Move Your Shadow

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Joseph Lelyveld, a veteran of two postings as The New York Times South African correspondent, provides a penetrating, discomforting view of apartheid in Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White. His informed and comprehensive perspective derives from his having lived in the country during two separate periods of time: Returning to Johannesburg in 1980 after almost fifteen years, he was in a unique position to explore and assess trends as well as discern the realities camouflaged by official double-talk. Lelyveld’s credentials as an American reporter provided access to the inner sanctums of the government bureaucracy, the legal and penal systems, and other dimensions of South African society and government normally closed to outsiders. His determination and zeal led him to many black areas infrequently visited by nonblacks. During the early 1980’s, he traveled regularly to each of the major cities and to the ten so-called homelands, noting ironically that probably fewer than one hundred South Africans have seen more of their country than he.

Move Your Shadow is an intensely felt, impressive, personal work filled with vivid and haunting portraits of despair and unfeigned courage. The author provides a multidimensional analysis of the South African racial system through the concrete day-to-day experience of blacks and whites. In vivid human terms, he shows what it means to live under the shadow of apartheid.

One of the strongest themes of the book is that South Africa is a land of paradox and contradiction. These complexities are defined and described through a series of poignant anecdotes. In great detail, Lelyveld covers the living conditions in black townships that are analogous to other countries after famine or war; institutionalized violence and torture; the elaborate government-subsidized bus system that transports black workers to their city jobs; and black-white interactions in a society designed to minimize communication.

The author’s greatest strength is in developing character sketches of the citizens of South Africa. With empathy and insight, he presents people such as the Afrikaner farmer’s wife who expresses her belief that some blacks “try to think, really they do”; a visiting American black who manages to live as though he is white; a black diesel mechanic fired for putting a civil rights slogan on his coffee mug (his jail sentence for this act was longer than the sentence he received for a previous homicide conviction); a black security director in Ciskei who directs his power against his own people by playing the role of an anti-Communist crusader in a “theatre of the absurd”; a black faith healer, or seer, who makes his living on the government payroll, telling whites what they want to hear about blacks; and a now-deceased Afrikaner churchman who was the first white minister to refuse ordination in the white branch of his church and seek a life of service among the blacks.

The author also points out the bona fide bridgeheads of multiracial interaction uneasily coexisting side by side with the institutions of the apartheid state. For example, the plays of Athol Fugard, full of passion and pain, are presented in integrated theaters under the close scrutiny of the security police. Lelyveld chronicles the efforts of clergymen and other mavericks who dare to bridge the institutionalized racial gap to bring about change.

The central paradox of South African life stems from the Afrikaner struggle to achieve freedom and identity. There is an obvious contradiction that has never been resolved: The freedom they sought for themselves from externally imposed laws meant, of necessity, the freedom to impose their laws on others. Thus, a people who bravely fought Africa’s first anticolonial struggles, who were native to the land and not colonists in any normal sense, have established one of the world’s most retrogressive colonial systems. The Afrikaner establishment has a disposition for control that extends far beyond political exigencies. It is almost a physical sensation, habitually expressed in images of grip or stress; for example, extremist conservatives often use the...

(The entire section is 1710 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Business Week. December 30, 1985, p. 16.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, September 1, 1985, p. 935.

Library Journal. CX, November 15, 1985, p. 85.

The New Republic. CXCIII, December 23, 1985, p. 29.

The New York Review of Books. XXXII, November 7, 1985, p. 5.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, October 13, 1985, p. 1.

Newsweek. CVI, November 4, 1985, p. 70.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, October 4, 1985, p. 65.

The Wall Street Journal. CCVI, October 24, 1985, p. 30.

Washington Journalism Review. VII, November, 1985, p. 51.