BOOK REVIEW / Home is where the heat is: The rift: The Exile Experience of South Africans by Hilda Bernstein, Cape pounds 25

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The Independent Culture
HILDA BERNSTEIN, a journalist and political activist, is herself an exile from South Africa, and for many years she collected the stories of others who were forced abroad by the apartheid system. Presenting more than 100 such testimonies, her book is a moving record of disrupted lives, the pain of dislocation and the longing for the place these disparate South Africans stubbornly insist on calling 'home'.

When public negotiations between the Afrikaner Nationalist government and the ANC began after the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990, one of the most urgent issues was the pardon of the many thousands who had left illegally or been expelled on exit permits, and the tens of thousands more who had trained and fought in the ANC army, Umkhonto we Sizwe. When at last the government agreed to the unconditional return of an estimated 40,000 exiles, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees spoke of 'the beginning of the end of a 30-year- old human tragedy'.

It was almost exactly 30 years since the shooting of unarmed demonstrators at Sharpeville, in March 1960, had precipitated the first wave of political emigration. More followed after the imprisonment of Mandela and his associates in 1963, when Oliver Tambo left to organise an external resistance. In 1976 a student-led 'black consciousness' uprising broke out, centred in Soweto. After the brutal suppression of the unrest, angry, determined young people surged abroad to continue the fight, and a great many found their way to the armed camps of the ANC and the PAC in East Africa and Angola.

Hilda Bernstein is a South African Communist Party stalwart, and she has selected testimonies mainly from activists of the SACP and the ANC. The liberal professionals who were driven out of the country, or who found it impossible to live and work there in good conscience, are represented only by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, not strictly an exile, and a couple of high- profile artists, the actor Antony Sher and the novelist Chistopher Hope.

The political activists who left were often fleeing from hardship, torture, imprisonment, abuse; but once out of the country they could feel rootless and lost. 'Being in exile means you are constantly on the watch,' says Alpheus Mangezi, who became a social worker in Britain, Sweden and Mozambique. 'You are constantly thinking about home.' Gloria Nkadimeng fled when she was 14 and did not see her mother for ten years, but says: 'I think the only time that my soul can settle is when I'm in South Africa.' It was the same for Ruth Weiss, who had escaped from Germany with her parents and was later forced out of South Africa too. She yearned for the African countryside: 'my emotional development and my political development happened there. So that is where my home is - if I have any home.'

But in time some did find new homes. Those who left in the Sixties have grown old in exile, and although they longed for South Africa for most of their adult lives, they may find that they cannot now go back. Freddy Reddy was a poor Indian hospital porter who became a trade unionist and then hiked through Africa to find an education. With the help of the Anti-Apartheid movement he eventually found his way to to Norway, where he qualified as a doctor. He worked from time to time as a psychiatrist in ANC camps, but married a Norwegian, raised a family, served as a city councillor in Oslo. 'Now I am nearly 60 years old, and I think it is time for me just to live my life.'

The children of the activists are also often reluctant to return. The choice of exile was not theirs, after all, and their parents' absorption in foreign political affairs made assimilation in the new country difficult. 'I'm so angry with him still,' the film-maker Shawn Slovo says of her father, Joe Slovo, the leader of the South African Communist Party. 'I'll be angry with him all my life.' Oliver Tambo's son, Dali, was sent to an English public school, and by the time he was 21 he felt more British than South African. He resists the political commitment of his family. 'My mother's always saying to me, 'Look at Mbeki's son] Look at Sisulu's son] Where are you?' Which I think is quite a cruel thing to say.'

Exiles who do return are going back to a changed country. They may find that their claims to jobs, houses, even reputation, are less readily granted than they had anticipated. And as they make their way home, their paths cross those of white conservatives running away from racial equality and the risks of the new South Africa. These new exiles will probably not return, but they will also, no doubt, pine for home.

(Photograph omitted)

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