Asking for Trouble

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Crouched under the dashboard of his own automobile, in disguise and under cover of darkness, journalist Donald Woods began his daring flight from the South African Security Police. His escape was the culmination of years of public protest of a system that ensured the domination of five million whites over more than twenty million blacks.

Asking for Trouble is the personal account of one man’s life amid the social and political climate of racial tension in a segregated South Africa. This is Woods’s full story; growing up white in the Transkei region; rising rapidly in his career as newspaper reporter and eventually editor of a major newspaper; and finally becoming radicalized through his encounters with Black Consciousness leaders. While the book is a disturbing indictment of apartheid and of the totalitarian tactics of the South African government, the self-centeredness, the over-dramatization, and the smugness of Wood’s satisfaction with himself undermines the seriousness of the apartheid issue and, ultimately, of Woods’s intent to condemn the system.

A fifth-generation white, Woods grew up with both whites and blacks in the Transkei region of South Africa. This portion of the country, part of the Eastern Cape, was a more relaxed area where racial and social progress arrived earlier and tensions arrived later than in other parts of the country. Forty percent of white South Africans were of British descent and sixty percent of Dutch descent. Most of the Dutch citizens, known as Afrikaners, belonged to the Afrikaner Nationalist Party. The majority of the British descendants were loyal to the United Party of South Africa. The United Party, originally led by General Jan Smuts during the Boer War, shared the belief with the Afrikaner Nationalists that the white minority should have political control over the twenty million blacks of South Africa. While segregation was less formal and less hostile under the Smuts government, it was much more popular with the Afrikaner Nationalists. They were pro-German, anti-British, and favored the totalitarian ideas of Hitler. The party was composed of various extremist factions. A particularly deadly group, the Ox Wagon Sentinels, committed acts of sabotage and made no attempt to hide its intent. One of the group’s leaders was Balthazar Johannes Vorster, later to become prime minister of South Africa and Woods’s primary opponent.

In the 1948 election, the Afrikaner Nationalists came to power. Dominating local politics, they consolidated Afrikaner support by promising complete segregation. They coined the term “apartheid,” meaning separateness. Gradually they took control of all radio broadcasting, put party men in charge of the police and the armed forces, and began to pass statute laws that came to affect every aspect of the lives of South Africans.

By 1952, the list of apartheid laws was steadily growing. It became a crime to marry a person of another race; law required that all citizens were to be classified as white, black, colored, or Asiatic; it was a crime for a person to live in the same suburb as a person of another race. These laws marked the development of a monolithic system that effectively sought to force blacks back to tribalism and to prevent them from participating in national politics. During the next thirty years, more than three hundred laws were passed, reserving for the whites all the political power, all the wealth in industry and mining, and all the best jobs, land, and housing. The first response of the blacks was to riot. The new government succeeded in suppressing the riots and appealed to the whites to unite behind the apartheid policy.

It was amid this cultural climate that Donald Woods grew up, attained his education, and eventually became immersed in national politics. The story that follows is Woods’s own account of his transformation from glib acceptance of his country’s policies to his position as enemy of the state. Written with sometimes excrutiating detail, Woods would have his readers believe that he alone was the great white champion of racial and social justice for all of South Africa. The book is flattering to an extreme and it resists any analysis of the more important problems of South Africa today. It does, nevertheless, paint a portrait of apartheid and the men who created it that demonstrates why there has been such international furor over South African politics.

In the early chapters of the book, readers are subjected to the many details of Woods’s development. While attending law school, Woods admits how he firmly believed in the segregationalist policies of the Nationalist government until he meets an American black and is surprised to find that the man is educated and articulate. Readers learn of his increasing involvement in local politics, campaigning against the Afrikaner Nationalists and learning of parliamentary and other legal procedures.

Woods decided to leave law for a career in journalism. He details his rapid rise to his...

(The entire section is 2054 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Book World. XI, August 23, 1981, p. 3.

Business Week. May, 1981, p. 12.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, September 14, 1981, p. B3.

Kirkus Reviews. XLIX, July 15, 1981, p. 880.

Library Journal. CVI, July, 1981, p. 1403.

The New Republic. CLXXXV, September 30, 1981, p. 34.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, August 30, 1981, p. 9.

Newsweek. XCVIII, August 31, 1981, p. 63.

Publishers Weekly. CCXX, July 3, 1981, p. 138.

Saturday Review. VIII, September, 1981, p. 79.