Johannesburg — In South Africa these days, even the trivial can get political. Ask Dermod Judge. An Irishman living in Cape Town, he is questions editor of this Christmas's hottest board game: South Africa's version of Trivial Pursuit.
He has tried hard to keep the trivial trivial. According to one co-executive of the company that peddles the game here, ``We are not a politically oriented company. We want to do all we possibly can to make this neutral.'' Mostly, they succeded: What, for instance, are two other common names (common?) for the dassie? (Answer: the rock rabbit and the hyrax.) Or: What is the second largest salt pan in southern Africa? (For slowpokes who don't know, it is, of course, the Grootvloer.)
Still, tucked among the nearly 2,000 rewritten questions in the South African game are queries about the President, P.W. Botha (What do the initials stand for?), Steve Biko (What black-consciousness leader died in detention in 1977?), Gatsha Buthelezi (Who founded the Zulu political party Inkatha?), and the anti-government African National Congress (What are the colors of its banner?)
The ``political'' questions are a tricky matter. This is mostly because politics moves so quickly here that you can never be sure of keeping ahead of the game - or more exactly, perhaps, of the game keeping ahead of politics.
In the first edition, released near the end of 1985, trivia maniacs were asked to name the South African rugby great who served as the country's ambassador in London? The answer was Dawie de Villers - good current-affairs material since he was then President Botha's minister of trade and industry. A few weeks ago, alas, he lost that post in a cabinet reshuffle.
Two nominally apolitical questions concerned IBM and Kodak. Both, in recent weeks, have announced plans to sell off their South African interests.
Also in the first edition was the following question: ``When did South Africa invade Angola?'' The answer was 1975. It still is. But in light of later announced or alleged incursions, Mr. Judge figured he had better change the question. It now reads: ``When did South Africa first invade Angola?''
Fortunately for Cape Town's trivia bosses, the 100,000 South Africans who purchased the game during its first year on the market - mostly well-to-do whites, according to company co-director Nicky Fintz - seem far less interested in politics than in hard-core trivia. The company gets about four strident protests a month, but virtually none concern Mssrs. Botha, Biko, or Buthelezi.
``They're much more upset when I make a mistake in Clive Rice's cricket score in a certain test match; or when I leave the final `t' off the pop group `Rabbitt!''' remarks Judge. ``Trivia, it seems, is very serious business.''
Still, there may be thornier challenges as the South African trivia business expands. How will kids react to the young people's edition that has just been introduced? Or what will Afrikaner whites think about the ANC question in the newly introduced Afrikaans-language edition - if, as the common wisdom goes, this group is more hard-line on the ANC than English speakers? Moreover, how will Leon Melett of the government's Bureau of Information - in charge of relations with the press - feel about being included in the revised question cards for the Christmas 1986 market?
Judge figures it is best to play things safe. Excising politics altogether is - ahem - out of the question. ``At this point of time in South Africa,'' he notes, ``keeping politics out of any aspect of life is futile.'' Still, there is a happy trivial medium. Question: What person pops up most often on South African trivia cards? Answer: former South African general, statesman, and President Jan Smuts. ``He,'' Judge explains, ``is safely dead.''
But what, then, of the thoroughly living foes who also pepper Judge's card file?
``Remember,'' he replies a mite wishfully, ``it's only a game!''
This report was filed prior to the new press curbs.