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

December 08, 1985|Charles T. Powers | 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."

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