MOVE YOUR SHADOW : South Africa, Black and White by Joseph Lelyveld (Times Books: $18.95; 384 pp.)

Powers is a Times foreign correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya

This book is not an easy read. Perhaps no book about South Africa is, or will be for a long time to come. Its author, Joseph Lelyveld, now The New York Times bureau chief in London, is one of America's most respected journalists. Thus, the combination of subject matter and author virtually ensure that this is an important book, a book that will be well read in Washington, in academia and among those people seriously interested in the unfolding cataclysm of South Africa, which promises to be one of the great tragedies of the age. If, to many, it seems tragic enough already, one of the lessons of this book, expressed in a subtext of mood rather than open assertion, is that we haven't seen anything yet.

"Move Your Shadow" is based on two reporting tours in South Africa--a one-year stint ending in 1966 when the South African government gave Lelyveld the boot, and a return in 1980 that lasted three years. The 14-year gap didn't simply sharpen his perspective; it gave it the edge of a well-honed knife.

If there was one quality that characterized Lelyveld's South African reporting, it was utter, down-the-middle, unemotional fairness, a major achievement given the wrenching nature of the assignment. A typical appreciation was once offered me by a U.S. State Department Africa specialist (just retired from the Carter administration), who described Lelyveld's work as "the best international reporting I've seen for years." Lelyveld's objectivity lay at the center of this praise.

I mention this because, in "Move Your Shadow" (a wonderful title whose source is a language handbook providing a golfer's instruction to his caddy), there is no doubt at all where Lelyveld stands. One gets the feeling that after three years of going straight down the middle, of taking strict journalistic care to present government claims of reform alongside evidence to the contrary, the gloves have come off. The author's first-person voice guides this gloomy tour, and the voice is by turns angry, weighed-down, appalled. The tone is set early in the book in an incident from one of his first mornings back in the country.

"The black room service waiter who brought my breakfast in the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg . . . managed to 'sir' me four or five times. The servility got under my white skin; for the first time in years, I felt the urge to protest, 'I'm not from here.' Instead, I grabbed the check."

The waiter then points to a scene unfolding on a nearby rooftop, where a trio of white South African cops are methodically beating a group of black men. The mysterious lack of motive or provocation for this attack, carried out in surreal silence in a supposedly civilized environment, is not cleared up by a visit to the rooftop. The beaten men seem uninterested in lodging a protest. It is, as a liberal white suggests to him later the same day, "a lesson in helplessness."

The scene represented for Lelyveld "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--as few South Africans can--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."

Almost nothing in the ensuing 300 pages relieves the tension of these fundamental polarities. What Lelyveld has produced, then, comes very close to a sort of liberal's witness: He has seen the evil and found its trenches deepening. Cloyingly, white South Africans ask him their favorite question: Does he see "the changes" in their society? His response is, "Yes, I never imagined they would be able to carry apartheid so far."

For in Lelyveld's absence, apartheid had been less reformed than refined. Curious over the body of law required to codify racial separation, Lelyveld accumulates all the books he can find, calculates the additional regulations, circulars, fine print, and figures it at 3,000 pages and a weight of 10 pounds. "Apartheid," he wryly notes, "was not wasting away."

Nor were its absurdities relieved. "It is impossible," he writes, "to change caste without an official appeals board ruling that you are a different color from what you were originally certified to be. 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, which results from the deliberations of an official body known as the race classifications board, is obviously closer to grand guignol than the Nuremburg laws; in other words, it's sadistic farce."

And yet, from the beatings of the opening pages, to horrifying recitations of torture and interrogation, the descriptions of pitiful black "homelands," the squalid gropings of Afrikaner academics to find some scholarly justification for their political system, something else almost equally distressing emerges: The numbness factor, for the gloom here is virtually unrelieved. It is true that Lelyveld is working in what must be one of the most depressing societies on Earth, but its contagion comes close to undoing the book.

This is not to suggest that Lelyveld should in any way lighten his scathing indictment of South Africa. Rather, it is to say that the force of his argument and evidence would be convincing at half the weight.

