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Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid by William Finnegan (Harper & Row: $22.95; 409 pp.)

August 17, 1986|Peter Markovitz | Markovitz, co-founder of the Hi-Teach Education Group, was born and reared in South Africa

Perhaps most confounding of all the sweeping contradictions of South African politics is the paradox of the so-called Colored, or mixed-race, population. Unlike the country's blacks, a majority of the Coloreds share the same language as the Afrikaner ruling class, the same religion, a similar culture, and many of the same ancestors.

But the forefathers of the Coloreds were not all white, and apartheid has rendered irrelevant the Coloreds' ties to their white Afrikaner brethren, deeming these "black Afrikaners" (who find the term pejorative) not "white enough."

"Crossing the Line," William Finnegan's first book, is an autobiographical voyage into the world of Grassy Park, a wind-swept Colored neighborhood near Cape Town. Standing apart from much of the emotive literature that has been written about this tortured country, the book is a revealing and important account of a white Californian's experiences as a teacher in the local high school and as a traveler of the land.

Finnegan rejects the lure to break our hearts and raise our righteous indignation over the plight of his "poor little black children." There is nothing patronizing about his approach. Disinclined to engage in "irritating and then massaging the thousand loose-waving nerves of liberal guilt," he is analytical and profoundly introspective instead.

In a single year (1980-1981), Finnegan witnessed more of the Colored experience than most South Africans are exposed to in a lifetime. He was dedicated to his students, visiting their parents, setting up counseling programs, redesigning the curriculum and prodding them toward excellence. But he encountered obstacles, including his own ignorance of the people's psyche and predicament. Nevertheless, he pushed on, searching, questioning, reaching out, trying to understand.

A novice educator, his sensitivity is apparent, his good intentions beyond question; and students, parents and fellow educators come close to him. In one instance, he visits a local supermarket to implore its newest employee to return to school. He tries to educate his students to the possibilities of freedom.

When the students boycott their classes, coming to school only to protest, Finnegan is relieved and invigorated. He realizes that either the students, and the community, will act to save themselves, or no one will.

The boycott is as prolonged and painful as it is exciting. Revolutions consist of a series of smaller rebellions. The boycott is only one small battle in the larger war against apartheid. Finnegan uncovers the psychology of the players, from the weary parents to the youthful leaders to the savvy followers.

The journal-like preponderance of superficial detail as well as certain lengthy excursions into the legal mechanics and history of apartheid may not appeal to all readers. But everyone is bound to be moved by the final section of the book. This describes Finnegan's travels across South Africa with a student radical, the defiant and fiery Mattie, whom the writer declares "romantic."

"What?" she protests, "I'm not a romantic, not a chance! What is it you imagine I'm romantic about?"

"Revolution," he replies.

Now, five years after the events in "Crossing the Line" took place, South Africa is reeling from the consequences of many of its black youths' romance with revolution.

To the cry of "Liberation Now, Education Later," which is echoing in the empty black schools today, Finnegan, who fought so hard for better education, responds with resignation but not regret. He acknowledges that many of the values he tried to instill--the importance of "political education, community organization, developing an 'analysis' "--have been swept aside as the boycotts in the classroom have spread into the streets.

By not faulting his students' forgetfulness, Finnegan implies that their new determination will be sufficient to lead them toward their own solutions. But whether the revolutionary romanticism and violent expressions of outrage so evident today will be enough to raze apartheid without destroying the land remains to be seen.

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