FIGHTING YEARS

Black Resistance and the

Struggle for a New South Africa

By Steven Mufson

Beacon Press. 360 pp. $24.95

IN FIGHTING YEARS Steven Mufson, who covered South Africa for the Wall Street Journal and other publications from 1984 until he was expelled by the government in 1987, explores contemporary black politics in that country by reexamining the landmark Soweto uprising of June 16, 1976. He argues that Soweto marked the end of obedience to white authority, baasskap, the state of being a baas (boss). The Afrikaans language reinforces this social relationship on a daily basis, but the black rebellion against its use to teach African students empowered the residents of Soweto, giving them a new weapon for cultural resistance.

Fighting Years is informed by the voices of the townships, hostels and other black locations not always accessible to non-Africans. Mufson, now a reporter for The Washington Post, focuses on the grass-roots struggles of the people who have done most to undermine apartheid, the men, women and children who have built creative alternatives to baaskap and the servile consciousness required to sustain it. Although he invokes the aphorism that "journalism is a first draft of history," Mufson's attention to factual detail is always evident. He shows, for example, how spontaneous opposition to seemingly isolated oppressive acts can spark the growth of local mass movements that generate their own genuinely popular leaders.

Mufson's guiding premise is that prior to Soweto, South Africa was an obedient society. While attractive, that thesis insufficiently acknowledges a heritage of resistance. The kinds of movements the book describes are not, strictly speaking, total departures from previous movements; rather, they continue a radical tradition that Mufson recognizes and often alludes to, but may not value as highly as the period of history he personally witnessed.

The scale and spirit of the opposition mounted in 1984-86 were, indeed, phenomenal, and many of its partisans were probably unaware of the degree to which earlier generations had struggled for change. It was not uncommon, however, for these militants to cite past heroes and heroines as guides. Moreover, the self-education done by "comrades" was not unlike that of their ancestors, the rural and newly urbanized folk in the 1920s who taught themselves to demand fair wages, conduct strikes and refuse to accept unjust laws. Nor was it coincidental that secular radicals often had religious pasts. The civic committees, consumer and rent boycotts, work stayaways, even peoples' courts reflected decades of experience in collective action.

Mufson is at his best when relating the rise of the United Democratic Front in 1983, a loose but militant coalition of 600 organizations that signaled the birth of a new mass movement that drew inspiration from its exceptional diversity. He also does a good job of analyzing the role of violence in apartheid society and how this gave vent to the paroxysms of rage that so often culminated in "necklace" killings, where an automobile tire was placed around a victim's head and shoulders, drenched in gasoline and set on fire.

Mufson's otherwise incisive account is marred by occasional lapses. Of Albertina Sisulu, the septuagenarian spouse of ANC leader Walter Sisulu who, as co-president of the Urban Democratic Front is a leader in her own right, Mufson writes, "Unlike the internationally famous Winnie Mandela, Sisulu was neither beautiful nor telegenic. Stout and seventy, she was a symbol of perseverance." These unflattering comments show sexism, ageism, cultural insensitivity and trivialize the travails of these women as leaders, mothers and spouses of incarcerated ANC officials.

In the same vein, Fighting Years lacks serious discussion of the role of women in the unfolding drama of the township rebellions. The author tends to gloss over them, inserting occasional asides about the more widely known Sisulu and Mandela, but, in view of the attention paid to male leaders (most of whose lives are delineated for us in poignant biographical sketches), space devoted to other women is scant by comparison. Because the book's authenticity comes from the voices of Mufson's interviewees, it is less credible with women silent.

Mufson is less likely than some Africa watchers to take the easy way out by citing "tribalism," for example, in lieu of more meaningful analysis. His chilling examination of the systematic attack on the township rebels by the regime of former president P.W. Botha is among the book's highest points. Showing how Botha employed a mixture of paternalist propaganda, factional favoritism and a ruthless iron fist to respond to his most daring critics, Mufson explodes the myth of black-on-black violence.

Mufson writes that the South African State Security Council established "joint management committees" in each major white town and its satellite black townships. Businessmen, soldiers, government officials and journalists who sympathized with the government were invited to serve on the committees. Their identities were secret. "These committees (JMCs) plotted strategy in a military style, keeping rooms of maps with 'enemy' areas marked off and planning offensives that combined repression, upgrading projects, and propaganda," Mufson writes. "Unlike elected officials, JMC members could work swiftly, cutting out slothful and corrupt bureaucrats. Because their identities were secret, the JMC members did not risk becoming targets of popular outrage. It was, an observer noted, 'a system without faces.' "

David H. Anthony, a Fulbright lecturer in Lesotho in 1987 and 1888, teaches history at the University of California at Santa Cruz.