Book Review: “A Just Defiance” by Peter Harris
Peter Harris – a white human rights lawyer in apartheid South Africa – is the author and a central character in this award-winning work of non-fiction. Harris is one of a relatively small number of white lawyers involved in defending black activist members of the outlawed ANC who have been captured by the authorities. He stands out, however, not so much because of his profession, his color, or his background, but because of his remarkable gift as a writer.
In A Just Defiance, Harris turns what would have been a dull legalistic account, albeit of an important legal case, into a thriller worthy of John Grisham. Somehow, this busy lawyer, who never wrote a book before, transformed the story of a complex legal case into a thought-provoking thriller.
Around the main story about the defense of three black assassins, the author skillfully winds two others. One is about a covert bomb plot indirectly related to the trail that the police are concocting; the other is the story of his clients’ early lives and how they became gradually drawn to the ANC cause, first through peaceful resistance campaigns, and eventually through extreme violence. Harris infuses each of these narratives with a separate tension, which slowly and relentlessly build in parallel to fever pitch. In the process, he creates a spellbinding work of non-fiction that’s impossible to put down.
Harris staunchly supports the ANC, not just as their lawyer, but as a passionate believer in their cause. Yet, he doesn’t shy away from exposing unsavory truths about both sides in the struggle. Like in violent conflicts everywhere, from Northern Ireland to Iraq, Israel to Afghanistan, leaders and foot soldiers on both sides are tarnished by unsavory compromise. On both sides people are willing to commit or sanction atrocities in the name of their cause.
The international success of A Just Defiance could have spurred Harris to becoming a full-time writer, perhaps like the hugely popular Grisham, who also started off as a lawyer. Yet, Harris has since published just one other book—Birth – a non-fiction account of the intricate plots to disrupt the first free election in South Africa in 1994. Evidence suggests he wrote neither book primarily for fame or fortune; he seems to be a man on a higher mission. Both books are important elements of that mission, but nothing more.