Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White
is a 1986 work of non-fiction by American journalist Joseph Lelyveld. Based on two extensive reporting trips to South Africa during the Apartheid era (in 1966 and 1980), Move Your Shadow
combines objective reporting on the state of the country under the Apartheid regime with Lelyveld’s personal reflections on his experiences there.
Lelyveld introduces the situation in South Africa with an anecdote from early in his second trip to the country. During breakfast at his hotel, Lelyveld’s (black) waiter points out of the window to an adjacent rooftop, where three white policemen can be seen beating a group of black men. Lelyveld can hardly understand what he is seeing: the beating is careful and methodical, and yet apparently motiveless. He hurries up to the rooftop in time to speak to the men who have been beaten. They are not interested in making any kind of protest.
Later in the day, Lelyveld describes this experience to a liberal white acquaintance, who congratulates him on receiving his first “lesson in helplessness.”
Lelyveld reflects on his feelings about this experience. He says that he experienced “a particular kind of sensation, a cheap thrill maybe, available to outsiders and voyeurs who can maintain access of a kind on all sides of (South Africa’s) various racial and political divides…experiencing the huge evasions of the whites and the helpless knowledge of the blacks, the willful denial of reality as well as its crushing weight.”
Since Lelyveld’s first visit, the regime has implemented much-touted reforms, and many white South Africans ask the author whether he sees “the changes.” He can only respond that he “never imagined they would be able to carry apartheid so far.” The reforms strike him as meaningless. While some blacks have risen to the economic middle class, and thanks to the presence of American businesses can work without discrimination, they along with all other black South Africans have been deprived of citizenship. Many blacks have been relocated—by force—to “tribal homelands,” arid patches of land overseen by corrupt local administrations. The laws preventing racial intermarriage have been repealed, but mixed-race couples cannot live in white areas.
Lelyveld devotes much attention to the legal structures of Apartheid and their intellectual rationale. He sets about collecting the books in which the Apartheid state’s law has been codified, ending up with 3,000 pages of material: “Apartheid,” he observes, “was not wasting away.”
He pokes fun at the absurdities of the “race classifications board,” a group of officials that decides disputed cases of mistaken racial identity: “These miraculous transformations are tabulated and announced on an annual basis. In my first year back in South Africa, 558 coloreds became whites, 15 whites became coloreds, 8 Chinese became whites, 7 whites became Chinese, 40 Indians became colored, 20 coloreds became Indians, 79 Africans became coloreds, and 8 coloreds became Africans. The spirit of this grotesque self-parody…is obviously closer to grand guignol than the Nuremberg laws; in other words, it’s sadistic farce.” With horror and amusement, Lelyveld reports the efforts of Afrikaner scholars to justify this system.
Lelyveld scrupulously reports from both sides of the country’s racial divisions. He describes the poverty of the “homelands,” and the realities of torture and beatings as experienced by black activists. He visits many of the “closer settlements” designed to accommodate black workers who are required to work in cities where they are not allowed to live, virtual shanty towns: “Such sights can be seen in other countries, usually as a result of famines or wars. I don't know where else they have been achieved as a result of planning.” Lelyveld also interviews several key black political figures, including the interim head of the ANC, Oliver Tambo.
Lelyveld stresses that Americans tend to misunderstand the situation in South Africa, due to a tendency to imagine Apartheid by analogy with Jim Crow: “Americans tend to misconstrue the conflict, to talk about human rights and living standards while fuzzing the central issue of power. . . . This makes it easy to suppose that whites who talk about ‘reform’ and ‘change’ are talking about an end to white dominance when often they are really searching for a way to make it more tolerable so it can endure.”
The book concludes with an uneasy attempt to imagine the future. He points to Zimbabwe, whose recent independence has been followed by a massacre of whites, and he predicts that South Africa may follow suit. On a more hopeful note, he points to the role of Christian faith in undermining Apartheid, drawing on his meetings with religious black leaders and Afrikaner dissidents.
Prior to publishing Move Your Shadow
, Lelyveld’s reporting from South Africa had been praised for its scrupulous objectivity, and many reviewers felt that this reputation for fairness made Lelyveld’s criticism of the Apartheid regime in Move Your Shadow
even more compelling. Among other awards, the book won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. The title refers to an entry in a South African phrasebook that provides white golfers with the Fanagalo translations of instructions to a caddy.