Life in a battleground. For the Monitor's correspondent, a year in South Africa has revealed glimpses of hope and helplessness. One example: the return of black students to school yesterday, a sign of easing tension in a key battlegrounds - the classroom. But blacks still oppose the country's segregated education system, and some plan to change it from within in a new test of wills with the authorities.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

`SOMETIMES I feel hopeful,'' says a white South African friend, turning pensive halfway through sharing a pizza in his suburban home. ``I get this sense that individuals who really want to change this country, to make it more just and peaceful, to end apartheid, can have an effect.'' ``But often,'' he adds, ``I feel a helplessness. I get a sense that only the government can make the fundamental changes necessary for peace, and that we are meanwhile moving inexorably toward tragedy.''

A sifting through the notes after one year of reporting on South Africa yields glimpses of both the hope and the helplessness, of compromise and confrontation, of change and retrenchment. It reveals a South Africa different, much more complex, than daily news can possibly convey.

Apartheid may not be coming to an end, but it is changing.

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A few days after arriving here in January 1986, I attended a piece of protest theater by two Soweto blacks. It was called ``Hamba Dompas,'' and it railed against a system of ``pass laws'' which had landed literally millions of blacks in jail for trying to live or work where the rules of apartheid - enforced race segregation - said they may not. A few days later, President Pieter Botha publicly promised to scrap the pass-law legislation. A half year later, he did just that.

Yet no one applauded, at least not audibly. The bitterness of young South African blacks - and to some extent their power of intimidation over meeker, older blacks - runs too deep for that. Another friend of mine, a rare white trusted by militant youth in the black townships, asked a youngster why there had been no celebration of the pass-law repeal. ``When someone is standing on your neck, and then takes his foot away,'' the teen-ager replied, ``are you supposed to thank him for doing so?''

Apartheid may be changing, but in some ways it remains the same.

South Africa is still a nation of separate worlds, white and black. One of the first things any foreign visitor here wonders is what happened to the violence one read about in the press, or saw on television. The violence is here, if at a lower level since imposition of a state of emergency last June. But little of it occurs in white areas.

As the main victims of apartheid have been black, so are the main victims of the unrest that is presumably aimed at ending it. Some are conservative blacks, killed by militant youngsters who consider them ``collaborators'' with the whites. Other victims are the militants, killed by police or troops or conservative rivals.

The violence may persist, but the impression of violence is fading.

Few whites spend much time in the segregated black residential areas, the centers of unrest. But more than this, there has been a general deadening of sensitivity - white and black - in the past year. ``I remember when we first heard about `necklacing,''' remarks one white friend, referring to the black militants' practice of looping a gasoline-soaked tire around an alleged informer's neck and setting him or her ablaze. ``We were horrified! Now, we accept it as a fact of political life.''

A black friend says, ``Of course we abhor the violence. But we accept it - what choice do we have if there seems no peaceful way to change this country's system?''

The most visible white reformers in this country may be those of English lineage. But the most impressive foes - and defenders - of apartheid seem to be the Dutch-descendant Afrikaners who built the system.

``What does `PFP' stand for?'' goes a current joke. The obvious reply is the Progressive Federal Party, the mostly English-speaking white-liberal opposition in Parliament, right? Wrong. It means Packing for Perth - no mere joke when I think of the numbers of English-speakers I know here who have either left or have begun thinking of emigrating during the past year of unrest.

Among my Afrikaner acquaintances, however, none are preparing to leave. They are a people reared on the notion that apartheid was not discrimination. It was a redemption: of their own trekkers' roots in the veld of the Transvaal or the Orange Free State; of their own Calvinistic belief that God chooses some people over others; and of their secular grievances against the English-speakers who tried first to preach morals to the Afrikaner, then defeat him on the Boer War battlefield, next to assimilate him into English-speaking schools.

It is easy to forget, sometimes, that the end of apartheid for many Afrikaners is perceived as the end of a road. The National Party governments that erected this legal framework of race discrimation also gave Afrikaners all they had long dreamed of. Walk into any post office here, or police station, or government ministry, and it is hard to escape the impression that the nation's civil service amounts to a welfare state for Afrikaners.

A remark by a top government official I heard shortly after arrival makes perfect sense in this context: ``I want to figure a way to share power'' with blacks, he said. ``But I want to share power without abdicating power.''

The government may yet be forced to abdicate, but not quickly. Another top official I met early last year issued a straightforward reminder. In quelling unrest, he said, ``we have so far used only a tiny part of the power at our disposal.'' By midyear, with the state of emergency and the subsequent arrest without charge of thousands of presumed black activists, this began to change. So, too, did the perceptions of black nationalists.

``Liberation,'' a black protest leader recently said, is inevitable. But the lesson of the past year, was that it would not come quickly - nor, in all probability, gently.

When I asked about guarantees for whites under any eventual black government, he rejected the idea as absurd. ``The Afrikaners think that if the black majority here ever got the chance, it would do to Afrikaners exactly what Afrikaners did to blacks.'' He predicted that wouldn't happen, but said no formal assurances were in order. Besides, he said, no such assurances would seriously allay Afrikaners' fears.

Amid the fears, resentment, and violence, there remains coexistence of a sort. I have met individual white businessmen or farmers - the most impressive of them Afrikaners - who are indeed making individual efforts to put the hatred and conflict of apartheid behind them. I have met others who intend to fight to make sure apartheid, or its principles, survive. The alternative, they insist, would be Afrikaner national suicide.

I have met blacks who welcome the efforts of white reformers. But others seem to despair of such individuals' ability to seriously hasten the end of a political system they said can not be reformed - only destroyed.

And, a few days before the new year, I spent a night at a game lodge in the bush country of northern Transvaal. One starlit, stormy night helped convey to me why so many here, black and white, love this land so much.

After a barbecue dinner, a troupe of black artists performed an evening of tribal dance and song. Many of the whites in the audience were Afrikaners. All, to the extent that they talked politics, seemed deeply conservative folk. At the end the dancers broke into a hearty rendition of ``Nkosi Sikele Afrika'' - ``God Bless Africa.''

In recent years, this song has become the unofficial anthem of black nationalists here. During the final refrain, the white woman sitting beside me tapped me on the shoulder and remarked, with a smile that seemed to convey irony and wonder, with no trace of bitterness, ``You know? That is a protest song....''

The friend with whom I shared the pizza spends at least one month a year in the bush. There, he stargazes and talks with a group of Bushmen he first met a decade ago. He is an English-speaker, an eminently employable university professor - also, a fierce foe of both apartheid and the present South African government. But he cannot imagine leaving South Africa. Why, I ask him.

``I have this determination that we can change this country - in the interaction of individuals with other individuals,'' he says.

But the real reply came an hour later, as my wife and I said goodnight under a wide and cloudless African sky.

``I can't help it,'' he said softly. ``I love this country, this land. It is my home.''

This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.

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