Joseph Lelyveld had been the New York Times man in South Africa for only eleven months when, in 1966, the South African government served him with notice to leave within a week. For the next decade, that government was to bar entry to New York Times correspondents. When Lelyveld boarded the plane he had “a feeling of lightness, of freedom as a palpable sensation.” This could not have been because he himself had been either one of those straining at the oars in the galley of apartheid, or one giving orders up aloft. If he had borne any weight at all, it was the reputation of a journalist who sought the truth and wrote it, an officially declared enemy of apartheid; on any New York evening he could have been at ease as a self-(critically)-styled “naive democrat” among those who believe in the “Western solutions” to apartheid the South African government dismisses as simplistic.
Yet, fourteen years after, when he learned in a roundabout way that he might be allowed to reenter South Africa, he asked his paper to send him back. China, India—“No place I had ever been had gripped me as wholly and intensely as South Africa…the scale of the land and its antagonisms, and the vividness of personality that came with them.” This book is about what he found when he returned to South Africa in the early 1980s. It is given depth by the previous experience not as a reference point, but in the existential tie between Lelyveld and the country he had thought to shed like any other assignment.
Lelyveld was unfree when he flew away home in 1966. Even if he did not know it, he had lost (overcome?) the Manichaean objectivity that is the journalistic ideal. Even if he does not now know it, it is clear that he came back not only out of professional fascination but also out of a need for what he calls moral clarity. The world is bleared within its moral obfuscation as surely as it is wrapped in its atmosphere. If you are in search of clarity within yourself as well as (professionally) in others, where better to test yourself and them than in the thickest murk? South Africa is the elaborate set of the last colonial extravaganza, and the final reel in the archive of institutionalized racism. It is also the place where even an outsider must proceed with outstretched hands, ready to come up hard against the lumber of his own moral ambiguities. Wholly without vanity or a sense of the power of the “man with the word,” Lelyveld might be embarrassed to hear that his strikingly honest self-confrontation is present in his book like the face, unattributed, caught in the edge of the lens when a historic group photograph was taken. If the unnamed one is neither an accomplice to the group nor exactly his brother’s keeper, he bears at least the name of a measure of human responsibility …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.