Lynda Schuster
A Burning Hunger

By Jarad Zimbler

As memories of apartheid recede and South Africa becomes an increasingly stable democracy, books such as this one become ever more important. A Burning Hunger chronicles the deprivations of apartheid and the immense courage of those who struggled against the oppressive weight of the white nationalist regime, and reminds the world of a horror that must not be forgotten.

Lynda Schuster's biography of a Soweto family and its involvement in the struggle for liberation traces the lives of Rocks, Tsietsi, Mpho, Dee and Tshepiso Mashinini, from the student uprisings of June 16, 1976, through the mobilisation of the black townships in the 1980s and the repressive responses of the white South African state. The narrative, largely constructed from newspaper reports and interviews, follows Rocks, Tsietsi and Dee into political exile, and describes Mpho's continued struggles inside South Africa and Tshepiso's escape to study in Australia and England.

The exploration of life as a political exile is particularly fascinating and Schuster does an excellent job of sketching the terrible pressures of such an existence. Whether she is describing the brothers' constant fear of being kidnapped and returned to South Africa by the security forces or the immense boredom and loneliness of long periods spent in the African bush, Schuster writes with simplicity and directness. Her style produces a sense of immediacy, allowing the reader an insight, however small, into the horror of life as an enemy of the South African state.

The narrative also powerfully conveys the sense of the unhinging paranoia generated amongst the exiled community – the ever-present mistrust and fear of betrayal and the bureaucracy and inscrutability of liberation organisations such as the ANC and PAC – as well as the enormous difficulty faced by the returning exiles in readjusting to life in the new South Africa. it is here that Schuster's narrative is most interesting, as it suggests reasons for the sometimes bizarre behaviour of the present South African government – a highly centralised, highly bureaucratic and mistrustful clique of former exiles marshalled by Thabo Mbeki, who are notably out of touch with some of the most pressing concerns of the South African people.

On the downside, although the subject matter of Schuster's book is fascinating and absorbing at all times, A Burning Hunger is overly long and Schuster can be guilty of structural clumsiness and an over-reliance on sentimental cliché. More difficult, particularly in a book that occasionally speaks on behalf of black consciousness ideologues, is the role of Schuster herself – an American journalist absent from South Africa for much of the period she describes. In his excellent book My Traitor's Heart, rian malan noted that when the barricades went up in the townships, no white faces were to be found on the other side. With this in mind, it's troubling that the Mashininis have not been allowed to write their own histories, and although much of the information is taken from interviews with several family members one cannot escape a feeling of slight discomfort at the occasionally patronising tone.

Another difficulty lies in the book's claim to 'tell the story of black South Africa in microcosm'. Although detailed, Schuster ignores the struggle in rural areas, or in any township other than Soweto for that matter. Moreover, while the roles of the ANC, PAC and the student and church organisations are given significant consideration, the fundamental importance of the trade unions, for example, is largely missed. As a general history of the lives of black South Africans under apartheid, A Burning Hunger falls far short of the mark, but as the story of one family's experience, Schuster's book remains a powerful and utterly enthralling account.
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