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White Lies White Lies
Canon John Collins and the Secret War Against Apartheid

Denis Herbstein
ISBN 9780852558850 (0852558856)
James Currey Publishers, 2004

Category: Biography

When I received a letter, early in 1993, from the Archbishop of Canterbury inviting me to become his representative on the Christian Action Council, I confess I had little idea about the organisation. This book could have filled in many of the gaps.

The heyday of Christian Action and its offshoots, primarily the Defence and Aid Fund (later the International Defence and Aid Fund - lDAF), was undeniably in the darkest days of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Denis Herbstein recounts the story in detail and with great vigour.

Indeed the phrase 'Fact is often stranger than fiction' sprang to mind as I read the book. It is an amazing adventure story with all the ingredients of a classic thriller: cloak and dagger structures, clandestine meetings and visits, secret Swiss bank accounts, heroes known by letters rather than by name. All with one clear aim - to support the liberation of South Africa through ensuring that wherever possible political detainees were able to be defended by the best lawyers, and families were supported throughout the imprisonment of their breadwinner.

There are moments in the book when the author (a journalist) slips back into his natural 'journalese', as though he is trying too hard to make the story flow like a thriller. But this is a true - and remarkable - story, not told before, about a small piece of the complex and terrible history of the suffering of an enormous number of South African people.

Many of those people still bear the marks of that suffering. Some of them - principally of course Nelson Mandela - have become very famous and have carried South Africa publicly and successfully through the process of liberation, but thousands of others remain completely unknown.

John Collins, Christian Action, lDAF and a number of individuals raised huge sums of money and went to great lengths to circumvent the tight security systems of the South African government to ensure that support was offered to at least some who needed it. But in the end it was the suffering people of South Africa (from all communities) who brought about the end of the injustice. We have to be careful about the trap of assuming it was the white 'Iiberal elite' both inside and outside the country who really achieved the change.

In fact, Collins fell out with the liberals quite regularly for just that reason, and Herbstein makes that point clearly enough. But he also, towards the end of the book, ruminates on the fact that in none of the accounts coming out of South Africa so far is there significant acknowledgement of the part played by John Collins and Christian Action.

At some point I have no doubt an authoritative history of the years 1948 to 1994 in South Africa will be written. This story will I am sure be a part of it, and it is a story that it was important to tell.

Reverend Canon Andrew Deuchar, May 2005

Reverend Canon Andrew Deuchar is an Anglican Parish Priest in Nottingham and formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury's Secretary for Anglican Communion Affairs. His review appears here courtesy of Interact, the magazine of the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR).

James Currey Publishers

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