'Sarafina!' Shoot Serves as a Lesson : Movies: Whoopi Goldberg learns firsthand of the complex politics and class structure in South Africa during visit to film Mbongeni Ngema's musical.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The contrast and complexity of South Africa firmly hit home for Whoopi Goldberg after one particularly long day in Soweto, the hometown of 2 million blacks where she was shooting scenes for the film "Sarafina!"

Goldberg was whisked from the township of chickens and dust and squatter shacks to a $10-million house just 20 minutes away, where she was feted at a reception by African National Congress President Nelson Mandela.

The house, owned by a white businessman, had eight bedrooms, nine bathrooms, two swimming pools, a tennis court, a squash court, seven whirlpool baths, eight garages and a dozen servants' rooms. And it was surrounded by a seven-foot wall.

"It was this humongous house, you know," Goldberg said. "It was just kind of wild. A very wild thing."

And all part of the education of Whoopi Goldberg.

For five weeks, the actress made a personal journey of discovery into this enigmatic land. By day, she listened to blacks and whites and engaged in South Africa's favorite topic of conversation: politics. By night, she curled up on a sofa in her hotel suite and devoured books on South Africa, everything from "In the Heart of the Whore--The Story of Apartheid's Death Squads" to "The Cape of Storms," a white editor's personal saga of the violent 1980s.

And throughout this, her first journey to Africa, she felt both like a stranger and like a daughter returning home to the land of her ancestors.

"It's been very unnerving and wonderful and terrible and, you know, it's a myriad of emotions," she said shortly before returning to the United States. "But in some strange way, I felt I was coming back. There's something about it. There's some sort of draw for me here."

Goldberg arrived in South Africa amid the controversy over singer Paul Simon's visit and was briefly caught in the political crossfire herself.

Although Mandela's ANC, the country's largest anti-apartheid organization, had welcomed Goldberg and Simon, two smaller black groups objected. The cultural boycott of South Africa had ended, as far as the ANC was concerned. But the more radical black groups, embroiled in battles for political supremacy with the ANC, thought it was too soon to open the doors.

And Goldberg and Simon were caught in the middle. It was an unpleasant lesson in the complexities of black politics in South Africa.

"People were calling up and going, 'You've broken the boycott,' and it wasn't in fact the truth," Goldberg said.

Simon met with his detractors, but their differences were never resolved. His five concerts went ahead peacefully, though under the threat of violence.

Goldberg, on the other hand, met privately with the black organizations and won their support.

"I told them, 'You really don't have a bitch with me. You don't know anything about me,' " she said.

"I still, to this day, don't know what it was all about," Goldberg said. "I don't know whether they wanted publicity or if it was based on something real, but I know it was a very uncomfortable week and a half. There's a lot going on here.

"This place is like a shepherd's pie," she added. "You just keeping finding layer after layer after layer. It's an amazing thing. But all the more reason to come back and see what happens."

Once Goldberg had resolved her difficulties with the radical blacks, she became the toast of Johannesburg. Her photograph appeared time and again in all eight local newspapers. And stories of her self-effacing sense of humor charmed blacks as well as whites.

The Weekly Mail recounted that on the first day of filming, the white director, Darrell Roodt, told her: "I'm no Steven Spielberg." To which Goldberg reportedly replied: "That's OK. I'm no Kathy Bates."

Later, she told a class of budding black filmmakers that she'd be back soon.

"I look around to see I've grown a small root in the soil here," she said. "I see my aunts and uncles. The other day I saw a woman exactly like my mother. Somewhere, there is a connection I can't explain."

And Mandela agreed, telling her later that she was a part of South Africa's history.

Like so many visitors to South Africa these days, Goldberg was surprised by the vast changes--and the way so much has stayed the same.

"There's still no black vote, which just knocks me out," she said. "It's interesting that this has gone on as long as it has."

One surprise was the sight of American company logos on advertising billboards, evidence that U.S. firms still are doing business here.

"Even with all the sanctions, so many of these industries haven't gone anywhere," she said. "And even those that left sold to whites. They're still making their money.

"And I thought our (U.S.) ambassador had left as well. I don't know why I thought that. But he hadn't gone."

Another surprise was the number of people who had seen her movies and recognized her. All her films have played in South Africa. "Ghost" was a big hit, and "The Long Walk Home" opened during her last weekend in town. The only film that hasn't arrived is "The Color Purple," which author Alice Walker still refuses to allow to be shown here.

"Having people say to me, 'Oh, I loved your movie such and such,' was strange," Goldberg said. "I'd say, 'Oh, you saw it?' "

But she welcomed the attention, which she described as "like the States, but more high-pitched."

"It's great, because there is something about the things that I've done, I guess, that goes beyond all the other stuff," Goldberg said. "And that's what we as artists are supposed to do, to transcend everything. So maybe it is us who will help make this a smoother transition."

But she remained baffled by how the system of apartheid, or racial separation, had remained in place for so long in a country where blacks outnumber whites 5 to 1. (The apartheid system was the focus of a bitterly contested election Tuesday, with results of the whites-only vote due today).

"I just don't understand how it continues," Goldberg said in an interview before the vote. "And everybody's afraid. I can feel that. Whites are afraid because they figure if the blacks take over they'll be hurt. But I think to myself, 'If you had treated people halfway decently, you wouldn't have to be this nervous.' "

Goldberg says she had abided by the long cultural boycott of South Africa, but only reluctantly.

"Various groups in the States would come over and make a report, but that didn't tell me anything," she said. "I always wanted to come and see for myself, but I was always slapped on the fingers and told, 'No, you're not going to see what it's like. So wait,' " she remembered. "And so I did."

She waited until she was invited to star in the film version of Mbongeni Ngema's Broadway musical, "Sarafina!" Substantially rewritten for the screen, "Sarafina!" features Goldberg as a teacher in Soweto surrounded by gifted South African singers and dancers.

During the filming in Soweto, she met blacks living in shacks as well as others living in middle-class homes. And she frequented a few local shebeens, the quasi-legal taverns that many Sowetans run from their homes.

"It was like a field trip," she said. "I was meeting and breaking bread with people and asking them what they thought was going on and how it was going to change."

She was impressed as well by the young black actors and technicians on the set.

"These kids really want to build something here, and they all ask the same question: 'Am I as good as the guys in the States?' And they are. And I must say I think there are more black folks working in the film industry here than in the States."

As she departed South Africa, Goldberg was left with a feeling of cautious optimism for this country.

"This issue is going to be resolved some day because there's no compromise on it," she said. "But there's a lot to be worked out, and it will happen very slowly."

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