Three Families and the Cost of Conscience in White South Africa

By Glenn Frankel

Farrar Straus Giroux. 381 pp. $25

Reviewed by Rich Mkhondo

South Africa's second general election is over. The Nelson Mandela era has ended; Thabo Mbeki is president. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) maintained its unrivalled and monolithic status with an almost two-thirds majority. The rediscovery of common interests by all South Africans and the peaceful transfer of power from the white minority National Party to the ANC were remarkable on both ends of the transition.

But the road to this achievement is strewn with victims. Hundreds were killed or maimed, and of the millions who survived, many have been psychologically scarred for life. Some of those who lived to tell their experiences have forgiven their torturers but not forgotten their ordeal. Glenn Frankel has carefully selected three couples who were victims: Ruth First and Joe Slovo, Rusty and Hilda Bernstein, and Harold and Ann Marie Wolpe, all white, middle-class, communist and Jewish.

In his new book, Rivonia's Children, Frankel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist, explores the South African transition to democracy through the activities, personalities and politics of First and Slovo, the Bernsteins, the Wolpes and their friends: Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Wilton Mkwayi, Albie Sachs, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba and many other anti-apartheid activists. It's a wonderful, heart-warming tale about how white, left-wing activists, who worked closely with Mandela and his comrades at the heart of the anti-apartheid movement for more than two decades, rose above their narrow self-interests, placing their own lives and their families' safety on the line to serve the greater good of humankind.

Their lives began to crumble on Dec. 5, 1956, when police rounded up 156 leaders -- Rusty Bernstein, Slovo, Mandela and Sisulu among them -- and charged them with treason. The next day newspapers splashed on their pages pictures of Slovo's children, Shawn, Gillian and Robyn, in their pajamas, eating corn flakes and smiling to the camera and quoted as saying: "Mummy is gone to prison to look after the black people."

The first thing I asked myself when I began reading the book was why Frankel chose Slovo, First, the Bernsteins and the Wolpes when when so many of us blacks, Asians and "Coloureds" (mixed-race South Africans) suffered under white minority rule and fought bitterly for racial justice. But Frankel put my irritation quickly to rest when he explained the choice: "I decided to focus on a handful of white activists, not because their sacrifices were greater, but because they chose to make those sacrifices. It is surely not hard to understand why Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other black activists risked their lives for the liberation of their people. But for whites, however small their number, to join with them was a different matter."

"In the end, I see two purposes for Rivonia's Children: to tell an important but little-known story about moral choice; and to try to rescue from obscurity a group of people and body of work that deserves our critical attention, admiration and respect," Frankel writes. Why did he call them "Rivonia's Children"? ""Because Rivonia is the place where their dream of a revolution was forever shattered. The 1963 raid was their moment of truth. It destroyed their old order and comfortable, rather benign radicalism and thrust them into a new dangerous and chaotic world."

That is what makes Rivonia's Children all the more compelling. It offers a rare chance to read an incisive analysis of South Africa's dark past, a reminder of how far we have come from the 1950s to where we are today.

Most people remember Mandela's single-minded embrace of racial reconciliation, but Frankel's almost made-for-TV rendition features characters right out of central casting: white Jewish families who confronted heavily armed pro-apartheid forces in a quest for what became known as a miracle transition to democracy in 1994. Frankel, who served as southern Africa bureau chief for The Washington Post in the 1980s, offers a much-needed antidote to the fairy tale. The book also provides historical insight into the alliance between the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP), which started as a mostly white movement in the 1950s before it was driven underground by the apartheid government; it offers a rare opportunity to follow the thinking of members of the SACP, feared and hated by the apartheid government.

Frankel tells the story well. Through a progression of chapters -- the raid, the road to Rivonia, sabotage, the escape, notes from underground, the trial and the verdict -- he centers the reader's attention on the major events in the lives of the three families, members of the elite who abandoned their status, wealth and promised power to fight for a democratic South Africa. Frankel is a punchy and engaging writer, and at times the book reads like a political thriller. Rivonia's Children is one of the best of the journalistic accounts of the anti-apartheid struggle. But Frankel properly digs deeper and forces his readers to acknowledge how evil apartheid was.

It seems cruel and unfair that the glitz, glamour and aftermath of our admired and talked-about peaceful transition to democracy should fade so quickly, eclipsed by the urgent development needs facing Mbeki. It is also unreasonable and unfair that the whole world expects that a system of racial and economic exploitation that took 350 years to craft, polish and implement could be undone in a few years. When you read Frankel's book, you will discover and understand that the healing process may take time. Rivonia's Children is a reminder that South Africa's ultimate fate -- the fabric of its society, economy and civic institutions -- will rest not with politicians but with individuals who make free choices, and those like Mandela and Sisulu who provide leadership. Frankel's greatest contribution is to bring out valuable new eyewitness testimony of South Africa's grand achievement, namely, that alongside the millions of blacks who resisted apartheid and made the country ungovernable, there were hundreds of white anti-apartheid activists who struggled for racial justice, a relentlessly fascinating subject that will keep the reader pressing forward to know more.

Rich Mkhondo is a Washington-based journalist for Independent Newspapers of South Africa and the author of "Reporting South Africa" and an upcoming book on South Africa's first five years of democracy.