CROSSING THE LINE: A Year in the Land of Apartheid by William Finnegan
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CROSSING THE LINE: A Year in the Land of Apartheid

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An illuminating, engaging account of the year (1980) the 27-year-old American author spent teaching at a ""coloured"" high school near Cape Town. After several years of bumming around Asia, Finnegan--an easygoing man with political roots, if any, in the antiwar and civil-right movements--and his girlfriend wind up in South Africa, as much to be able to have pizza and cold beer in an air-conditioned restaurant as for any other reason. Once in South Africa he is brought up quickly by what he calls the ""morbid novelties of apartheid,"" and his descriptions bring day-to-day life in South Africa alive as few other contemporary works of reportage on the country have done. (He notes large and small: the high standard of living for whites, highway maps that give populations of towns with race breakdowns, the difficulty of maintaining friendships between different races (since there are few public and private areas available to anyone), a government English textbook with the sample sentence: ""All the Bantu who had been drinking beer began to fight one another""). At Grassy Park High School, Finnegan tries to break away from the repressive syllabus and promotes career and school counseling. But he learns that he has underestimated the poison of the system: there is almost no chance that any of his students will qualify for the few ""coloured"" spots at universities. Indeed, only half of any class may graduate to the next class. Moreover, he has used the services of a ""white"" counseling organization, making his efforts suspect in the eyes of his students and their families. During the year, there is a two-month student boycott, allowing Finnegan to see many students' and teachers' true political beliefs, which are often at odds with his own liberal, colorblind, cheerful, damn-the-system approach. Finnegan seems to become worn down, to the point of harshly questioning himself (""Was I not hopelessly 'Eurocentric' myself?' Was I not determined to usher as many of our students as possible out of their poor Third World backwater into the mainstream of Western culture""). The book is remarkable for its sense of place, descriptions of the countryside, and most of all for making vivid the people who live in South Africa--casually racist Boers; uncomfortably racist Englishmen; ""coloureds,"" whom the whites wish to co-opt. A vivid, stunning, saddening eyewitness report.

Pub Date: Sept. 10th, 1986
ISBN: 0892553251
Publisher: Harper & Row