Swept up by history

The Mashinini brothers of South Africa became heroes when one of them dared to organize a march.

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He liked to play softball and tennis, he loved to dance, and he was chairman of his school debating team. But on June 16, 1976, young Tsietsi Mashinini became a political activist, leading high school students on a protest that would change his country and sweep his family into the human rights struggle against South Africa's white minority and the iron grip with which they ruled the vast black majority.

A Burning Hunger is an example of a genre one writer has labeled the "struggle biography" - the true story of someone who overcomes.

But in this case, what journalist Lynda Schuster has given us is really a five-way biography. It tells the true story of the five brothers in the Mashinini family, all of whom emerged as political heroes during South Africa's struggles against apartheid in the 1970s and '80s. Although Tsietsi was the one who achieved fame during the horrific events of June 16 - when South African police shot at dozens of children - his siblings Rocks, Mpho, Dee, and Tsehpiso all became activists who ultimately followed their Tsietsi into hiding, prison, and exile.

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The brothers were living in South Africa at a pivotal moment. Most of the rest of the sub-Saharan African continent had been independent since the late 1950s or early 1960s, ruled by a black majority, though the new rulers often turned out to be autocratic.

But in South Africa, in 1960, police had massacred 69 Africans, most of them shot in the back, at a demonstration in Sharpeville against laws requiring blacks to have a pass to move about the country. In 1964, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for trying to bring democracy to his country; he would not be released until 1990 but then went on to be elected president in 1994 with blacks finally free to vote.

South Africa was not the first place to see youth who step to the forefront in a national test of wills in the name of freedom. Student protesters have been killed in Ethiopia, Mali, Kenya, Chile, and many other countries including the United States. (In Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, for example, with most adult protesters under arrest, hundreds of youths braved arrest and some faced skin-peeling fire hoses and police attack dogs in a civil rights protest that caught the country's attention.)

But now it was young Tsietsi's turn. He led a swelling tide of students on a peaceful protest march through the streets of the black South African township of Soweto. Police that day killed 25 and wounded 200 others.

When it was over, "large swaths of Soweto lay in ruins. South Africa, and the Mashinini family, would never be the same," Schuster tells us. Tsietsi would flee the country; others in the family would join the rebellion, some with guns. Some would know capture, torture, exile.

Schuster, a journalist who has written for this paper as well as The Wall Street Journal, bases her book on 70 hours of taped interviews telling the story of the Mashinini family and how their children were swept into the rough currents of history. This is not, as she wisely points out, the definitive book on the struggle against apartheid, that rigid system of keeping races separate, apart, to the maximum extent possible in South Africa under Afrikaner rule. This is a story of one family; but along the way one learns a good deal about South African history from the ground up.

The advantage of a book like this is that it takes the reader beyond the well-known leaders of a cause - most notably, in this case, Nelson Mandela. Schuster reminds us that behind the world-known giants that lead resistance movements are ranks of little-known but equally brave activists - the "foot soldiers" for freedom. Key among their contributions is doing the legwork to organize turnouts for protests that signal to a regime that opposition is growing and that negotiations eventually must start.

At one point Mpho, one of the Mashinini children harshly tortured by the white Afrikaner police for his activism, attends a public meeting in Soweto packed with about 200 people, including "students, pensioners, housewives." Six months earlier, such a meeting, Schuster estimates, would have been lucky to draw 30 people. Now the townships were "positively throbbing with activity" and protests were frequent and daring.

The author provides the kind of vivid details that are the building blocks for broader explanations of what happened in the anti-apartheid movement in terms of social movement or international relations theories.

This is a serious work, well written, well researched, and told with the kind of drama one would expect in a novel. With gripping detail, Schuster offers us a front- row seat on one of Africa's most important - and ultimately successful - struggles for freedom. She reveals an unquenchable human spirit that eventually can overcome even daunting repression.

Robert Press is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Southern Mississippi. He was the Monitor's bureau chief in Nairobi, Kenya, from 1987 to 1995. His book "Peaceful Resistance: Advancing Human Rights and Democratic Freedoms" which focuses on Kenya will be published this summer.

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