What seems lacking, on the other hand, is any clear recommendation of a way out of the morass by any means short of slowly mounting armed conflict. Lelyveld, almost as if he wants to avoid falling into the trap of liberal equivocation, dismisses rather easily the efforts, admittedly halting, of a few businessmen or farmers who try to improve the lot of their black employees. These efforts sometimes boomerang, or run into government intransigence. More often than not these poor measures are undertaken for less than selfless reasons. Even the best of these men can be counted on to drop some kind of comment suggesting the supposed "childlike" qualities of the blacks they have under their control. Lelyveld never neglects to point out these revealing lapses. Or to remind us that these efforts are a poor substitute for real and fundamental change, change that would give black South Africans the vote and the power that would relegate such charity to the scrap heap of history.

And yet it is hard for most Americans not to hold out some kind of hope for progress in just those kinds of individual effort. Paltry and patronizing as they may be, they contain models of a sort, a base for a beginning, and a clear improvement over polarization and warfare. White attitudes in Zimbabwe have changed remarkably with the post-independence realization that white well-being depended on a change in attitude. Self-interest, in the long run, seems a more reliable force for change than sudden moral awakening.

But such change is piecemeal, and as Lelyveld points out in a devastating chapter on American involvement in South Africa, piecemeal change is not what black South Africans are striving toward. Piecemeal change, as both blacks and whites in South Africa vividly understand, is simply a device to prolong white dominance. Americans, out of innocence or purposeful blindness, incorrectly equate apartheid with vanished Jim Crow laws at home.

"Reasoning from American analogies," Lelyveld writes, "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."

Lelyveld intends this book as an analysis of conditions on the ground in South Africa during the period of his tour there. Its style is often dense and scholarly. He sometimes steps back from the subjects he is questioning to add his own interpretation (perhaps 'translation' would be a better term) of what is being said. As a device, the technique is sometimes illuminating and sometimes irritating. It always reveals something of Lelyveld himself, who in general seems agonized by much of what he sees.

Given the rapid unfolding of protest and government reaction in the two years since his departure, the pressure in South Africa has mounted considerably. About 800 persons have been killed, and a state of emergency has been imposed over much of the country. Is the situation approaching its state of critical mass? Lelyveld doesn't give us much help. There are no scenes of riots included, no descriptions of South African police firing into crowds, or of black youths dousing other blacks in gasoline and setting them afire. Such omissions are no great loss, but Lelyveld's thoughts on the significance of these events would have been welcome. In some ways, developments have outrun his reporting, leaving the sense, perhaps erroneous, that South Africa may have passed into a new phase while Lelyveld was busy at the typewriter.

Lelyveld offers no clear-cut predictions on the future of South Africa. Nor does he suggest what the rest of the world should do, if anything, to hasten change there. He does not address the question of sanctions against South Africa, which seems odd, since it has been a mounting political issue for most of the last year. There are cogent arguments on both sides of the debate, and it seems a deficiency of this book that Lelyveld, clearly a journalist of keen analytical abilities, does not discuss them, let alone recommend an answer.

Lelyveld may have believed that the answers are implicit in his description of South Africa, and that reporters, even with their gloves off, are constitutionally better at description than at advocacy. Certainly his diagnosis of South Africa's condition is as devastating as it is valuable. For readers who believe (in harmony with the South African government) that the situation in South Africa is "not as bad as it's painted" by the demons of the international press, "Move Your Shadow" will be a rude awakening. Lelyveld's expeditions into the logical thickets of apartheid's deepest interior reveal a suffocation of imagination and spirit, the Orwellian nomenclature and double talk, the institutional lying of a society obsessed with denying its own sickness.

If the lives of nations often resemble lives of individuals, then perhaps a valid psychological parallel can be drawn between South Africa--or, rather, the rule-makers of white South Africa--and the combative processes of the terminally ill patient. As they were defined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the first stage is "denial and isolation." The second stage is anger. Then come bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Lelyveld's portrait is an almost clinical profile of denial and isolation in South Africa. At the moment, the country seems poised somewhere en route to the anger of stage two. "Bargaining" has not yet begun. Acceptance? This shadow has yet to fall.

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