been a good deal.

Yet to my dismay, I found the words “United Nations” used only once–buried in a review of Amartya Sen’s book Development as Freedom. Yes, the International Labor Organization, a UN instrument, is occasionally mentioned. On Doug Henwood’s page, there are data from the UN Development Program’s Human Development Report. That is the full extent of references to the UN and its agencies.

Do you believe that a force of such immutable gravity as the headlong rush of globalization can be treated in an international vacuum? How can the resolution of its effects on the underdeveloped nations be accomplished except in the larger context of their representation in the General Assembly and based upon UN-enforced international law?

The WTO is a rogue body foisted on the planet by a few wealthy and powerful nations at the bidding of transnational corporations that have bought and paid for devoted service by these governments. Obviously, as a tool of global capitalism, the WTO has no interest in dealing fairly with workers’ rights or in dealing sensitively with environmental questions. How can the ILO, which in eighty years has never had sufficient power to accomplish its mandate, now be expected to stem the flow of workers’-rights inequality by itself? Without the UN standing staunchly behind it, the ILO is as flimsy as an awning in a windstorm.

Please tell me that you have not dismissed the UN as the only normative presence on the planet capable of confronting globalization and, one hopes, transmuting it from a brutal profit-making machine into a means for bringing about, however slowly and haltingly, that economic justice upon which sustainable world peace can rest.


We believe in the UN! –The Editors

Garberville, Calif.

Our poor but rebellious rural community in southern Humboldt County (SoHum to us) may possibly have been the national per-capita champion in participants protesting the WTO in Seattle. Your team’s radio coverage was much appreciated by those of us who had to stay behind. And we’re fired up by the eyewitness reports of our tear-gassed but triumphant returnees.

What most impresses me is the leaderless, affinity-group-empowering organizing model demonstrated by the Direct Action Network, against which the hierarchical organization of the status quo defenders, with its centralized command structure, was quite ineffectual. The inherent illegitimacy of WTO governance having now been exposed, I think it unlikely that efforts to keep ramming it down the world’s throat will go unopposed.

However, I’m concerned for my grandchildren, that in the turmoil our most pressing problem, the planet becoming inhospitable to human habitation, will continue to be swept under the rug. When the manifestations of that process, which is well under way, reach a magnitude sufficient to penetrate the consciousness of the world’s disconnected, predominantly urban populations, most likely it will be too late.

To quote scientist David Suzuki (“Deep Ecology for the 21st Century,” www.newdimensions.org): “We have been totally overridden by a preoccupation with the economy, and this appears to me to be suicidal. The whole world is riding in a giant car, and we’re heading at a brick wall at 100 mph, and everybody is arguing about where they want to sit…. Someone, for God’s sake, has got to say, ‘We’re heading for a brick wall! Put on the brakes and turn the wheel!’ Unfortunately, the people who are saying that are locked in the trunk.” I hope The Nation will wake up and help us break out of that trunk.


New York City

Your valuable special issue on the World Trade Organization listed print resources but not videos that relate to the subject. Hungry for Profit, on global agribusiness; The Money Lenders, about the IMF and World Bank; For Export Only: Pesticides; For Export Only: Pharmaceuticals and Can Tropical Rainforests Be Saved? are documentaries that clearly lay out the reasons why so many people around the world are critical of the WTO. Nation readers interested in acquiring these videos, which we produce and distribute, can e-mail us at [email protected] or write to Richter Productions, 330 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036.


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