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Confusing Apartheid With Segregation : DATELINE SOWETO : Travels With Black South Africa Reporters by William Finnegan (Harper & Row: $18.95; 256 pp.)

October 30, 1988|Michael Parks | Parks is the Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Moscow. He previously served in that capacity in Johannesburg, South Africa.

When we Americans look at South Africa, we tend to view that troubled country through the prism of our own history--two and a half centuries of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and, most of all, the civil rights campaign.

Apartheid seems to many Americans to be another form of racial segregation, more severe but not fundamentally different from the Jim Crow era in the United States. Certainly, it is easy to cast President Pieter W. Botha as a segregationist governor defending the Southern "way of life" and Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., another Nobel Peace Prize winner.

And the common conclusion is that what worked in America to end segregation and to make equal opportunity at least the nation's goal, however short we still fall, will also work in South Africa.

All natural enough, but a delusion that warps most American judgments about South Africa and has rendered U.S. policy there ineffectual.

The situation in South Africa is fundamentally different from that in the United States 30 or 40 years ago. Apartheid is more than racial discrimination, in this case against the majority of the country's people; it is a political, economic and social system that ensures, through the oppression of the black majority and ultimately through armed might, the continued power and privilege of the white minority, who number fewer than 5 million in a population of more than 36 million.

The civil rights campaign in the United States sought the fulfillment of ideals expressed from the nation's founding and the achievement of constitutionally guaranteed rights. But the struggle in South Africa against apartheid is to end the brutal subjugation of 87% of the population by the other 13% and to establish a system that will reflect, for the first time, the aspirations of all the country's people, black and white alike.

William Finnegan, the author two years ago of "Crossing the Line," which recounts his experiences as a teacher in a mixed-race Colored high school in Cape Town, recognizes these differences in his new book, "Dateline Soweto," but he hesitates to stress them as he explores the complex anti-apartheid struggle there. He consequently has difficulty, perhaps like most Americans who go to South Africa, in evaluating what he describes as South Africa's "ragged, slow-motion revolution."

Finnegan, who is now a staff writer for the New Yorker, in which most of this book first appeared, returned to South Africa in the guise of an American tourist interested in sportfishing for six weeks in 1986. He spent most of that time in Johannesburg with black reporters at the Star, the country's largest daily newspaper, getting an insight into the complex, sometimes contradictory nature of the anti-apartheid struggle.

On one level, "Dateline Soweto" is about those black newsmen, their white editors and the difficult position of all journalists working in South Africa today. On that level the book is highly readable. The events that Finnegan recounts are, of course, already footnotes in South African history, but he uses them to remind us how intense the struggle is for the future of that country.

I should declare a bias here: Jon Qwelane, the reporter whom Finnegan ably profiles, is a colleague for whom I developed a lot of respect in my four years as a correspondent in South Africa and a man whose judgments I value, though I sometimes disputed them.

But, on another level, Finnegan has made a sort of home video of South African politics, a collection of scenes, of the people he met, of experiences he had in black South Africa with Qwelane and the other black journalists at the Star. Here the book falls short of its potential of taking an American reader deep into the liberation struggle: What is the point of these well-told anecdotes? As he wandered through Soweto, that sprawling black sister city outside Johannesburg, did Finnegan not ask what the prospects were for the anti-apartheid movement and what the people, the black people who constitute the majority in South Africa, wanted for themselves and their country?

Finnegan, for example, visits the tribal homeland of Kwandebele with Qwelane and hears of the reign of terror under local officials who, installed by the Botha regime, are trying to force the region into "independence." He writes about how Qwelane gets that story, mostly from an Irish missionary, and how he scribbles his notes on the inside of a cigarette box and on scraps of paper he stuffs into his socks in hope of keeping them if he is stopped and searched by the police.

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